When it comes to the environment, Durango’s seven City Council candidates plan to focus on a wide-ranging list of issues, but one – wildfire management – rose to the top.
The candidates are running for three open City Council seats in the April 6 election. Six would be council newcomers, and one, Melissa Youssef, is wrapping up her first term. Those who are elected will hold four-year terms.
When asked for their top-priority action item, if elected, many of the candidates balked: All are important, they said.
The city of Durango already has plans and goals in place to address environmental topics, such as reducing the city’s carbon footprint, addressing its water needs and increasing efficiency when it comes to resource use.
In 2019, the City Council approved goals to reach an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, compared with 2016 levels. That includes an interim goal of a 30% reduction by 2030.
The city also aims to use 100% renewable electricity by 2050 and rely on renewable energy for 50% of its needs by 2030.
In 2020, the city started the process of implementing its sustainability plan, with early public feedback pushing for faster action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
It held events, like the annual pumpkin drop-off, to promote waste reduction and launched a Green Business Durango certification program.
It also developed an electric vehicle readiness plan, in partnership with La Plata Electric Association, and installed new charging stations to prepare for the expected widespread adoption of electric vehicles.
Lisa McCorry, a landscaper and former chef, declined to comment on her top environmental priority, but said she was encouraged by the city’s recent adoption of an energy performance contract.
The energy performance contract will see the completion of energy and water efficiency improvements alongside the installation of solar photovoltaic panels at city facilities.
“That’s a recent success. We can go further with that,” McCorry said. “That’s a big thing I’m celebrating right now for sure.”
Olivier Bosmans, an international project manager and environmental consultant, also declined to describe a top priority.
When it comes to the environment, Bosmans first referred to his professional experiences. He’s been an environmental health and safety consultant for 20 years, dealing with greenhouse gases, air quality, water quality, pollution and more.
“All of those topics are important, you cannot say one needs to be done,” Bosmans said. “The city, within their restrictions, has good plans and initiatives, like the electric vehicle charging station.”
Harrison Wendt, a youth camp coordinator with Durango schools, said his top priority would be to improve the city’s recycling program.
“In Durango, if we can almost reimagine our recycling program and invest in it, we can see a huge outcome and increase in people recycling,” Wendt said.
He also said the city should ban the use of single-use plastic bags, which has been done in other Colorado cities.
Jessika Buell, a local business owner, focused on protecting public lands from the impacts of over-tourism, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She said the city might have to implement permit systems for crowd management in 2021 or increase the presence of strategically placed volunteers to educate the public about best practices.
“People want to travel outside and in smaller areas because it’s safer,” Buell said. “I feel like that could be a huge environmental issue to watch this year.”
Seth Furtney, Melissa Youssef and Frank Lockwood all emphasized addressing wildfire threat to the city.
Furtney, a former engineering contracts manager, ranked it as his No. 1 priority if elected.
He said the city should use its resources to support the Wildfire Adapted Partnership, the Durango Fire Protection District, the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative and the Southwest Wildfire Impact Fund.
The watershed should be a high priority area for mitigation “because if that water supply were to become fouled, we could disappear,” Furtney said.
He also supported the city’s energy performance contract, but he said city funding might be better spent simply planting trees following the city’s community forest plan.
“When you’re looking for bang for the buck, you could plant thousands of trees and might have a better impact on the climate and reducing carbon emissions,” Furtney said.
Youssef, who joined the council after a 30-year career in finance, said the city is trying to decrease its carbon footprint, increase its renewable energy use and improve the quality of our natural resources.
“All of those are critically important, clearly,” she said.
When asked what action she would prioritize if re-elected, Youssef wanted to see collaboration with the Southwest Wildfire Impact Fund. The fund is trying to coordinate and finance a large-scale mitigation effort across city borders with other land managers and private landowners.
“After the 416 Fire, we know fires don’t stop at city borders. The impact to our community was devastating,” Youssef said. “I’m feeling very passionate about addressing this (fire mitigation) after that.”
Lockwood, retired after 30 years as an attorney, said Durango faces a few unique responsibilities, like the reliability of water sources, addressing wildfire threats and maintaining natural trails. That’s aside from the overarching issue of climate change, he said.
“We should do everything we can do on our part and lower our carbon footprint here,” Lockwood said.
If he had to prioritize one action item as a councilor, he said he would focus on water.
During the 416 Fire, the city was just days away from running out of water – even though the city has rights to a portion of the water stored in Lake Nighthorse, a reservoir in southeastern Durango. The city just does not have infrastructure connecting the lake to its water system.
“We’ve already paid millions of dollars for our portion of Lake Nighthorse, but we don’t have a hookup,” Lockwood said. “We need to get it hooked up.”