Telluride Institute

Mycological education: The Telluride Mushroom Festival, a program of the Telluride Institute, is being held online this year from Aug. 10-16. To learn more about the many programs TI sponsors, visit tellurideinstitute.org. (Courtesy photo)

How do you sum up the mission of a nonprofit that represents such seemingly disparate groups as the Talking Gourds Poetry Program, the Mushroom Festival, a sci-fi library and a Watershed Education Program (among other initiatives)?

How about “For Face and Planet”? At their core, the Telluride Institute’s innovative programs all have something in common: they exist in order to “advance environmental and cultural resilience.” The Daily Planet recently chatted with the institute’s representative, Tucker Szymkowicz.

Leslie Vreeland: How are you lately? How did you weather quarantine?

Tucker Szymkowicz: Lockdown was kind of fun. I was living on Hastings Mesa. We hung out at the house with the kids. I’ve been a stay at home dad for three years, so I was used to working from home. Covid-19 has been a spur for us at the Telluride Institute, to make the most of these times and try to do some good work, and to meet of the new needs that have come up as a result of the pandemic.

LV: What have you been doing specifically?

TS: Right after the pandemic began, I and another part-time director were promoted to begin working on some of these newfound challenges. The Telluride Institute is part of a coalition called the Mountain Resilience Coalition, which includes the Aspen International Mountain Foundation, Western State Colorado University’s School of Environment & Sustainability and members of the U.N. Mountain Partnership. We’re working with Western Colorado University’s Masters and Environmental Management, or MEM, program, to try to create opportunities for students to study in the Telluride region. The program would pair students with an organization to work on a specific project; the students would be getting real-life experience, and the organization would be getting valuable help. We’re looking at bringing between one and three students here this fall. We have a variety of programs for students to assist with, including the Regional Climate Action Plan (the mayor calls it the Green New Deal). We’d be creating a satellite campus for WCU in this area. Right now, Telluride has so many festivals, but we have no community college.

LV: It does have many festivals.

TS: We’re trying to make the Telluride Mushroom Festival a course that students could take for college credit: They’d be required to attend the festival (which is being held online this year from Aug. 10-16) and listen to a certain number of lectures in order to receive college credit.

LV: What else is the Telluride Institute doing?

TS: One of the strengths of TI is the fact that it’s really an umbrella organization with a ton of different projects beneath it. The pandemic has directly impacted our programming, but we’ve been able to shift some parts; to slow down some things; to figure out how to respond, and identify what we can keep doing. We’ve identified some events that can still be held in-person, albeit socially distanced, and we’re working with the county to make sure we’re meeting all the requisite health guidelines. The Talking Gourds poetry group is one of the programs that we’ve paused a bit, because it involves small gatherings of people for shared readings. We’re still doing some work on the Ute Reconciliation program; there will be a Bike Donation Day for the Ute People, and we’re trying to put together a mountain bike ride with those bikes. There’s the Love Your Backyard program, a series of walks we’re hosting in conjunction with the Wilkinson Public Library. The Watershed Education Program is working with Sheep Mountain Alliance to create a series of programs that involve setting up photo traps — wildlife cameras — on the Valley Floor, to give people an opportunity to watch online and learn about nature and wildlife in our area. The Sci-Fi library is using this time for construction. The Prospect Basin Fens project we’ve had to put a hold on, because of its in-person nature. We’re hoping to install some new remote monitoring equipment.

LV: What’s the best way for people to make a donation right now?

TS: There’s a lot of uncertainty about fund raising right now. A lot of nonprofits can’t use their grant monies because of the in-person nature of their programming; some are holding onto grant monies because they’re not sure of the challenges their organization will face this fall, and over the next year. Some nonprofits fear that there won’t be the same level of giving that there has been before. We have a donate button at the top of our website. At this time, we’re shifting funds from some of the programs that we can’t run to the ones we can, to meet some of the challenges presented by Covid-19. In these times, nondiscretionary donations — that is, allowing the nonprofit the discretion to best-utilize its donations (as opposed to donations specifically earmarked for a certain thing) — are critical to those programs moving forward. It’s a big challenge in the nonprofit world to receive funding for administrative costs and accounting, and all of those non-sexy items that donors don’t necessarily want to put money toward. But right now, it’s as if we’re in medical triage — only this is cultural and community triage. People like to donate ‘directionally,’ but giving an unrestricted gift offers us much more flexibility.

For more information about the Telluride Institute’s programs or to make a donation, visit tellurideinstitute.org.