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Conservation center assesses the impact of COVID-19 on the environment

Taylor Sienkiewicz, Summit Daily News
Holiday weekend traffic on Interstate 70 westbound Saturday, Jan. 18, left many stuck in traffic for hours. With the stay-at-home order in place, fewer cars are moving through the I-70 mountain corridor, cutting down on air pollution.
Liz Copan / ecopan@summitdaily.com

DILLON — COVID-19 poses a major threat to human health during this pandemic. However, effects on the natural environment are less black and white. High Country Conservation Center Climate Action Director Jess Hoover said the consequences of the pandemic, such as the shutdown of businesses, presents a unique opportunity to plan for other climate related changes to everyday life. 

“We have an opportunity as a result of the economic shutdown,” Hoover said. “We can choose to move forward and create more sustainable and resilient communities and prepare for the shock that might come from a climate changed world.”

One environmental factor that has improved is air quality. Hoover said that while the conservation center is not actively tracking emissions at this time, state air pollution maps are likely to show a decrease. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment records air quality levels on an hourly and daily basis for seven main areas: Denver Metro, Fort Collins-Greeley, Colorado Springs, Grand Junction, Colorado River Valley, Four Corners and “Other,” which includes Aspen. On Sunday, April 12, the air quality of all areas was rated “good.” 

On Sunday, March 15, the day following the closure of the ski areas, air quality was rated as “good” for six areas. The Denver Metro area air quality was rated “moderate.” Ratings were the same on Sunday, Feb. 16, which was Presidents Day weekend. 

While weather is a factor in air quality, Hoover said one the most notable air pollutants in the state is the “brown cloud” that tends to hang over the Front Range. Hoover said much of this pollution is attributed to traffic. A main source of traffic in Summit County is Interstate 70, which, according to traffic counts from the Eisenhower tunnel, has significantly decreased through the mountain corridor. The Vail Daily reported at the end of March that since the shutdown of ski areas, there has been an 80% decline in Friday westbound traffic at the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels compared with March 2019.

Hoover pointed out that while decreased air pollution is helpful to vulnerable populations, such as those with respiratory issues, decreased air pollution as a result of a global pandemic of a respiratory virus doesn’t do these populations much good. Additionally, some sustainable practices have been put on hold. Due to concern about transferring the coronavirus via reusable bags, the town of Frisco waived the plastic bag fee that was in place to encourage the use of reusable bags through July 1. Hoover said that while she understands the added precaution, she hopes people won’t “get out of their good habits” of using reusable bags. 

Hoover said that the main question at this time as it refers to the environment is how does society prioritize sustainability while stimulating the economy.

“The virus, something like this, people can really relate to,” Hoover said. “You can see the numbers. You might know someone who’s sick and it’s very personal to people. The problem with some of the environmental problems that we face is that they’re invisible. … By the time they become visible, it’s already a crisis.”

Another outcome of the pandemic Hoover listed was a reduction in noise pollution that typically affects both people and wildlife. Noise pollution is often attributed to transportation vehicles like cars and airplanes, which are being used less.

debated source of local noise pollution is the gondola that typically brings skiers from the town of Breckenridge up to the ski resort. The gondola is currently closed to the public due to the closure of the ski resort. An operating agreement requires that the gondola utilize a 45 day “dark period” every year where the gondola is to remain closed to the public in the springtime in order to protect the calving and fawning season for moose and mule deer in the Cucumber Gulch area. So far, the gondola has already been closed to the public for nearly a month.

Looking ahead, Hoover noted that when businesses do reopen, there is a potential for change.

“While pollution levels have gone down this is a turning point for us,” Hoover said. “We can decide if we’re going to prioritize sustainability or if we’re going to go back to business as usual.”


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