December 8, 2021
By: Sarah Johnson

Dry Smoky Isolated Mountain Home

Dry Smoky Isolated Mountain Home - Photo

I am an environmental educator in the 21st century in the United States of America.

I am a white woman with more years of formal education than most people in the world. I am a homeowner in a rural connected region of the Rocky Mountains. And, the climate crisis has been the most significant focal point of my civic and professional life. The weight of loss and grief has been a very personal and collective experience during these precarious times. I have felt so much uncertainty during this time as it is clearly understood that the climate of now is full of unknowns, injustices, anger, and crippling fear.

My direct experience of climate change has been an accumulative experience living in the mountain West. Continual drought and increasing temperatures throughout the Colorado River Basin is the primary manifestation of climate change in this region. Watching the Crystal River near my home dry to a bed of round smooth river rocks interspersed with puddles of warming river water, while in the distance our beloved Mount Sopris was barely visible blanketed with heavy wildfire smoke was unsettling in 2018. Since then, this has become an annual phenomenon for days and weeks at a time.

Knowing that warm water does not hold enough oxygen for trout, and that the river’s water has not consistently made it to the sea in decades, I am heartbroken bearing witness to the river that defines our valley. It is also this river’s treasured stretches that I have been working with others to designate as Wild and Scenic.


River rocks

Wildfire smoke has intensified over the nearly 20 years I have lived in the mountain West. This past year poor air quality data was reported for more than 100 days in my community.

So unhealthy that at times it was difficult to sleep. Living above 6,000 feet, typically it is cool enough that homes and offices are built without air conditioning. Without the air filters of air conditioning systems, there is no way to escape the smoke.

The increased smoky days combined with red alert wildfire danger make it unappealing to adventure out into the spectacular mountain landscapes here. Fewer backcountry excursions combined with poor air quality and the concern of increased wildfire danger precipitates collective community anxiety and depression during the summer season. Typically summer has been a time filled with adventures and beautiful scenery evenings spent with friends around campfires.

As an educator who has inspired learners to believe that their voices are critical in taking action for climate solutions within their communities, sometimes I wonder if it is not too late. As the earth continues to warm, extreme weather events intensify, biodiversity collapses, and poor people (especially girls and young women) experience more frequent natural disasters, it can be difficult to see my teaching and empowering people making a difference fast enough.

Yet I know wholeheartedly that it is the power of all people coming together unified to create systemic change that is making a difference.

Sarah R. Johnson is a landscape-based environmental educator at Wild Rose Education. As a freelance science educator she is focused on climate change, public lands, watershed science, civics, and geography, and teaching and learning when designing and facilitating educator professional development workshops and graduate courses. Sarah joined the U.S. ACE Coalition delegation at the United Nations COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland.