TELLURIDE – EcoAction Partners, the Telluride-based nonprofit that aims to reduce carbon emissions and waste throughout the region, has hired Heather Knox Rommel, formerly executive director of the Palm Theater, as its executive director.
EcoAction board member Todd Brown said Rommel was hired because of her experience promoting sustainability projects, and for her ability to communicate with other entities in the region.
Since EcoAction’s inception in 2007, its board of directors has pressed the organization to limit its scope to narrower objectives aimed at achieving measurable results. The board, according to Brown, believes Rommel will lead the organization in that direction.
“When we started, [the organization’s focus] was all about the broad spectrum of sustainability,” said departing Executive Director Kris Holstrom. “So we did things like have a regional sustainability visioning project, and participating in a regional economic development task force… We even worked on forest health issues for a little while. We were trying to address all areas of sustainability. Eventually, the board directed us to develop a focus, which became food, energy and waste.”
One of Holstrom’s top priorities, said Brown, was to help develop regional farms and improve access to locally grown produce.
“Kris’ departure and Heather’s hiring was borne out of a request from Kris to focus more on local and regional food aspects of the organization,” said Brown. “At the same time, the board wanted to focus more on energy-reduction programs.”
Holstrom will remain on the EcoAction Partners staff, Brown added, but has not yet specified what her role will be.
In addition to narrowing the nonprofit's scope and objectives, Brown said, the organization faces the challenge of diversifying funding and a shrinking budget.
“What used to be a $150,000-a-year budget is now down to $90,000, and people are now expecting more results from the organization as it gets less money.”
Promoting and publicizing the triumphs of the organization is another hurdle, with many county residents and businesses confused about its purpose and mission. Brown nonetheless pronounced himself pleased with how the nonprofit has transformed over the years under Holstrom’s leadership.
“We wouldn’t have the focus and be where we are today without Kris,” said Brown. “She was the driving force that kept this thing going.”
Holstrom, who served as EcoAction Partner’s executive director since 2007, has championed many carbon-emission and waste-reducing initiatives over the years, including creation of the recycling and compost system at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
“Nearly thirty years ago, I moved to San Miguel County,” Holstrom recalled. “I was just a farmer then. During one Bluegrass Festival many years ago, I would go behind the food vendor stands and take trashcans filled with food waste to compost back at the farm.”
Bluegrass personnel took notice, and 15 years ago, she said, Bluegrass promoter Craig Ferguson asked “if I would consider standing out in a field with 40 volunteers helping the 10,000 festivarians with separating out waste from recyclables and compost.
“Not being one to say no, I said, ‘Sure’. I couldn’t have ever done that without their initiative of wanting to take the next step, so I do not take credit for it,” she said.
The compost and recycling idea grew, and is now featured at nearly every Telluride music festival. Holstrom also noted that other festivals have adopted a similar practice, “from Planet Bluegrass in Lyons, Colo., to music festivals in England and Australia.”
Holstrom’s influence has since extended to the local schools. In conjunction with the Telluride School District and with support from a grant from the Telluride Medical Center, Holstrom and EcoAction brought a greenhouse to the Telluride schools, with the aim of teaching students about growing food locally and at a high altitude.
“I tried to have at least a school garden there 12 years ago,” Holstrom said. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, so the fact that it’s there and that kids can learn, and it provides a little food for their cafeteria is huge. It’s an amazing learning lab and a lasting legacy.”
While these are only a few of Holstrom’s accomplishments, she’s begun her push to create a more viable local food system regionally.
“I’m trying to get a dream team together for my Productive Properties concept,” she said. “It’s a cooperative team so we can help anyone, from apartment dwellers to ranch owners, participate in creating a strong and enhanced local food system.”
Holstrom will stay on with EcoAction at least through June working on local food issues.
The change in leadership comes as EcoAction Partners is working with San Miguel County on its Green Projects Grant Program, which aims to allocate $100,000 in grants to individuals who present viable carbon emissions-reduction projects.
Rommel originally pitched the idea of distributing grants to individuals to the county commissioners – proof, she said, that her past experience of creating innovation at other nonprofit organizations dovetails with her new job.
“I feel like the legacy I am most proud of at the Palm Theater was taking on the dance program under the Palm, which opened up a new source of income for the Palm Theater,” she said. “Also, it provided a great community value and resource, and the dance program didn’t shut its doors. It was a win for everyone.”
Rommel served as director of economic development for the Town of Mountain Village and worked on the formation of the New Community Coalition, now EcoAction Partners, in 2006 and 2007. Her mission to create a more sustainable region is not limited to her professional career. In 1998, Rommel and her husband purchased a land parcel, on which they built an energy-efficient house in 2001.
“Designing our house for passive solar gain, selecting adequate insulation, double pane windows and energy-efficient lighting and appliances was all part of our crash course in making every kilowatt count,” she recalled.
“We later added solar hot water batch heaters to preheat our domestic hot water and in-floor heat: the improvement cut our propane use in half.”
“I am truly honored to take over the position from Kris,” Rommel said of taking the helm at EcoAction. “She’s a Telluride institution, and I hope to continue EcoAction down the same successful and effective course as she did.”