This Capstone Highlight features the project that MENV students Rachael Blondy, Claire Kendall, Peter Olivares, Leonard Swerdlow completed in partnership with the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. Titled "A County at a Crossroads: Building the Outdoor Recreation Economy of Moffat County, Colorado", their project aimed to explore the feasibility of using outdoor recreation as a driver of sustainable economic diversification in Moffat County, Colorado.
As rural communities move away from the extractive resource industry, they are faced with the challenge of finding new funding sources for social services, schools, and public transportation among other public goods. Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association will shut down its Craig Station coal-fired power plant by 2028, along with the local Colowyo Mine that supplies it. The shutdown will cause Moffat County to lose over 450 jobs, so economic diversification will be paramount to Moffat County’s community vitality.
Moffat County occupies the northwest corner of Colorado, just south of Wyoming and east of Utah. Originally inhabited by the Utes, who were pushed out to Utah and Southwest Colorado, Moffat County relies primarily on agriculture and mining and is rich with western culture and outdoor recreation opportunities. Leveraging the myriad outdoor recreation amenities in Moffat County will help the local economy weather the closure of the coal-fired power plant and the Colowyo Mine. Outdoor recreation currently supports over 149,000 jobs in Colorado, showing that economic diversification and investment in the outdoor recreation economy is tenable for Moffat County.
The Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office serves to help develop the outdoor recreation economy throughout Colorado. Its Rural Technical Assistance (RTA) program seeks to cultivate economic development strategies for rural communities in three phases. The first phase, which Capstone Team worked on, is education to help communities understand the economic opportunities available to them. While this project was specific to Moffat County, the framework is designed to be applicable to rural communities across Colorado.
The Capstone Team, Rachael Blondy, Claire Kendall, Peter Olivares, and Leonard Swerdlow, worked with the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office in the first phase of the RTA program to build a framework for developing the outdoor recreation economy in Moffat County as a pilot. The purpose of the project was to work with Moffat County to create a community-led, replicable process that prioritized community values and long-term goals. Deliverables included asset maps of outdoor recreation opportunities, a story map to highlight assets and diversification opportunities, a marketing film, and an RTA phase 1 guide. The Team spent a lot of time talking with community members to better understand the culture and values of Moffat County and what various outdoor recreation opportunities community members enjoy and cherish. They held a community visioning workshop at a local brewery in Craig, CO, Moffat County’s most populated city, during which members of the community participated in a series of activities to help identify opportunities that Moffat County could leverage as part of its development of the outdoor recreation economy. Interviews, informal conversations with community members, and the community visioning workshop informed the team’s deliverables.
Part of the team’s success, as Kendall said, can be attributed to spending time on the ground. “Spending time in Moffat County was important. When you work with people, it can’t be reduced to a project - it’s more than that. Working with people is about building relationships, and caring allows you to become vulnerable and invest personally in hearing from folks. That kind of work has to be done in person, or at least part of it.” Without visiting Moffat, the team wouldn’t have been able to conduct their community visioning workshop or produce Made in Moffat, a promotional video that showcases Moffat County’s personality as well as its outdoor recreation assets and opportunities, such as hunting and fishing, UTVs/4-wheeling, camping, bicycling, climbing, hiking, dirt biking, snowmobiling, or paddling on the Yampa River. The video provides an insight into who the community is and what they value, while also serving as promotional material for Moffat County to use as they continue to develop their outdoor recreation economy.
After speaking with the Team, it’s evident that the MENV Capstone can be an incredible opportunity for growth, learning, and acquiring skills and experiences that are applicable in a myriad of professional settings. Swerdlow noted, “Even if the project doesn’t align with your future goals and endeavors, you have the autonomy to shape that project into something that will help you build skills and experiences, which will help you in your future career.” Blondy’s advice to future capstone teams is, “Take initiative to turn the project into what you want it to be. If you want to do something, ask your partner. The worst case scenario is that they’ll say no.” Fortunately, the team was able to set ambitious goals and engage in a genuine process thanks to the support of Sam and Nathan at the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office.
Looking ahead to the future of Moffat County, Kendall prefaced all thoughts and comments with the following: “Throughout the project, we were constantly reminding ourselves to remove our hopes and dreams so that we could eliminate bias and not come in as outsiders saying ‘this is what we want from you and this what you should do with your community.’ It’s not about our hopes and dreams, but more about supporting their hopes and dreams.” Kendall and Blondy hope that Moffat County sustains its thriving community while moving away from extractive industry and investing in the outdoor recreation economy. They hope that by recognizing and leveraging those outdoor recreation assets, the community creates economic growth for themselves. Olivares noted, “I hope they use the grants and funding documents we compiled to apply to and receive funding from those grants within 1 to 2 years. In 5 to 10 years, I hope they will have a larger population and that their economy is funded by industries other than energy and agriculture”. Blondy added, “hopefully other communities in Colorado or across the country can replicate our process.”
On a final note, Swerdlow emphasized, “our commitment to a genuine process to just listen and gather information made a difference in engagement with folks in the community. So many people continued to engage with us through community visioning workshops, responding to newsletters, and attending our symposium presentation.” The team put an incredible amount of time, care and effort into the project, and they hope that everyone takes the time to visit Moffat County and enjoy all that the community has to offer.