Telluride Bluegrass Festival: Greenest Show On Earth

Reader Contribution by Kurt Jacobson
1 / 3
2 / 3
3 / 3

Each year for the past 45 years the town of Telluride, Colorado has hosted a bluegrass festival. When the bluegrass festival started on July 6, 1974, it featured eight local Colorado bluegrass bands. Over the years the Telluride Bluegrass Festival has evolved into one of the best bluegrass events anywhere on the planet. Held around the summer solstice each year, thousands of regulars dubbed Festivarians, flock to the Telluride Town Park.

It’s evident to those in attendance that the best bluegrass musicians on the planet come to this high-country event. This year’s lineup included The Del McCoury Band, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Emmylou Harris, Sam Bush, and 27 other amazing performers. The quality of the musicians has significantly improved since the festival’s humble beginnings in 1974, but what is just as impressive is the organizer’s dedication to making this perhaps the most eco-friendly festival anywhere on earth.

Fans who loved the mountains and environment already filled the festival by the time Planet Bluegrass stepped in as the organizer in 1989. Over the coming years, Planet Bluegrass would make great strides in making sure the festival’s impact on the environment was minimal. One of the most significant moves to reducing the effect of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival was to limit the number of fans allowed into this town of only 2,000 residents. Telluride sits in a box canyon and has sparse flat ground for thousands of fans. Planet Bluegrass and the town of Telluride got together 20 years ago and agreed to limit attendance. Since that time Planet Bluegrass has capped the crowd to only 11,500 paid attendees and volunteers.

Camp Duktape

The festival still sells out each year since 2010, even though they don’t announce the band lineup until two weeks after ticket sales start. First-time attendees will notice most, but not all of the eco-friendly practices during the four-day bluegrass festival. The most obvious eco-friendly method is the large roll-off dumpster manned by volunteers. Three huge banners above the dumpster indicate which place to put recycle, compost, and landfill items. Volunteers staff the dumpsters throughout the festival to help ensure each receptacle receives the correct things. Food vendors have to use compostable cutlery, bowls, and plates. Combined with food scraps, the compostable service items save a lot of space that a landfill would have received.

Replacing single-use beer, wine, and beverage cups with reusable plastic cups has been one of the best eco-friendly practices. Planet Bluegrass co-founder Steve Szymanski told me “You will find people in the campground with 25 years of cups.” When you make a different re-useable cup that people want to collect, the cups get re-used for years to come. What used to be some 100,000 cups per bluegrass event is now only 8,000 or less.

When I asked Brian Eyster about the Planet Bluegrass carbon credits program at the festival he shared this:

Since 2007, Planet Bluegrass has offset the carbon emissions from all festival operations in Telluride as well as from the largest overall impact (90% of the total emissions!): all travel to/from Telluride by staff, artists, and Festivarians from around the world.  Over the years we have developed a comprehensive analysis of the event’s carbon footprint, using extensive surveys about our Festivarians’ travel to/from Telluride – flights, driving distances, carpools, etc. In our efforts to support local (and innovative) carbon projects, in 2018 we worked with Telluride’s Pinhead Climate Institute to invest $30k in a carbon offsets from a new “regenerative agriculture” project at the May Ranch in Colorado.

Obviously Planet Bluegrass takes being eco-friendly to a very high level.

Another excellent idea to impart a “Leave No Trace” camping ethic is the Campsite Challenge. With 3,600 campers each year it’s important to incentivize eco-friendly camping. Planet Bluegrass sponsors lnt.org (Leave No Trace) organization each year. These dedicated staff and volunteers of LNT are at their tent each day educating the public about clean camping, composting, and other ways to lessen our impact on the environment. The LNT staff inspects the campground each day to award daily prizes to campers that have signed up for the Campsite Challenge. At the end of the festival, the LNT staff makes one final inspection to see how clean the abandoned campsites are before awarding the grand prize. The winner of the grand prize gets two four-day passes to next year’s festival.  The winner also receives a free camping permit valued at more than $700 for the package! Outdoor gear manufacturer Kelty also chips in with a grand prize in the $800+ range for the winner of the Eco-Puzzle.

When I asked Steve Szymanski what other festival promoters could do to copy Planet Bluegrass, he told me “Stop using single-use beer cups and skip compostable cups for re-useable cups instead.” Steve also indicated that each region/market is different and would accept specific changes that other regions wouldn’t tolerate. Changing human behavior is usually best done in small steps. Maybe your local festival could start by adopting the #SipResponsibly movement where plastic straws are only given by request. Over 500,000 plastic straws are used and discarded each day in the U.S.A. alone. Most festivals could reduce their use of single-use beer cups, plastic cutlery, and landfill items if they educate their audience.

The change begins with you, the festival attendee requesting these eco-friendly practices. Consider making these suggestions and volunteering to implement them as Planet Bluegrass does. The volunteers I saw working at the dumpsters all seemed to be having a blast on their four-hour shift. Marketing director Brian Eyster told me, “Most of our volunteers return year-after-year and couldn’t stand missing the festival.”  You could be the voice of change needed to help clean up our country one festival at a time. Please join those of us wanting a cleaner outdoor music event and planet, and when you go, enjoy the show.

Kurt Jacobsohas been a chef for 40 years and, after being schooled in the U.S. Coast Guard, he trained in many restaurants under both kind and maniac chefs. Kurt is starting his fourth year of container and raised-bed organic gardening and is volunteering at Wilbur’s Farm in Kingsville, Maryland, to learn real organic gardening. For this and other recipes using garden greens, and more fresh veggies check out his food blog. For tasty travel ideas check out Kurt’s travel blog, TasteofTravel2.com. Read all of Kurt’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.