Mar 7, 2022
By BRUCE NOBLE
Although it may not be obvious to everyone, we are fortunate to have high-quality federal employees working for our land management agencies here on the Western Slope of Colorado. The reason for that is pretty evident — this area is considered a good place to live. More strong candidates are inclined to apply for jobs in good locations. More applicants create more competition and the crème rises to the top. Voilà, suddenly you have a very strong cadre of land management agency employees in Western Colorado.
Sadly, the natural advantage that our land management agencies have had in recruiting white-collar employees to the Western Slope is beginning to diminish. Has this area suddenly become a less desirable place to live? Not really, but the Western Slope has increasingly become a more expensive place to live.
Let’s look at Gunnison, where I spent the last five years of my National Park Service career, as an example. Not so long ago, Gunnison was a fairly remote spot known primarily as the home of Western Colorado University and for its extremely cold winters. It was possible to buy a relatively inexpensive home where residents could enjoy the benefits of proximity to recreation both on nearby public lands and just up the road in the ski resort community of Crested Butte.
Then things started to change. As prices crept up in Crested Butte, Gunnison became the “bedroom community” for resort workers in search of cheaper housing. Naturally that caused home prices to start escalating in Gunnison. Today, according to Zillow, the average home in Crested Butte costs $909,502 while the average home in Gunnison checks in at $419,138. A relative bargain, right?
Gunnison may be a bargain for some people, but the cost of housing remains a significant barrier for people living on federal government salaries and for other employees in the recreation industry who are often employed only seasonally. As a result, an increasing number of Gunnison-based employees at Curecanti National Recreation Area are choosing to live an hour to the west in Montrose where real estate is more readily available and somewhat less expensive (although up by 18.7% over the past year). It can be a rough drive in the winter, but perhaps worth it in order to have a foothold in the real estate market.
Cast a wider net and you see even greater cost of living challenges. What about National Park Service employees at Rocky Mountain National Park where the average home in Estes Park costs $629,529? And how about the U.S. Forest Service employees in the Aspen Ranger District where the Aspen Daily News reported on July 19, 2021 that the average home price over the previous year was $11.4 million? That’s a pretty heavy lift for would-be home owners working as teachers, police officers or collecting a federal paycheck.
Oddly, it’s a somewhat different story for federal employees in the Denver metropolitan area. A federal worker in Denver doing exactly the same job as their federal counterparts in Aspen, Grand Junction or Gunnison will earn 27.13% more money in 2021. Why is that? It’s due to an oddity in the federal pay structure called “locality pay.” Since the federal Office of Personnel Management has designated greater Denver as an expensive metropolitan area, federal employees from the Wyoming border all the way south to Castle Rock receive significantly higher pay than their colleagues in super high-cost Colorado resort counties like Gunnison, Pitkin, Grand, Eagle, Routt and Summit that don’t receive locality pay. In my book, there’s something very wrong with this picture.
And all of this doesn’t only pertain to Colorado. The same dilemma faces numerous federal employees who go without locality pay in pricey national park areas across the country like Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Glacier and many more. The competition to get top-flight employees to these areas is likely not going to get easier anytime soon.
But let’s return to Colorado. The Office of Personnel Management does give federal managers certain bureaucratic tools for boosting federal pay in specific areas, but the broad scope of the problem seems to demand a legislative solution. How about legislation to establish a “Colorado Resort Region Locality Pay Area?” It certainly seems intuitive that the majority of federal employees in Aspen, Steamboat Springs or Eagle are going to have some challenges making ends meet. I believe that Senators Bennett and Hickenlooper would see the urgency of paying federal employees a living wage in these high-priced resort areas. Let’s continue the tradition of attracting top talent to federal jobs on the Western Slope of Colorado by finding a way to pay them the same salaries earned by their colleagues in the Denver area.
Bruce Noble is retired after serving a 33-year career with the National Park Service. He was most recently the superintendent for Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Curecanti National Recreation Area near Gunnison.