Crested Butte's 1% Percent for Open Space by Story Clark

Ethan Hicks was frustrated with local development pressures. He had watched a developer turn a popular place for hiking, biking, and camping—a mountainside bench overlooking his beloved Crested Butte, Colorado—into sprawling trophy homes. He had no idea his frustration and disappointment would lead him to invent one of the most effective revenue-generating techniques for the local land trusts.

Ethan served on the advisory board for the young Crested Butte Land Trust, which formed in the wake of the development of the bench. As this new land trust was getting established, Ethan saw the huge disparity between the cost of land being developed and the ability of the land trust to raise the millions of dollars needed to conserve it. He thought that the land trust’s efforts weren’t going to make a difference fast enough. The athletic and intense Ethan wasn’t about to give up. Because he was in the clothing business, he was aware that the outdoor clothing company Patagonia Inc. donated 1 percent of its gross revenues to environmental causes. He thought something like that might work in Crested Butte.

When he suggested to the local Rotary Club his idea that local stores request a voluntary gift for conservation from their customers, Ethan was surprised by the lack of enthusiasm. Ethan persevered. “I had a position in the community where I could do it on my own,” he explained. As owner of the popular sporting goods store the Alpineer, he decided to try a donation program anyway. “Not as a publicity thing, just to help the land trust,” he recalled. When he announced his plan to ask for donations for open space with everything he sold in the store, it made quite a splash. As Ethan tells it: “On the first day we started, a lot of people came into the store just to participate.” The local newspaper covered it, and the popular morning radio show did a story. Businesses called in to the station asking how they could sign up. The land trust got calls too, and within a week the land trust had the framework of a program in place.

Concept to Reality

Ethan’s determination to step out in front to preserve Crested Butte set an example and built momentum. “I came up with the idea, and it evolved from there,” he says. Over sixty businesses—from restaurants, retail stores, and guiding companies to doctors, attorneys, an acupuncturist, realtors, newspapers, and even an animal hospital—now participate. In 2006, the income from the program was $34,935. Since its inception in 1997, the program has raised over $1.18 million.

The brilliance of the program is in its design. Unlike the Patagonia program (known as 1% for the Planet), businesses participating in Crested Butte’s 1% for Open Space program add the 1 percent to every customer’s bill. The money comes from the customer, not the business. If, for instance, a customer buys a $300 ski jacket at the Alpineer, a $3 donation is added to the bill. If a tourist stays three nights at a participating local hotel and the bill is $150 dollars, $1.50 is added to the bill.

In all cases, customers have ample opportunity to remove the donation if they don’t want to make it. Informational signs are posted, and opt-out procedures are clearly stated. Store staff are trained to explain the program to every customer. Few customers choose not to make the gift, only a very small percentage of the customers—ironically, less than 1 percent. At Ethan’s store, only four or five people a year say no. When it happens, he gives their money back, “right out of the till—so the store pays for it. I don’t want to get into protracted discussions,” he says.

Most businesses use the program’s preferred percent method of support, though some give a set amount each year, such as $100, and don’t ask their customers to participate. Some real estate companies give a donation from each home sale, basing the size on either a percentage of the broker’s commission or a predetermined amount. These variations may be a consequence of philosophical differences in how business owners want to collect the money and whether or not they want to involve their customers in the process.

From "The Sky Is Falling" to Blue Skies

Early Crested Butte Land Trust board members David Baxter and Glo Cunningham helped Ethan get the 1 percent program going. Ethan was particularly influential in addressing the questions of business owners and recruiting them to join. Other board members helped to work out technical problems, investing many hours dealing with the mechanics and logistics of the program.

Initially, there was a small but strong negative reaction to the idea. “I got all kinds of hate mail when I first did it,” recalls Ethan. “Some said that they weren’t going to participate because they thought it would eventually become a mandatory tax. A lot of people had a lot to say about where the program was going to lead us. Now, it’s just the way business is done.”

The subsequent owner who bought the store from Ethan and continued supporting the 1 percent program said that tourists don’t even notice the donation. They are on vacation and aren’t really looking at the bill. The locals are very aware of it, but it is in their interest, too, to see land conservation efforts succeed. “That is the beauty of it. Everyone who benefits from the natural beauty of the area contributes to the program,” he said.

Building Land Trust Capacity

The 1% for Open Space program gave the Crested Butte Land Trust a tremendous boost. It legitimized the organization. It didn’t take long, though, for the board to recognize that it needed staff to administer this quickly growing program as well as to handle many other functions. Now they had the money to pay for staff. They hired Vicki Church to administer the conservation programs that had become more prominent as a result of the 1% for Open Space program and to promote and sign up more businesses. Initially, though, as a volunteer organization, the board designed the materials, set up the program, and promoted it in the business community.

Vicki needed to decide the clearest way for customers to become informed and to note the donation on the bill charged, the best way for them to opt out of the program, and how businesses should submit the funds to the land trust. She had to make sure that the businesses had all of the materials and training they needed to make the program function smoothly. She estimates that in those early years, 1% for Open Space took between 30 and 50 percent of her time. All land trusts that now have voluntary surcharge programs have benefited from the good work of Vicki and the Crested Butte Land Trust’s board in developing these mechanisms.

Spinning Off Success

In January 2001, the 1% for Open Space program was spun off into a separate organization that is now run on a part-time basis by Molly Murfee. The land trust created an independent program to make funding available to other organizations working on open space programs. Molly trains business staff, collects the money, solicits new businesses, distributes materials, and, says Molly, writes press releases “every time someone sneezes” (see the online appendices for Story Clark’s A Field Guide to Conservation Finance). A volunteer accountant helps new participating businesses set up their systems. The program receives other volunteer support, such as for managing its Web site.

Participating businesses must post signs in two places in their stores or offices. 1% for Open Space Inc. provides envelopes for submitting the money, which most businesses do monthly. As a thank-you to the participating businesses and as a subtle nudge to stay with the program, 1% for Open Space Inc. publishes a biweekly thank-you advertisement in the local newspaper. Its five-person board meets monthly to review applications for grant money. They have not yet had to choose between competing projects. Grants range from $5,000 to $35,000 and have resulted in the protection of more than 2,500 acres.

Because the money goes to support land acquisition projects, Crested Butte Land Trust is still the primary beneficiary. The 1% for Open Space board is comfortable with the land trust because of the popularity of its projects. It funded one of Crested Butte Land Trust’s highest-profile projects, the Lower Loop Trail. The land trust bought 193 acres along this popular trail, which links the town to the national forest and wilderness. A corporation was considering developing along the trail, thus cutting off public access. The land trust stepped in and preserved the 1.5 mile stretch.

In September 2005, the 1% for Open Space program celebrated passing its $1 million revenue mark. For Vicki Church, the biggest success of the program has been its educational value. With over sixty businesses participating and new ones joining up each year, the program provides a reason to go out into the business community to talk about the land trust’s programs. And, because the program must be explained to each customer, the business community itself is transformed into a league of ambassadors talking up the value of land conservation every time a sale is made. You can’t buy that kind of marketing.


Excerpted and adapted from A Field Guide to Conservation Finance, by Story Clark. Copyright © 2007 Island Press. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

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