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Aspen, Sun Peaks set new industry standard

ASPEN, Colo. — In the wake of increasing criticism of the ski industry by environmentalists during the 1990s, the National Ski Areas Association several years ago created its Sustainable Slopes program.

ASPEN, Colo. — In the wake of increasing criticism of the ski industry by environmentalists during the 1990s, the National Ski Areas Association several years ago created its Sustainable Slopes program.

Sustainable Slopes encourages member ski areas to take actions that lessen the impact of skiing on the environment. But critics say its voluntary nature allows members to brag of accomplishments without taking meaningful action. The usual description is "greenwash."

Two academics last year concluded that the critics were right. Jorge Rivera of George Washington University and Peter De Leon of the University of Colorado at Denver labeled the program a "symbolic self-regulatory scheme that does not appear to effectively improve industry-wide environmental protection." They said the industry needed third-party audits to be credible.

That’s what two ski area operators, The Aspen Skiing Co. and British Columbia’s Sun Peaks, have done. Both have earned certification through the International Organization for Standardization. Conducting the audit was Mark Gage, from a Vancouver firm called KPMG Performance Registrar.

The Aspen Times reports Gate spent three days grilling company executives, examining maintenance shops that service snow groomers and snowmobiles, and touring ski area facilities to assess the effectiveness of the environmental management program. Gage said one of his interests is assessing how formalized environmental policies are, and if a company has clear lines of accountability. He was less concerned about high-profile programs like recycling, but more interested in such things as the handling of materials after vehicle maintenance.

Auden Schendler, director of environmental affairs for the Aspen Skiing Co., said the certification – now in its second year – "means something." He told the Times that Aspen’s certification may put pressure on Intrawest, Vail Resorts and other ski area operators to follow suit. Gate reported that other resorts have already approached his company about audits. While some of that interest stems from innate goodness, he said he also sees competition being a motivator.

Viagra for altitude sickness

TELLURIDE, Colo. — One consolation for aging is that people over 50 are less susceptible to altitude sickness.

Why is that? The Telluride Watch explains that as people age, their brains shrink, requiring less oxygen.

But, for those who do get the severe and often fatal forms of altitude sickness, cerebral and pulmonary edema, there is a curious remedy: Viagra. The drug that is prescribed for impotency can also promote oxygenation through increased blood flow.

The source for this is not a drug company’s PR flak, but one of nation’s premiere high-altitude physicians, Peter Hackett. Renowned among mountain climbers for his work on Denali, as Alaska’s Mt. McKinley is often known, he now practices medicine in Telluride.

To reduce the chances of altitude sickness, Hackett urges visitors coming from sea level to acclimate along the way. Thus, for somebody from Los Angeles he recommends the first night at Ridgway, with its elevation of 7,000, before continuing on to a lodge in Mountain Village, Telluride’s slope-side town, which is at 9,600 feet.

Who gets altitude sickness seems to be determined largely by genetics. However, high-calibre athletes are more prone to suffer from it than non-athletes. So are women and, especially, pregnant women because of their high levels of estrogen and progesterone.

Private jets saturate airspace

ASPEN, Colo. — It must be the human condition. No matter how much money a person is, there’s always something to grumble about.

Consider the situation at Aspen, where The Aspen Times reported a complaint-filled gondola ride for a mother and daughter from Arkansas. Because the local airport, called Sardy Field, is so busy, they had to circle the airport for 90 minutes in their private jet before being allowed to land. You locals, they said, need to do something about this.

The Times explained that because the number of planes often exceeds the amount of runway time available at Sardy Field, a situation called "airspace saturation," the Federal Aviation Administration imposes a rationing program. The program is applied at Christmas, Presidents’ Weekend, and spring break.

Slots are allocated by this program, with commercial airlines getting first dibs. Those lacking slots are forced to circle Aspen until a slot is available. An alternative is to land at another airport in Rifle or Grand Junction to the west, or even at a Denver-area airport.

Greg Dyer, a Federal Aviation Administration official, said that people with Gulfstream V airplanes are not the sort of people accustomed to being told ‘no."

Some believe that operators of fractional ownership jets have fostered an underground market for slots. According to this theory, the operators of fractionally owned jets snare slots – leaving the full-ownership jets without slots. The FAA discounted that accusation.

Colorado enjoying banner winter

VAIL, Colo. — All the stars remain aligned for Colorado to break its all-time record for skier days, which was set almost 10 years ago. While resorts in the southern tier of the state continue to have marginal conditions, the big resorts from Aspen north continue to report some of the best skiing conditions in years.

Vail, for example, surpassed the 200-inch mark before New Year’s Day, the second-best snowfall in the resort’s 43-year history.

Residents make room

ASPEN, Colo. — One way or another, the foreign workers who flooded into Aspen this winter are finding places to sleep.

Unlike during the last several years, the town’s seasonal housing quarters filled up rapidly this year. Housing officials then called upon residents of the Roaring Fork Valley to make their spare rooms available, reports The Aspen Times. Many did.

Others are couch-surfing or floor-crashing, although they are certainly not the first to do so. Aspen’s director of housing, Tom McCabe, recalls many nights at the ground-floor level during his first winter in Aspen.

Eyes are being cast on the Aspen Skiing Co. to expand its housing for seasonal employees. The company adds 2,000 workers each winter, but has housing for only 200. Projects at Snowmass could yield 100 affordable housing units, including housing for seasonal employees. Local government officials also intend to make a strong push to get the company to build seasonal housing if and when it proposes a redevelopment of the base of the Buttermilk ski area.

Foreign students homeless

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. — Summit County has also experienced a number of workers from foreign countries, particularly from Argentina, Chile and Brazil, who have been unable to find places to stay.

The Summit Daily News breaks down the flood into three components. First, there are those who came via H-2B visas. That program restricts the person to one employer while in the United States. As such, their employers tend to make arrangements for housing.

But others use J-1 or student visas. Companies are set up to expedite this. The Daily News reports that the cost to the students is about $2,000, which pays for plane tickets and administration and yields the five-month visas.

Those with these J-1 visas usually have two options: Taking jobs in which housing is provided. Typically, however, wages are lower, such as at fast-food restaurants. But other J-1 students enrolled through another program, which costs $100 less at the outset, can find their own employment and housing.

The latter such students who showed up in November found housing, but those who came shortly before Christmas have floundered. One problem is that many homeowners want a six-month to one-year lease, something the students cannot commit to with visas that limit stays to a four months with one month tacked on for travel.

Among those participating in the program is the Copper Mountain Resort. However, the housing for employees is full for the first time since the winter of 2002. The resort recruited 100 J-1 students this past summer, but continues to see students arriving in search of both jobs and places to stay.

New Yorker ’toons at the Beav

BEAVER CREEK, Colo. — It seems like every ski town now has a film festival of some sort. But how many have cartooning festivals?

That’s the plan at Beaver Creek, which will host eight of the best-known cartoonists from The New Yorker magazine Jan. 6-8. It’s being called the "Humor on the Slopes" Cartooning Festival.

For Beaver Creek, it’s a good demographic fit, as nearly 10 per cent of all visitors come from New York City. Too, readers of The New Yorker tend to be highly educated and affluent. Ditto for visitors to Beaver Creek.

If the cartooning festival succeeds this year, it will be repeated.

Janet Leigh honoured

SUN VALLEY, Idaho — For understandable reasons, Sun Valley did not rename one of its beginner runs "Psycho." That’s the film for which Janet Leigh was best known. She played the role of Marion Crane, the victim of a stabbing in a shower stall.

Instead, the resort is calling the run "Leigh Lane." Her daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, who is also an actress and also a part-time resident of the Ketchum/Sun Valley area, helped dedicate the renamed run. Her mother, Curtis told the Idaho Mountain Express, deeply loved Sun Valley for 40 years. She died in October 2004.

Bow baseline sought

BANFF, Alberta — Activists are pushing for a more in-depth investigation on the health of the Upper Bow River.

The river’s tributaries are dammed, while both the transcontinental highway and railroads have created impacts, as have the various towns along its banks, including Banff and Canmore.

"We need an analysis of how cumulative impacts play a role in its health and how that health is affecting the ecosystem as a whole," Dan Bell, a flyfisherman, told the Rocky Mountain Outlook.

Vibrancy of the valley’s human settlements is dependent on health of the river ecosystem, Bell said. "We cannot afford to be so arrogant, or naïve, as to assume or hope to have a healthy, vibrant Bow River Valley until we have a healthy Bow River."

Among other problems, native fish have been extirpated in some sections.

In related news, Parks Canada, which operates Banff National Park is pressuring the railroad operator, Canadian Pacific, to remove all creosote-treated power poles discarded near water bodies. The railway discarded the 50-year-old poles because more advanced communications make them unnecessary.

Whitewater finally flows

GUNNISON, Colo. — Gunnison finally has water rights for its three-year-old whitewater park. The process cost the local Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District more than $500,000. Officials told the Crested Butte News that the settlement gives the local district the same decree they went to court to achieve, with a little less flows than they had requested.

The case had sparked a protracted legal battle similar to what Breckenridge and Vail went through. The state’s water establishment has been dubious about how much water is needed for the parks to operate efficiently. The whitewater park in question has six structures that enhance whitewater by creating waves, eddies, and holes.

Vail sending aid to Kashmir

AVON, Colo. — A man in the Vail area is trying to rally aid to the surviving victims of the earthquakes in Kashmir, which have already killed 73,000 and left three million people homeless.

"Three million people homeless – that’s bigger than (metropolitan) Denver," said Andrew Gallup. "That really resonated with me."

While sympathetic to the tsunami and hurricanes victims of the last year, he told the Vail Daily that the idea of 500,000 people living in tents in the snow struck a chord.

"I hope and think that Vail is a caring community," he said. "I think people here can relate to freezing to death. It’s been so cold lately," he added, alluding to below-zero temperatures of mid-December.

Gallup hopes to marshal aid to a farming village of 1,475 people called Chittabatta. The village needs 120 homes. Built to a size of 144 square feet, they can be constructed for $400. The annual family income in Kashmir is only $60, he notes.

He is trying to funnel aid through Relief International, a small Los Angeles based non-profit organization.

Silver Queen cabins go quickly

ASPEN, COLO. — After the ski season, the Aspen Skiing Co. is replacing its 18-year-old Silver Queen Gondola with shinier, larger cabins. What to do with the old?

The company put the word out that the old ones could be had for $550. In retrospect, the company could have charged a much higher price. All 165 cabins had been sold within 36 hours, reports The Aspen Times.

One buyer wanted all of them for use in "high-profile retail locations" around the United States. The ski company settled on selling him half. Other buyers were a mixture of local residents and visitors.

Rails to the roof

SALIDA, Colo. — The Chinese government can now claim the world’s highest railroad. A new line to Lhasa, Tibet, reaches the supernal elevation of 16,640 feet.

These new rails surpass those of a railroad in Peru that reach 15,698 feet, reports Salida’s Colorado Central Magazine.

In the United States, Colorado owns all the high-elevation records. While a cog railroad reaches the 14,110-foot summit of Pikes Peak, the highest regular rails are at an elevation of 11,000, on an excursion train out of Leadville.

In the same Leadville-Vail area, rails reach 10,239 feet at Tennessee Pass, although they have seen little use since 1997. As such, the Moffat Tunnel, located at Winter Park, has the distinction of being the highest standard-gauge through-route rails, reaching an elevation of 9,257 feet.

Living high in the Rockes

VAIL, Colo. — Doug Wooldridge has a lofty claim. He’s the highest year-round resident in the Vail area, with a home at 11,220 feet.

Wooldridge lives in Two Elk, the swank cafeteria atop Vail Mountain. Nobody had lived in the cafeteria when the original Two Elk burned as a result of arson in 1998, but the ski area operator, Vail Resorts, decided to put somebody in the rebuilt cafeteria to improve security.

It’s not an easy jaunt to the grocery store. "There’s no such thing as running down to the 7-Eleven for a quart of milk," he told the Vail Daily. On the other hand, he does get in 50 to 60 days of skiing a year, despite often working from 6 a.m. to 8 or 9 at night during winter. He supervises the 100 employees at the cafeteria and warming hut.

At first, with stark memories of the fire, Wooldridge says he was easily spooked at the cavernous facility, but has now become comfortable.

The Summit Daily News notes that in the wake of the 1998 fires, the other ski areas owned by Vail Resorts increased their security measures. Law enforcement officials say that while the potential of sabotage against a ski area has receded, the potential for other types of sabotage and also terrorism is "never off the radar screen."

Walgreens under scrutiny

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — Last year Steamboat Springs passed a law that mandates special scrutiny of big-box stores, defined as those of more than 12,000 square feet. Walgreens, with a planned store of not quite 15,000 square feet, is the first to undergo that increased scrutiny.

The Steamboat Pilot reports the developer plans dedicated employee housing. The upgraded plans also call for the Walgreens to look more upscale than the typical stores found in urban and suburban America: wood siding, timbered gables, and extensive use of stone veneer.

Federal money for remediation

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — Federal money will be used, probably next year, to remediate an old mine site on a creek above the town of Crested Butte. There are some worries that the town’s drinking water could be tainted by dangerous chemicals in what is described as a worst-case scenario.

The Standard Mine was operated from 1931 until 1977. Approximately 10 gallons of highly acidic water per minute flows from the mine into a tailings pile, which is retained by a non-engineered dam. The concern is that the dam could fail, causing the tainted water to flow into Crested Butte’s water intake system.

Impacts on wetlands debated

WOLF CREEK PASS, Colo. — Two federal agencies are sparring about the potential impact to wetlands if a virtual town is created next to the Wolf Creek ski area.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has authority for giving out permits when projects involve wetlands. However, the Environmental Protection Agency contends that it has ultimate authority under the Clean Water Act to determine what constitutes "waters of the United States," notes the Durango Telegraph.

Opponents suggest that Clear Creek Channel co-founder Red McCombs and others in the development team have been pulling strings in Washington D.C. in order to reduce the EPA’s involvement. EPA scientists tell the newspaper that they remain dubious that the project can be developed without impacting wetlands.

Opponents also remain dubious about a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruling that the project will not "appreciably reduce the likelihood of both the survival and recovery of the lynx" in Colorado. "We can put little faith in official federal agency pronouncements on the Village at Wolf Creek," said Jeff Berman, a founder of Colorado Wild, a watchdog group.

Berman said the Forest Service and other agencies have been trying to keep the public in the dark. He said he was reserving judgment on the lynx until he has seen how the biological opinion used to reach that conclusion was written and by who.

He noted that in at least one case in the past, the attorneys for McCombs had "ghost written" a document that was later adopted by a federal agency.