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Writers on the Range: How do you you-know-what in the woods

Poop talk makes everybody fidget and giggle uncomfortably. We like our poop to disappear. We want shiny white porcelain toilets and privacy.

But how do you cope when you’re in the woods behind a tree?

When I took my first course at the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Wyoming, years ago, the preferred method of waste disposal was bringing a trowel to dig a six-inch cat hole, a practice still the norm for many backcountry travelers today. There was even a how-to guide by Kathleen Meyer, published in 1992, titled bluntly, How to Sh*t in the Woods.

We thought the soil would break down the nasty stuff pretty quickly. In fact, we were taught to stir dirt into our deposit to speed things along. But our faith in the speed of nature has been shattered.

Studies by a University of Montana research team have found that from as far back as the early ’80s, high levels of pathogens remained in feces even after they’d been properly buried. Maybe a few piles of poop in millions of acres of wilderness weren’t so bad when it was just a few piles of poop. But if you visit the backcountry or beaches on public land these days, you know lots of people are visiting the outdoors and leaving their waste behind.

In 2020, 7.1 million more Americans participated in some form of outdoor recreation than in the previous year, for a total of roughly 200 million people, according to the Outdoor Foundation’s 2021 Outdoor Participation Trends Report.

Fifty-three percent of Americans age 6 and over recreated in the outdoors at least once in 2020, which is the highest participation rate on record. The Bridger-Teton National Forest, near where I live, recorded a 44% increase in the number of people camping between 2016 and 2020. Outdoor recreation is enjoying, if you can call it that, a boom.

Each human, on average, produces roughly a pound of poop each day. That adds up quickly. Anyone who has done a 21-day Grand Canyon river trip probably noticed the stacks of metal boxes that filled up over the course of a trip. By the time you got to the takeout, the cargo in one 18-foot raft was mostly poop.

Outside Magazine recently published a story about the changing etiquette of pooping in the outdoors, citing a startling study from 2007 that said 91% of the sand on 55 California beaches was contaminated with fecal indicator bacteria. Packing out poop thus became a necessity in that state if people wanted to avoid disease.

But this is true even in a forest where people dig their perfect cat holes 200 feet from trails and water. If thousands of people hike the same trails every day of the season, that’s a minefield of waste festering below the surface. Over time, pathogens in that poop will leach into the soil.

What, then, are we supposed to do? Though we may not like it, just like river guides and other outfitters, it’s past time for all of us to pack out our poop. But good news: There are a number of products available commercially to make this as lightweight and odor-free as possible.

Trevor Deighton, of Victor, Idaho, an Exum Mountain Guide in the Tetons, recommends WAG bags, WAG being short for Waste Alleviation and Gelling. Since more people started carrying them, he says “There’s so much less poop on the Grand. The (bags) don’t smell and never break. It’s worse thinking about it than it is in practice.”

He adds, “You see a lot of plastic bags with dog poop left along trails around here. People don’t want to put them in their pack because the bags are so flimsy, but then they forget about them.” The beauty of WAGs, he adds, is that your sturdy portable toilet never fails and is easy to use.

But there’s no getting around it, packing out poop is still an inconvenience, especially for those of us who look forward to a mostly light pack at the end of a hiking trip. But for our health and for the health of the forest or anywhere we recreate, it’s our responsibility to leave no waste behind. It’s the right thing to do.

Molly Absolon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She writes and travels often through the West.

Chacos column: Birth order is real

Statistical studies debunked Alfred Adler’s theory years ago. I don’t care. In my home, the kids will tell you birth order is legit.

My oldest is convinced we’re the strictest with her, having to pave the way for others. The middle child, afraid to be overlooked, is loud and boisterous. The baby doesn’t say much at all because he doesn’t have to say much at all. He uses facial gestures instead. For instance, a smirk lets me know he wants me to stop calling him “the baby” because he’s now too old for that or maybe he wants me to fetch him some chilled grapes instead.

This spring my oldest marveled at the changing seasons by watching the bees graze in our yard of yellow dandelions. She explained to me that dandelion flowers are an important food source for pollinators. As she continued to tell me the benefits of having them in our yard, my middle child ripped through the serenity like Mel Gibson in that famous scene from “Braveheart,” except my son wielded a lacrosse stick over his head and shouted, “Ma! Watch!” 

With a running start, he proceeded to kick the heads off every weed as if he’s Lionel Messi taking the winning penalty shot of a championship soccer game. I didn’t know what to do but clap enthusiastically like one of those wind-up stuffed monkeys.

For obvious reasons, the youngest was not outside. He knows I was about to ask someone to mow the lawn. He doesn’t want to get tangled up in the nuisance of daily chores, especially when two older, more capable siblings are around to do them. What the youngest does do, however, is schedule an appointment with the pest and weed control company that still uses Round-Up to eradicate what he claims is an unsightly yard. He doesn’t like the loud buzzing from below his window either.

Now that my children are old enough to understand the cause and effect between hunger and eating, they’re pretty much on their own now that summer is here. With nonchalance like it’s her birthright, my oldest child walks down the street to her grandparent’s house to dine there. No matter the time of day, my dad eagerly cooks his oldest grandchild a gourmet meal. Before she gets up from the table, she says, “I love you, grandpa,” and, without fail, he scurries back to the kitchen to blend her one of his famous milkshakes. She must have trained him in no time at all, and I note that she’s becoming a master strategist, one of the many skills the oldest child learns.

Food is fuel for my middle child because he eats for sustenance and has no time for cuisine. He makes quite a spectacular scene with his kitchen skills, like the Swedish Chef from the Muppets. He’s dramatic, talks incessantly, and food flies everywhere. I don’t even flinch anymore when I find bits of nachos, ramen, cereal, or a piece of pepperoni near the couch. I tell myself they’re my son’s calling cards, his little “I love you” notes he knows I like to receive. That’s part of his middle-child charm, his affable personality shining through.

The youngest child deals with food differently than the others. He learned to cook at an early age, meticulously showing us what he enjoys eating. He can prepare a steak dinner like his grandpa but often chooses to have others do the work for him. He enjoys fine food, impeccable manners and good company. We’re lucky to be on his short list.

I’m not convinced birth order has much to do with the unique differences between siblings. Some of it must be a coincidence. However, this morning I was the first one up, and while I was making coffee, I noted how unusually chilly it was downstairs. The front door was left wide open. I know the culprit must be the one allowed to stay up past midnight watching movies that his older siblings wouldn’t dream of doing at his age. I’m simply thrilled he put his empty dessert bowl near the counter and turned off the television before heading up to bed. 

Andrea Chacos lives in Carbondale, balancing work and happily raising three children with her husband. She strives to dodge curveballs life likes to throw with a bit of passion, humor and some flair.

Stein column: Change happens one school and community at a time

Rob Stein

Almost 40 years ago, I came across a grainy, black-and-white photograph originally published in the New York Times in 1928. It shows how the marvels of technology can revolutionize the classroom by holding a geography lesson inside an actual airplane. What it really shows, however, is how, in spite of modern technology, our education system has hardly changed at all.

In the photograph, a teacher stands in front of a class of students whose old-fashioned desks are facing frontwards. The teacher, at the focal point, points to a globe. One would think that, holding a geography class in an airplane, the teacher would rather have students looking out the window. But the pervasive structure of teaching, with all eyes forward, the teacher as the focus of attention, all working in unison, has endured as the norm through countless waves of innovation.

I encountered that photo early in my teaching career. For a young teacher, it captured the enigma of trying to improve schooling at a systemic level: for every effort to make change, the status quo prevailed. Consider, for example, the almost comic technological evolution from the blackboard to the smartboard.

Slate blackboards, introduced at scale in the 19th century, offered a cheap, reusable, visible means for teachers to illustrate ideas to students. Blackboards gave way to greenboards in the early 20th century, to whiteboards in the early 21st century, and there is a trend now toward smartboards — projectors connected to computers.

In spite of endless access to ideas and information through computers, the newest technology does more to replicate than depart from previous technologies, and the fundamental activity of teaching looks just the same. The teacher stands and talks, the students listen and watch in unison, then try it on their own. Rinse, repeat.

Consider the more tragic evolution of school integration. American schools for the first half of the 20th century were racially segregated, reinforced by law until the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954. Over the next half century, policies went into effect around the country to integrate schools. But by the turn of the current century, most of those efforts had been abandoned, and today’s schools are more racially segregated than they were before Brown v. Board of Education deemed segregation unconstitutional. The forces of the status quo prevailed.

There are sociological reasons why teaching tends more toward constancy than change. Since nearly everybody went to school, everybody is an expert, and parents expect their children to have a similar experience to their own. Teacher education is a weak intervention compared to other professional training.

Consider, by contrast, the high bar to entry and more rigorous training of a doctor, lawyer or engineer. Studies show that the two biggest influences on teachers’ practice are, first, their own schooling, and second, their colleagues; training ranks third, so innovative practices they learned in college are canceled out by other influences. Schools are intended to pass down culture, not change it, and they are resilient in perpetuating their own cultural norms.

Even the fault lines about which we debate have remained constant over the past century. One, mentioned above, is around equity and inclusion versus privilege and dominance. Another is around a nationally standardized system versus local control. Another is about whether our education system should be in service to the economy or to the developing child. Others are about whether teaching is fundamentally a science or an art, teaching content or teaching skills, teaching academics or teaching the whole child. I have taken sides in most of these debates, even while striving to find common ground. But in none of these debates has either side prevailed nor have we broken through to a national consensus.

For me, teaching was a calling. I used to think that education was the single most important lever for moving the world and changing outcomes for children, and I went into education to try to build a better world. Years of experience have taught me that structural, societal barriers must be addressed for discrepancies in schools to be erased. And those societal forces, such as structural racism and the perpetuation of privilege and caste, are the same forces pushing to reinforce the status quo in education.

Does it feel discouraging to have worked so hard for so long and seen so little progress? Not at all. Though the education system remains largely unchanged, I count progress in individual schools and lives improved. I have learned that change is possible one school and community at a time.

The Roaring Fork Schools are uniquely positioned in a diverse, tight-knit community with ample resources and strong institutional leadership. Our teachers have shown selflessness, persistence and resiliency. I hope the school district will continue to listen to marginalized voices; authentically engage students, families and teachers in decision-making; and deeply collaborate with other institutions to strengthen the community while providing better opportunities for kids.

As for me, this is my last column as superintendent of the Roaring Fork Schools. I’ll be looking at things from another vantage point — not just looking out the window but from off the plane — but continuing to work for a better future for our children.

Rob Stein has been the head superintendent for Roaring Fork District Schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt for the past six years.

Perry Will column: 2022 legislative session wrap-up

State Rep. Perry Will

One of my top priorities when I took office as your state representative was to ensure investments were made in rural Colorado to preserve and protect our beautiful land, our wonderful wildlife and our way of life. This legislative session, I had the honor of passing quite a few bills to do these things.

The bill I am most proud of sponsoring is SB22-151, the Safe Crossings For Colorado Wildlife And Motorists. By creating safe crossings across our state, we can ensure that we protect both our animals and our drivers. As a game warden for over 40 years, I’ve seen firsthand how important investments like this into our infrastructure are to keep Colorado beautiful and safe.

My experience as a game warden also inspired my other bills, like HB22-1072, the Habitat Partnership Program, which expanded the Habitat Partnership Program to assist Colorado’s Parks and Wildlife with solving wildlife conflicts on private land and with habitat and conservation efforts.

Three of my other bills, the Backcountry Search And Rescue Act, Resources For Volunteer Firefighters Act, Resources To Increase Community Safety Act, also addressed the funding and resource shortages we have in rural Colorado. By giving critical funding and support to Colorado’s Backcountry Search and Rescue Fund in the Division of Parks and Wildlife and increasing resources to fire protection services staffed by volunteer and seasonal firefighters, we are taking steps to protect the staff who risk their lives for public safety.

After listening to your concerns and hearing about the things you’d like to see change in our state, I brought legislation to address health care shortages in rural Colorado. My bill, HB22-1095, the Physician Assistant Collaboration Requirements Act, was a bipartisan bill that would have increased the scope of practice of physician assistants, allowing them to see more patients and address more concerns. This bill, which was one of the most controversial this session, was ultimately lost but raised important conversations about health care access in rural Colorado.

However, I was able to pass the Telehealth For Hearing Aid Providers Act, which allowed hearing aid providers to use telehealth for services; this bill will go far in addressing some of the difficulties seniors face in finding hearing aid providers and getting to appointments — many a long drive away.

This legislative session, Colorado Republicans were focused on our Commitment to Colorado, a legislative agenda focused on making Colorado affordable, prioritizing public safety and expanding educational choice. As a native Coloradan, I know firsthand the changes and challenges our state has faced in the past decade. I’ve watched the cost of living rise across the state and felt the impact of that upon rural Colorado. I’ve seen a massive increase in crime, both in my capacity as a game warden and as a member of the community. I’ve watched as my grandkids had very different school experiences than my own children and seen the firsthand effects of failing to fund our schools.

I chose to serve my state as your representative because these things have been worrying me, just like they’ve been worrying you. I believe the voice of rural Colorado matters and that our way of life should be well represented in Denver. It is an honor to be your voice in the Capitol, and I look forward to your continued support in November for my re-election campaign. I have a proven record of being a strong voice for the issues that matter most to our community; that will not change.

State Rep. Perry Will of New Castle represents House District 57, including Garfield, Rio Blanco and Moffat counties. He is running for reelection in the newly redrawn HD57, which now includes Garfield and Pitkin counties and the Roaring Fork Valley portion of Eagle County.

Bruell column: The real winner of America’s gun safety impasse

Debbie Bruell

Lynn-Wood Fields grew up hunting with her father in rural Montana, putting food on their table. Her father instilled in her the importance of weapon safety. And, like most gun owners, he was a supporter of basic gun safety regulations. Fields still lives in Montana, still owns a gun and is now the mother of two school-age boys.

In a radio interview after the tragic school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, Fields said that she believes commonsense gun regulations — the kind that are supported by the majority of gun owners — are not being enacted because of party divisions.

Legislators’ votes on gun safety measures do tend to follow along party lines. Interestingly, that’s not the case when we consider the rest of us non-legislators. Over two-thirds of Republican voters support basic gun safety measures including mandatory background checks on all gun sales, expanded screening for mentally ill people, and banning gun sales to people under 21. The overwhelming majority of gun owners also support these measures. So why aren’t these laws getting passed?

I love the idea of Fields’ proposal, that if we elected more parents into positions of power, they would be inspired to prioritize the safety of children above all else and vote in support of basic gun safety measures. Unfortunately, other factors are keeping certain lawmakers — even those with children — from taking this position. The underlying factor is money.

Currently, huge corporations that manufacture guns are funneling money to politicians so that they will vote against commonsense gun safety measures. Keeping gun restrictions extremely loose results in enormous profits for these corporations.

Corporations like these are channeling their funds through the National Rifle Association and other gun rights lobbying and advocacy groups. For the first 100 years of its existence, the NRA focused on marksmanship, hunting and promoting the proper and safe use of firearms. They even supported the 1934 National Firearms Act that outlawed fully automatic weapons in response to the violence of gangsters like Al Capone during Prohibition.

Sadly, the NRA of today is more concerned about the profits of gun manufacturing corporations than about serving the interests of gun owners. The majority of their funding no longer comes from membership dues, but from contributions, advertising and other gun-industry sources.

The NRA’s lobbying arm started 2021 with nearly $50 million in net assets. Over the years, Mitch McConnell has received over $1.25 million in donations from the NRA. Mitt Romney has received over $13 million.

The NRA, and the politicians they buy, justify their stance against sensible safety measures by claiming that such measures are a slippery slope leading to the complete elimination of the Second Amendment.

Similar alarms were sounded by senior executives of the cigarette industry in the 1990s, claiming that any regulation of the manufacturing or marketing of cigarettes would lead to a complete ban of cigarettes. Of course, that didn’t happen. But measures were passed to limit the addictiveness of cigarettes and to ban marketing to children — something the gun industry still does.

Stirring up people’s fears that the government is preparing to take away people’s guns also results in people going out and buying more guns — another plus for corporate profits. In general, whipping up a sense of panic and divisiveness in the public sphere is good for business for these corporations. Guns are marketed around the idea that there are a growing number of “evil people” that we need to defend ourselves against. In fact, using FBI data, violent crime has fallen 49% nationwide since the 1990s and property crime has fallen 55%.

Gun-manufacturing corporations benefit by pitting gun owners against non-gun owners — provoking people on the left to demonize all gun owners and convincing people on the right that gun safety activists are secretly plotting to overturn the Second Amendment. By keeping us fighting with each other, they distract us from the profits these corporations are amassing by allowing almost anyone to buy an assault weapon.

And while activists on the left and the right are busy shouting past each other, it’s easy to forget that the overwhelming majority of Americans — gun owners and non-gun owners — believe that passing basic gun safety measures would help to reduce the devastating number of school shootings occurring in our country.

The bipartisan agreement currently being considered is far too limited. It would still allow 18-year-olds to buy assault weapons and allow unlicensed and private sellers to sell guns without doing background checks.

On average, the U.S. experiences 25 times more gun violence than other developed nations. Every single one of those nations has the kind of sensible gun regulations favored by most Americans. President Biden got it right: “When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?” The answer to that question needs to be, “now.”

Debbie Bruell of Carbondale chairs the Garfield County Democrats.

Hauser column: CMC’s innovation, grit land big results for western Colorado

Dr. Carrie Besnette Hauser

We’ve seen evidence that smaller, rural institutions like Colorado Mountain College can be highly nimble, pivoting to adapt to changing conditions.

It is an honor to recognize the entire team at CMC that handled the persistent, colossal and unplanned adversity of the pandemic. Together, we adjusted quickly to meet the needs of our students and communities, waiving tuition, expanding technologies and shifting hundreds of courses to remote modalities. And while the pandemic was a once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis — we hope — the adaptability exemplified by CMC is an enduring characteristic. Innovation is what we do.

As a case in point, though, the college recently celebrated nearly 1,400 talented, resilient students as they earned their degrees and certificates, CMC’s faculty and staff are already hard at work planning for significant changes in the year ahead.

Although CMC is and has always been among the most affordable colleges in the state and the nation, our financial aid and business offices are implementing the Colorado Mountain Promise, a “tuition free” aid program for lower- and middle-income students. This program will make college nearly free for hundreds of students from working households across our state.

The Colorado Mountain Promise is a true gift made possible by CMC’s unique fiscal model. However, we all know that tuition isn’t the most prohibitive cost for students in our mountain resort communities. It’s housing, housing and housing. So we are working to address this, too.

In November 2021, after the passage of Colorado’s Amendment B, CMC trustees boldly agreed to take on $40 million in debt to construct apartment-style housing in communities where the college has available land. After months of planning, in July we will break ground on housing projects in Breckenridge, Edwards, Steamboat Springs and Spring Valley, enabling hundreds more students to pursue degrees while affording to study, work and live locally. 

And yet, the very best financial plans are insufficient to address policy barriers that impede access for hundreds of students in the state. So CMC stepped up to shape and advocate for new laws to aid some of the most vulnerable residents across Colorado.

A few weeks ago, Gov. Polis signed House Bill 22-1155 into law. This bill was conceived by CMC with full support of the college’s leadership team and elected board of trustees. It allows hundreds of undocumented high school graduates access to postsecondary training and education. With lead sponsorship from Rep. Perry Will, R-New Castle, and Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, HB22-1155 makes the state a little more just and equitable for thousands of individuals living and working in our communities; it bolsters the health of our local economies.

While lawmakers in D.C. remain at a seemingly permanent impasse on immigration reform, Colorado and CMC are impatient for decency and willing to press forward. Our employers and businesses need workers now. Without wasting a moment, CMC has already implemented the changes found in HB22-1155, only two weeks after it was signed into law. How’s that for governmental efficiency?

Finally, we know that Colorado’s mountain communities never stand still. Their populations are constantly evolving. So, too, is Colorado Mountain College.

So, to meet our region’s ever-changing demands, CMC is adding new degrees and improving academic facilities to offer state-of-the-art experiences for students. New this fall: a Bachelor of Science in ecosystem science and stewardship, a Bachelor of Arts in human services, with related associate degrees and certificates in addiction studies, and an Associate of Arts and an Associate of Science with emphases in health sciences. In addition, the college will welcome nursing students into high-tech simulation labs in Breckenridge, Steamboat and Glenwood Springs.

These new programs illustrate CMC’s designation in 2021 as a “dual-mission” institution — one that offers an intentional blend of bachelor’s and associate degrees as well as specialized certificates, lifelong learning, a mix of the liberal arts and applied career training. It is who we are, why we exist — and what our students, employers and communities expect from us.

CMC isn’t the largest or longest-operating college in the state, but we do operate with a perpetual sense of urgency and strive to be the most innovative, most principled and most nimble. Because in our region of the state and to our students, communities, employers and taxpayers, these are the attributes that matter most.

Dr. Carrie Besnette Hauser is president & CEO of Colorado Mountain College. She can be reached at president@coloradomtn.edu or @CMCPresident.

Rippy column: Reading Garfield County loud and clear

Gregg Rippy

Even in an election cycle, some issues are bipartisan, or they should be. Most voters can agree, whether they fall on the left, right or somewhere in the middle, that education and literacy are critically important.

If you think about it, the true constituent in Garfield County is the child. Our children are the future, and schools are where kids begin to build a stable foundation that will support them for the rest of their lives.

Nobody argues about the benefit of education and the importance of literacy to our youth. With that in mind, it might come as a shock to learn that only 40% of Colorado third graders were grade-level proficient in 2019.

That’s a tragedy. So what are we doing about it?

Plenty, thanks to our elected officials, Colorado State Sen. Bob Rankin and Colorado State Board of Education Member Joyce Rankin, who represents Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes Garfield County.

One of Sen. Rankin’s prime achievements was passing the Reading to Ensure Academic Development Act. The READ Act focuses on early literacy development for all students, especially those at risk by the end of third grade. Students are tested for reading skills, and those who are not at grade level are given individual READ plans. The program also requires that all K-3 teachers complete evidence-based training in teaching reading.

Meanwhile, with the deadline for teacher compliance looming, Joyce Rankin has been hitting the pavement visiting with school superintendents throughout the 3rd Congressional District, which spans the state from Craig to Durango to Pueblo to ensure teachers are on track to meet the Aug. 1 deadline for the Colorado K-3 Teacher Evidence-Based Reading Training Requirement.

One of the things I have learned over the years is that if you don’t have someone to champion a program, it’s going to fail. Policies without implementation are always going to fail. I’m proud that leading the way in READ Act teacher certification is Garfield 16, which represents Parachute schools. Joyce is talking with superintendents and teachers to make sure our children are equipped for success early on in their education. It seems there is never as much funding as we’d like, but the READ Act demonstrates that programmatically we can make a big difference for kids.

The Rankins know you don’t pass a bill and check a box that says “Mission Accomplished.” Party affiliation aside, we can all be thankful to have leaders like Bob and Joyce who do the legwork to ensure that we have measurable results from testing to address the individual needs of children, ensuring that none of them falls between the cracks due to poor literacy skills.

When it comes to reading, there is no room for empty returns from empty rhetoric. Accountability and follow-through are essential to successful programs. In education, we are fortunate to have champions who are leading the way by doing whatever it takes to keep the focus on our kids.

Gregg Rippy is a former Colorado state representative from Garfield County and the current chairman of the Garfield County Republicans.

Mulhall column: A milestone worth gratitude

It’s been six years since I began writing columns for the PI.

I thought maybe it had been five, but we all lost 2020.

There’s not a lot to writing a column, really, although in fairness I spent 2016 figuring the whole thing out. It’s not an English composition essay.

There was a time when a syndicated columnist would write for 30 or so years and hold on to a vintage IBM Selectric into the twilight of retirement, just in case the idea of publishing ever blossomed into something more than an anthology of past columns.

Of course, a nationally recognized byline and 30-year career make my six-year stint at the PI little more than a dalliance. Hardly a start, really. Even by PI standards. Nevertheless, I have picked up a few things along the way, mostly from readers’ feedback.

Many readers wonder how I find the time to write columns. I tell them technology has greatly expanded a writer’s mobility. Laptops, tablets and smartphones mean writing can occur almost anywhere, regardless of internet access. And that’s the way it should be, I think. Writing happens when it happens, not necessarily when you’re at an office or near a computer. I have written numerous columns on my phone, some from faraway places.

I’ve also learned that most people find writing difficult. I’m often asked how I do it, a question I think stems from the idea of writing 750 words, give or take, on a subject. Truth is, I too detest a word limit, but not for that reason.

A word limit is like defining the length of a piece of string. A string is as long as it is, and except for established editorial policy, so is a column. I usually write a lot more than I need. Chopping what’s written to get near the word limit can be a lot like packing all your college necessities into a ’66 Ford Mustang

Sometimes it doesn’t fit.

Others wonder where I come up with material. If you look at what’s happening in the world at any given time, column subjects are anything but slim pickings.

Even so, there have been months when I wasn’t particularly inspired to write about anything in the news. Oddly enough, sparkless news cycles sometimes triggered the columns I enjoyed writing the most. If everything’s fair game, and even for the occasional columnist like me this is generally so, there’s always a subject to write about, and occasionally a very good one.

Based on state and local election results, the stances I’ve taken haven’t always prevailed. Wolf reintroduction, Ascendigo, 480 Donegan … My track record on many such issues is dismal.

Nevertheless, those who take the time to talk to me about my column are usually quite supportive. True, the late Rusty Ford minced no words telling me not to quit my day job, but the torch and pitchfork crowd seems to have politely acquiesced to my column’s continued presence on the PI opinion page.

I take that as a sign many folks, at least locally, listen to views that don’t dovetail with their own, and as far as constructive discourse is concerned, that’s a good thing — beyond encouraging when you consider that a binary political party system may not actually be as universally polarizing as it usually seems.

The biggest takeaway is this: Reader feedback is one of the best things about writing a column.

In September 2020, I wrote a column titled “An Unlikely Poet” about James Dickey’s novel “Deliverance.” A few days later I received a lengthy email from a reader I’d never met. He shared college memories of classes taught by Dickey, who occasionally guest lectured for a professor friend at Wake Forest.

He also shared a lengthy anecdote about running into Dickey years later at an airport and reminiscing with the guy over a glass of scotch between flights.

Without betraying any confidence, suffice it to say he put together from personal knowledge and information revealed by Dickey that day the possibility, however remote, that Deliverance wasn’t completely fictional. Perhaps figuring he might never get another chance, he seized the moment and put the question to Dickey point blank: Is Deliverance autobiographical?

He said Dickey just smiled and sipped his scotch.

We swapped numerous emails after that, and although to this day I’ve never met the guy, it was good to see how a column in a small-town newspaper could create a connection where none existed.

Reader feedback isn’t always so positive, but it’s always valued.

Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime Roaring Fork Valley resident. His column appears monthly in the Post Independent and at PostIndependent.com.

Writers on the Range: I’m a journalist and somehow still an optimist

Journalism has always been a tough way to make a living. It’s generally offered low wages, the constant threat of layoffs and consolidations, and the opportunity on any given day to enrage just about everyone who might disagree with the facts and observations you share.

So why am I such an optimist about this business? It’s true that the facts about this essential branch of democracy are grim. Since 2004, about 1,800 newspapers have closed in the United States. More than 100 local newsrooms closed just during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hedge funds that buy publications have left a path of destruction in their wake, with furloughs, layoffs and cutbacks.

Many newspapers have become a shadow of their former selves. News deserts are spreading around the country, places where people have lost access to trusted local news sources, and where local coverage has disappeared.

But it isn’t journalism that’s failing. It’s the old business model that funded news outlets for more than a century by relying too heavily on paid advertising.

Four years ago, as a senior editor at the Denver Post, I was faced with a choice. I could accept the inevitability of that decline and help a hedge fund dismantle our Pulitzer prize-winning newsroom piece by piece, laying off friends and colleagues, while investors pocketed the profits. Or I could try something new.

I co-founded the digital-only Colorado Sun with nine Post colleagues, and we launched in September 2018 with zero subscribers, zero members and a full-time staff of 10. But we also had plenty of determination and know-how.

Today, we have more than 200,000 subscribers, nearly 17,000 paying members, and a full-time staff of 25. We have been recognized as one of the best news outlets in our region for our public service and high-quality journalism.

We started with the premise that news matters, that readers — our democracy even — deserved more than the hedge funds were willing to provide. There’s a reason the Founding Fathers enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

They knew that a healthy democracy depends on informed citizens, on journalists who ask uncomfortable questions and serve as a watchdog to those in power. Vladimir Putin understands the same thing all too well, which is why he has clamped down on and targeted the press in Russia.

The Colorado Sun developed a business model that is so simple it sounds naive: Give readers nonpartisan journalism that is deeply reported, well written and well edited. Treat readers with respect. Don’t bombard them with pop-ups that get in the way of reading stories. Don’t lure them in with clickbait headlines or offer thinly rewritten press releases. Hold the powerful accountable. Celebrate the beauty around us and spotlight the people trying to make this a better world.

Our journalism is free to read for those who can’t afford to pay. We ask readers to support our work at whatever level they choose and to share our work with family, friends and colleagues. Our paying members provide most of our financial support, with the rest coming from philanthropy and sponsors.

I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished in four years, and I’m absolutely thrilled at the response not only from readers, but from journalists around the country who have been inspired in part by our success, just as we’ve been inspired by the Texas Tribune and others who came before us. Many have reached out seeking advice and tips as they contemplate creating their own news outlets. We’re happy to help.

The Poynter Institute, which studies, champions and supports journalism, says more than 70 local newsrooms launched in the United States in 2020 and 2021. More than 50 local newsletters started publishing in that time.

It’s difficult to see proud legacy newspapers in decline. But there is new energy and excitement all around us. Journalists, readers and philanthropists are talking about how news matters, how we all suffer when quality journalism goes away. I see growing support for new forms of journalism as we realize how important the profession is to our lives.

That’s cause for us all to be optimistic.

Larry Ryckman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring conversation about the West. He is the editor and co-founder of the Colorado Sun in Denver.

Youthentity column: Getting the most out of college

When I left for college, my expectations of the experience were vague at best. I assumed it would include close-quartered living spaces, an unhealthy intake of pizza and ticking off required classes over the course of several years. The end goal, of course, was to be awarded that all-important piece of paper stating that I was educated in the field I intended to join.

At graduation, despite my four years of classes, I still felt uncertain about the future and my qualifications to join the workforce. Looking back, I wish I’d focused on pursuing more hands-on, real-life learning opportunities: internships and related part-time or summer jobs, work-study programs, or taking a year off to immerse myself in a professional environment. Those options would have done a world of good, and certainly would have provided both clarity and connection to my target industry and infused a deeper meaning into my classwork.

Fortunately, today’s college-bound students are wise to the challenging career landscape and are more likely to consider actual outcomes of an education. As they must in this increasingly competitive world, young people don’t have the luxury of meeting baseline requirements.

The statistics surrounding the rising cost of college are staggering: between 1999-2000 and 2019-20, tuition at the average four-year institution increased 136.5%, an annual rate of 6.8%. With student loan debt and its potential consequences a hot topic, young people want to graduate with an assurance that their years of hard work — and tuition payments – will result in firm footing on the path to success.

Outside of their studies, young people expect more from their college experiences:

  • Internships and hands-on experiences: Nothing beats learning from professionals in the field. Concepts learned in a classroom are cemented as real skills when applied in the workplace. And just as important, these experiences show young people the realities of the field they hope to join (and in some cases, helping them find a different path that better utilizes their individual talents and strengths).
  • Return on investment: Specifically, the cost of education versus the salary and wages one can expect over time. Students want to know if this degree will allow for loan repayment and afford upward mobility to live comfortably? At Youthentity, our Career Academy curriculum includes life planning — an exercise in which students compare several career paths, including trajectory of wages.
  • Mentorship and networking: The fact remains that most opportunities come to job seekers from within their network — simply sending out resumes and blindly applying to posted positions is not enough. Young people understand that connections made with industry experts are the way into a job or career — and that networking often begins at school through professors, staff and fellow students.

Higher education is no longer simply about receiving a degree — there’s too much at stake for the investment of time and money. While students may be pushed by their academic institutions to achieve the outcomes above, most will need to be self-driven. The earlier young people are introduced to these concepts, the more adept they’ll be at planning for successful futures.

Kirsten McDaniel is the executive director of Youthentity, a Carbondale-based youth development nonprofit that offers career exploration opportunities and personal financial literacy education to over 5,500 youth throughout Colorado.