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Steamboat Magazine

Holding the Middle Ground: 20 Years of Seminars at Steamboat

06/27/2023 07:00AM ● By Dan Greeson
(Board chair Walt Dabberdt introduces a seminar during summer 2022. Courtesy of Seminars at Steamboat.)

From Steamboat Magazine Home Edition 2023.

Seminars at Steamboat, a nonprofit organization that has brought nonpartisan educational speakers to Steamboat Springs for over 20 years, started the same way many of the best ideas have: with a hike. 

“I had been participating in the Aspen Institute’s strategy groups for a number of years,” says Belle Sawhill, one of Seminars’ co-founders. “When I moved to Steamboat, I missed that meaty intellectual component that I had in Aspen.” One summer morning, on a hike with Jim and Freddy Goodrich, Belle voiced her frustrations and the others agreed. Inspired, Belle returned home and, with input from co-founders Jane and Bob Stein, created a prospectus for what would be Seminars at Steamboat.

Leading up to the first seminar, held in Centennial Hall in 2003, no one knew what to expect. “I remember fearing that only 10 or 15 people would show up,” Belle says. Expectations were far surpassed – over 100 attended, a success with standing-room only. Belle and her co-founders formed a board, and Seminars at Steamboat was off and running.

Since that first seminar, with the help of people like Kate Hawk and Bob Stein, who have served as board chairs in the past, the organization has grown into a cultural staple in Steamboat. The group brings experts each summer to speak on a variety of public policy themes and ideas, from education to military conflicts, and holds a post-seminar dinner with each speaker. Seminars at Steamboat, now held at Strings Music Pavilion, draws crowds of over 500, and is still free to attend.

“You can’t encourage dialogue about public policy in the community if you’re constraining the audience with an entry fee,” Belle says. 

The board’s speaker-selection process has been honed to a science over the years. “Choosing speakers is the best part about being on the board,” says board member Marianne Capra. “It is a thrilling process.” After extensive research and reflection, the 16 board members bring their ideas to a battle royale of policy topics at the end of each summer. “We do progressive rounds of spirited discussion and voting like the fantasy football of public policy seminars. We all hope that our crystal ball reads clear so that the next summer’s season will feel alive and relevant.”

“I think we’ve done a darn good job of picking important topics,” Belle says. One example she points to is this summer’s talk by Heather J. Tanana about water use in the Colorado River Basin. “We could see in advance that it was going to be a big issue. It’s of special interest to people here in the West.” 

Remaining nonpartisan is a pillar of the organization, especially in an increasingly polarized political climate. “It’s become harder, but I think more important given our divisions,” Belle says. “The more that we can invite the community to engage and learn more about an issue and debate it amongst themselves, the better off we’ll be.” 

While the current look of Seminars is the product of decades of adjustments, board members constantly seek ways to improve. “We would like to see more young people involved,” says Walt Dabberdt, chair of Seminars’ board. “We’re not just looking for retired folks.”

Seeing the year’s planning coming to fruition is an exciting prospect for board members. “I’m as excited – if not more excited – than I have been for any of the other seasons I’ve been involved with,” Walt says.

“I can’t wait to have a lazy afternoon tube down the Yampa, grab a bite at Cruisers, then dive into the futuristic field of biotechnology with Jamie Metzl,” Marianne adds. 

“The best part is the community buy-in,” Belle says. “I’ve had people come up to me in the supermarket who I don’t know but who recognize me because I’ve been up on stage at the Strings Pavilion, and they thank me for putting this together. The community seems to really value what we do.”

Seminars at Steamboat’s 2023 Schedule

Monday, July 10
Jamie Metzl – “R/Evolution: Recasting Life in an Age of Radical Biotechnology”

Monday, July 17
Wendy R. Weiser – “Elections on the Brink: Where We Are and  Where We Need to Go to Ensure Fairness and Integrity”

Monday, July 24
Matthew Rojansky – “Russia, Ukraine, and Beyond – Challenges for the U.S.”

Monday, July 31
Heather J. Tanana – “Colorado River in Crisis: Learning From the Past to Protect the Future” 

Monday, Aug. 7
Craig Fugate – “Disaster Preparation and Management in  the Face of a Changing Climate”

Learn more and watch videos of previous seminars at