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Backcountry fumes and fuming

By Allen Best MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. – From Jackson Hole to Aspen’s Richmond Hill to California’s Sierra Nevada, backcountry snowmobilers and skiers are always going at it. It’s a dispute of horsepower vs. manpower, says Mammoth’s The Sheet.

By Allen Best

MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. – From Jackson Hole to Aspen’s Richmond Hill to California’s Sierra Nevada, backcountry snowmobilers and skiers are always going at it.

It’s a dispute of horsepower vs. manpower, says Mammoth’s The Sheet.

It’s a noise issue: from the snowmobiles themselves, and in the complaints from skiers and snowshoers. One side spews fumes, the other side fumes.

“They’re noisy, they smell, they track up the powder, and it’s a very different experience,” backcountry skier Forrest McCarthy told the Jackson Hole News & Guide.

Skiers also resent snowmobilers who can access backcountry powder many miles from the road within minutes, then track it up in a few seconds. “What’s taken me two hours to get up, a snowmobiler has gone up in five minutes and it’s ruined,” says Jeramie Prine.

The spotlighted dispute in Wyoming concerns Togwottee Pass, located northeast of Jackson. There, backcountry skiers want to limit areas where snowmobilers are allowed. Snowmobilers think there’s plenty for everybody. “The vast majority of it, skiers don’t go there anyway,” says Jeff Golightly, a lodge manager who conducts snowmobile tours.

In California, snowmobiler Jeremy Stoehr says he can’t figure out the skiers. “We get bad reps as gear heads and fossil-fuel burners, but they’re the ones who always start the confrontations, and it never makes any sense to me. We’ve got 100 horsepower, and they’ve got ski poles. Who’s going to win that one?”

Meanwhile, at Yellowstone National Park, air quality continues to improve after three years of federal limits on snowmobile use, reports the Billings Gazette. Proposed new regulations would continue the temporary restrictions, which require use of the newer, quieter, less polluting four-stroke engines. Last year, more than 13,000 snowmobiles entered the park, along with a record 1,401 snowcoaches.


New gondola at Sun Valley

KETCHUM, Idaho – Although North America’s first destination ski resort community, Ketchum continues to be something less than lively. But, writes Lee Chubb, in a letter published in the Idaho Mountain Express, “It’s worth noting that Ketchum didn’t use to be that way. We once had nightlife on a par with any other ski town you care to name.”

Chubb proposes a “real performing arts hall” as well as an outdoor venue, which he describes as cultural facilities of a world-class resort.

Meanwhile, the Sun Valley ski area, is looking at expanded snowmaking and a new gondola. Wally Huffman, general manager of the Sun Valley Co., said the gondola’s primary purpose is to allow non-skiers to access an on-mountain restaurant called Roundhouse. The gondola would also allow year-round use of the restaurant.


Teachers get pay hike

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. – Teachers in Jackson Hole this year got a whopping increase in salaries. Starting salaries are now at $50,000, nearly double. Average increases were 32 per cent.

The intent was to give teachers enough money to allow them to buy single-family homes, reducing the turnover in the school district.

In fact, teachers are now paid so well that some no longer can qualify for government-subsidized housing, but still earn too little to be able to afford the free-market housing.

Something similar is found at the hospital, St. John’s Medical Center, where 161 staff members make between $60,000 and $120,000.

These statistics mirror a widening gap. Wages have increased 22 per cent during the last seven years, but average home-sale prices 79 per cent.


Jackson Hole says no to coal

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. – Early this winter, residents of Truckee debated loudly whether to contract for electricity from a coal-fired power plant being built southwest of Salt Lake City, near Delta, Utah. They finally said no — although without knowing where electricity for a growing population will come from and at what cost.

Now, directors of Lower Valley Energy, a co-operative that serves Jackson Hole and several other valleys along the Idaho-Wyoming border, have also rejected participation in that Utah power plant. It was, said Fred Borg, a director of the rural cooperative, “what our owner-members want.

“If there is any possible way we can go green, then we have got to go green,” he told the Jackson Hole News & Guide. “No matter how clean coal gets, you’ve still got CO2 (carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas) and you’ve still got mercury.”

During the next quarter-century the region expects to see demand grow from 80 megawatt-hours annually to 123 megawatt hours.

If electricity made from burning coal is cheap and dependable, it may not remain cheap. In Wyoming, and across much of the country, people are talking about the possibility of a tax on carbon, including coal. Ted Ladd, another director of Lower Valley Energy, said consultants warned of a potential tax of $12 per ton of coal, but he’s heard estimates range to $60 per ton.

“Even if we see a low tax in the near future, it could change dramatically in 2009 (after the next national election) if there is a shift in the national and political landscape.”

Lower Valley Energy will not need the increased electricity immediately. In the meantime, it hopes to dampen demand by encouraging technology improvements in homes and businesses. As well, directors are talking about alternative energy sources, such as by tapping geothermal sources, but also doing something that in the past has received a chilly reception in Jackson Hole, installing hydro turbines in a dam located in Grand Teton National Park. Opponents say such things do not belong in national parks.


New coal plant debated

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – Gunnison and Crested Butte residents continue to debate whether their local electrical co-operative should contract for power for new coal-fired power plants in Kansas being planned by an electrical wholesaler called Tri-State Generation and Transmission. Both the Crested Butte councilors and the Gunnison County commissioners have advised the contract be rejected.

The Crested Butte News reports that both sides in the debate seem to agree that change is needed in how we produce electricity, but differ on how to get there. Directors seem inclined to follow the lead of another Colorado rural co-op, Durango-based La Plata Electric, which believes it can better influence policy by remaining within the Tri-State fold. Tri-State provides power to 44 electrical co-operatives in New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming and some adjoining states.

But Glenwood Springs-based Holy Cross Electric several years ago broke away from Tri-State, and now Delta-Montrose Electric has also refused pushing harder down the coal path.

San Miguel Power Association is still undecided whether to commit to the extended contract. The Telluride Watch reports that the organization’s general manager, Bobby Blair, is urging his group remain with Tri-State. Tri-State, he said, is now looking at renewables, mostly likely a wind farm. “We have been asking for it, asking for it, asking for it. We need to get on their side instead of beating them over the head with it.”

Some speakers at a meeting in Gunnison said Tri-State needs more beating.

Samuel Sorkin, of Gunnison, said the action on global warming begins at the grassroots level. “The message must go upward, he said. “Tri-State won’t send it down. We’re going to be the catalyst.”

“I urge you to vote no on this proposal so we can be on the right side of history,” said Baile Griffith, of Crested Butte.

But Dave Houghton, a director of the Gunnison County Electric Association, agrees with others in Southwest Colorado in arguing that to get Tri-State to change. it must be from within the organization.

Many conservation advocates believe Tri-State has done too little to encourage reduction in demand, by such things as encouraging use of compact fluorescent and other, more extensive technology-based methods. But Jim Barron, a Gunnison resident, compared the light bulbs to “using a Band-Aid to treat cancer.”


Town looking for spare change

TELLURIDE, Colo. – March may be a busy time in most ski towns, but activity is even more frantic this year in Telluride. On Feb. 21, a jury ruled that the 570-acre parcel at the town’s entrance is worth $50 million if the town intends to proceed with its condemnation, and the deadline for paying the piper is imminent.

Town residents have voted by large margins three times since 1993 to insist upon open space. Last year they rejected a compromise that would have permitted 24 large houses, as well as some affordable housing, with the remaining 91 per cent of the land in open space.

While $26 million is available from the town treasury, another $24 million is needed in private donations As of early March, $13 million had been raised, with $11 million to go, reports The Telluride Watch.

The deadline is mid-March, which town attorneys are trying to get extended to May 21. Attorneys for the landowner, the San Miguel Valley Corporation, which is essentially owned by Neal Blue, dismiss this legal manoeuvring as nothing more than stalling.

The case appears to have widened the cleavage between two camps in the Telluride area. One side is argued by Seth Cagin, publisher of the Telluride Watch, who claims that the rejection of the compromise measure amounts to environmental fundamentalism run amok. Telluride, he says, needs the land more for housing its work force than for open space preservation.

Loudly disagreeing with Cagin is Phil Miller, a retired Forest Service employee who moved to Telluride many years ago. Even with the affordable housing, the addition of the monstrously big homes is a net loss for Telluride, he argues, because of the additional employees needed to service homes of 10,000 feet and more.

“We aren’t elitist playboys and playgirls,” he says. “We just want to preserve the uniqueness of our town besides preventing our narrow little valley from becoming an exhaust-filled urban cancer with no room for the deer, elk, coyotes, prairie dogs, and easels we often see here.”

His son, Bryan, believes Cagin’s argument is that “because Telluride has become a wealthy community, we should no longer care about preserving the natural beauty that surrounds us.” That, he insists, is a fundamental misrepresentation of the story.

Meanwhile, The Watch editor, Marta Tarbell, parrots the famous line from French queen Marie Antoinette. “Let them eat dirt,” she says, “which is the only thing Telluride will be able to afford after paying for the open space.”

Vail Resorts going ‘green’

VAIL, Colo. – Green is the color anyway you look at the $1 billion redevelopment planned by Vail Resorts at the base of Vail Mountain. The project as configured could yield extraordinarly high real-estate product in a town where prices have already hit $3,000 per square foot. The project will include one million square feet.

But the company is also branding it as a “green” real estate development, and plans to seek the silver LEED standard, the second highest of four categories.

Rob Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts, said the company will seek a silver certification in the LEED program, the de facto brand for green architecture. If approved, the project will be the largest LEED-certified project for resort use in North America. It would also be one the first proposed projects under a new “LEED’s Neighborhood Development.”

As he did last summer when announcing Vail’s purchase of wind energy, Katz described the green-building plan in vague terms as “the right thing to do” and a way of “connecting with our customers.” Visitors and real-estate buyers in mountain environments, he said, expect environmentally correct action.

Just what makes it the environmentally correct action, however, he did not precisely say. LEED programs allow buildings to accumulate points based on a wide variety of criteria, such as use of paints that do not bother people, to water conservation, lighting, and — increasingly — energy conservation.

Randy Udall, an energy activist based in Carbondale, said Vail’s plans to seek a silver LEED rating for its project is significant — unlike the purchase of wind power last year.

“This is much more significant than their purchase of wind energy credits. This is something real,” he said.

Udall believes that purchase of wind energy credits, as opposed to actually getting wind turbines, provides the illusion of doing something. Other activists, however, say that purchase of wind credits will eventually drive creation of wind farms.

Although Vail has generally skirted from mentioning “global warming” in its new green initiatives, Udall is encouraged that maybe this is an indication of a changed direction.

Colorado’s ski industry, he says, has very good reason to feel threatened by the rapidly changing climate. “If this is a sign that this is being understood at Vail Resorts, that’s great, because I think it’s very important for the ski industry to lead on this,” he said. “And Vail Resorts on this environmental issue has not led. This would be great if they would do this.”

Two issues are paramount in the proposal. First, where Vail Resorts plans to install employee housing that is expected under new ordinances being discussed in Vail. Second, a major issue in Vail remains the lack of public parking. Vail has occasionally severe parking shortages, particularly on weekends, when the major parking structures overflow, yielding day skiers parking along the frontage road paralleling Interstate 70 — last Saturday more than five miles.

Jim Lamont, who represents a large number of Vail property owners, said Vail Resorts has agreed in concept to parking and affordable housing commitments, “but the devil is in the details, and those remain to be negotiated.” The company expects to submit formal plans to town officials within the next several weeks.

Those details aside, Lamont said he sees this project being a significant stride toward his goal of creating a “world-class resort city.”

The location for the new base village is west of the existing LionsHead Mall, an area now occupied by an office building, the ski company’s maintenance facilities, and an abandoned gas station. Not included is Vail sewage treatment plant.


Weaving community fabric

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. – How can a community retain that fabric of cohesion when it is bursting at its britches with new people? People in the ski towns and resort valleys of the West have been asking that probably since the beginning, but especially of late.

In Basalt, for example, town officials have wondered how they can better reach out to two very different groups: second-home owners and Latino immigrants.

In Steamboat, a recent gathering of the Yampa Valley Community Alliance grappled with that same issue. The discussions, reported the Steamboat Pilot & Today, centered around the importance of embracing change, the impact of wealth, and promoting a “sense of community.”

“The wealth is going to accelerate so fast in the next 18 months,” said Noreen Moore, business resource director for the Routt County Economic Development Cooperative.”

Moore said better dialogue is needed among newcomers, retirees, and part-timers. Another speaker argued for more co-mingling among different neighborhoods, including more community dinners. Group members even discussed the idea of knocking on the doors of new multi-million dollar homes to meet their owners and help assimilate them into the community.

Luther Propst, executive director of the Sonoran Institute, a Tucson-based non-profit, said conservation and good growth management correlate with economic prosperity. He also noted that many communities are struggling to maintain that sense of community even as they look at future growth: the population of the West is expected to grow 50 per cent by 2030.


Of big box & small mall

CARBONDALE, Colo. – The Carbondale community continues to debate whether it can abide an 80,000 square-foot Home Depot in its midst. Big national chain grocery stores in 60,000-square-foot boxes seem to be OK.

Town voters have previously rejected an unspecified national-chain big box, fearing the small-town feel that they enjoy would be lost. But the developer, Rich Shierburg, this time is getting counsel from the Rocky Mountain Institute about how to make the project a prototype for low-energy use buildings that could be copied elsewhere. Carbondale is a hotbed for global warming activists.

Any project would include a big, 60,000-square-foot grocery store. Any project would also have a mixed area of smaller retail stores and homes. But Shierburg predicts Home Depot’s presence would yield Carbondale double the tax revenues, $1.2 million, from the project.

Three-quarters of the business for the complex, reports the Valley Journal, is expected to come from the upvalley communities from Carbondale to Aspen.

Meanwhile, town residents also heard from a Washington D.C.-based economist and writer, Michael Shuman, who proposes what he calls a “Small-Mart Revolution.”

Shuman advised the town against banning big boxes, but instead urged that towns figure out how to compete with them with such things as shop-local campaigns and by recruiting creative entrepreneurs.

Small towns benefit from locally owned shops in that more of the money spent locally stays local. With national franchises, much of the money is removed from the community.

Shuman also urged the town consider a tax on services, to move away from depending upon sales tax economies. No such service tax has so far been applied in Colorado, and Carbondale officials are uncertain whether it would be legal.

Meanwhile, Home Depot wants into Carbondale badly enough to up its ante.

“Our budget would allow us to extend a community contribution” to the town for housing or other necessities, said Home Depot representative Jim Spitzer. “I’m not here to say the checkbook is wide open, but we do have some funds available.”

The Valley Journal reports that Spitzer also pledged willingness to use varied roof lines, gables, and pedestrian friendly trellises, benches and public art in order to get into Carbondale.

The underlying reality for Carbondale is that, while it remains a charming, prototypical small town, it is also growing rapidly, but much of the shopping is done about 12 miles away, at a huge 400,000-square-foot shopping complex called Glenwood Meadows.


New county for Tahoe-Truckee?

LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Talk has resurfaced of drawing up a new county in the Truckee-Lake Tahoe area. This resort area is located in counties separated from their county seats by the crest of the Sierra Nevada. Tahoe is in Nevada County, while Truckee is in Placer County.

This isn’t the first time for such talk. Several decades ago, the California Legislature approved a bill that would have carved out a Tahoe County. But then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it, because of the potential for fostering fragmentation of other counties with perhaps less good reason.

Ted Owens, who represents the Tahoe area in Nevada, says creating a new county would be a “monumental task.” Another official estimates the realignment would take 15 to 20 years if a group dedicated to the cause undertakes it.

The Tahoe Daily News reports there are several reasons for opposition. First, people in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada rather like the idea of having the mountain resorts in their counties.

Too, it’s not clear that people in the resort areas would actually like having their own county once they fully examined the numbers. Snow-removal costs are high, and at least in the case of Placer County, the mountain resorts may cost more to service than they provide in tax revenues. And finally, a larger county may be stronger, whereas a Truckee-Tahoe county might be weaker because of dependency on one economic sector.

The two counties currently vote Republican reliably, but the resort-anchored areas of Truckee-Tahoe are just as reliable in their Democratic votes. A Truckee official, Barbara Green, said one theory is that the closer a population lives to a body of water, the more environmental its voting habits.

Similar discussions have been going on in Colorado for decades. The most persistent questioning regards Eagle County, which is dominated by Vail but also includes a portion of the Aspen-dominated Roaring Fork Valley.

While some people in the southwest corner town of Basalt have agitated to be removed from Eagle County and included in Aspen’s Pitkin County, they were snubbed in 1999 by Pitkin County, which saw it as a net loss.


Park City sips from next basin

SUMMIT COUNTY, Utah – When it comes to water, Park City and other housing developments in western Summit County have nearly reached their limits to growth. Park City has virtually no watershed upstream, a situation rivaled among Colorado ski towns perhaps only by that of Winter Park.

With that in mind, Park City and Summit County and two water districts are bearing down on an agreement that would deliver 5,000 acre-feet of water annually from a reservoir located 17 miles away on the south-facing flanks of the Uintah Range.

This agreement would ensure sufficient water for the growth anticipated in the Park City area for the next 40 years, said Jerry Gibbs, public works director for Park City.

Park City is unusual among ski towns of the West in that it gets 40 per cent of its water from tunnels in old silver mines. Nearby Salt Lake City also gets some of its water from those mines.


Hospital already adding beds

FRISCO, Colo. – Opened only 15 months ago, the new hospital for Summit County, called the St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, is already looking to augment its existing 25 beds. The hospital has been at full capacity on repeated occasions, hospital administrator Paul Chodkowski tells the Summit Daily News. Another hospital representative said the growth in volume was not surprising. The beds are being added in previously “shelled” but undeveloped space.


Museum will focus on electrical story

DURANGO, Colo. – Although Telluride can lay claim to the world’s first long-distance transmission of alternating current, beginning in 1891, Durango quickly embraced the new technology. By1892, it had a power plant that burned coal to produce electricity and then transmitted to street lights using AC lines.

The plant in the 1930s was converted to burn natural gas, then production of electricity was abandoned altogether during the 1970s. But Durango for several years has been plotting how to create a visitor-friendly museum devoted to power generation and use. The Durango Telegraph reports the museum is expected to open in 2009.

The building is the oldest known surviving AC power plant.

While reviewing the history of power production, museum visitors will be invited to examine the role of electrical power in our lives today — and consider the future. There will be an exhibit devoted to a hydrogen-powered race car, for example. Building techniques that result in low utility bills — and causing minimal use of energy — will be showcased. A solar power carousel is also planned.

The Rocky Mountain Institute has been retained to help retrofit the building to become energy efficient.


Fraser has hands on icebox title

FRASER, Colo. – The story appears to be all over except the shouting… or is it shivering? Fraser insists it won’t surrender the title of “Icebox of the Nation,” a nickname it began using in 1956. But International Falls, Minn., says it got the trademark for the name in 1986 and wants it back.

Fraser officials last year began checking the website for the U.S. Trademark Office, and discovered that International Falls had failed to reapply for the trademark 11 years ago.

After Fraser filed its new trademark application, International Falls professed indignation, and demanded that Fraser abandon its “pretended claim” for the title. The resolution adopted by town officials there called for the manner to deliver the request by snowball, if necessary.

For its part, reports the Winter Park Manifest, Fraser has sent several Fraser “Icebox of the Nation” T-shirts and one plastic penguin.

This story about cold was predictably hot, getting play from everybody from National Public Radio to The Los Angeles Times to the Fox television network.