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Foresters say fire threat overstated

By Allen Best SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. – The fears of catastrophic fire resulting from the bark beetle infestation are somewhat overstated, say forestry scientists.

By Allen Best

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. – The fears of catastrophic fire resulting from the bark beetle infestation are somewhat overstated, say forestry scientists.

“There’s a popular misconception that the bugs turn the trees red and that equals more fires,” said Wayne Shepperd, a silviculturalist with the U.S. Forest Service. “Red trees do not appreciably increase the fire risk.”

In other words, the risk of ignition is no greater.

However, for the first year or two, when the dead trees still have red needles high in their crowns, the risk of a fire spread by crowns — typically, the most volatile type of forest fire — could be high, said another forest scientist, Mark Finney, a Montana-based fire researcher with the U.S. Forest Service. With “mile upon mile of trees dying within a short time,” Summit County and other areas hit hard by bark beetles could be at temporarily high risk, Finney told the Summit Daily News.

But Finney nonetheless believes a more nuanced discussion about forests and treatment options is needed. “All this talk, all this worry that we have an emergency might just go away in a year or two on its own,” he said.

The foresters say the greatest risk of fire may come 20 to 30 years after a bug infestation, when the dead trees are on the ground. In that case, super-hot, earth-baking fires could result.

“Mountain pine beetle epidemics may most significantly influence fire conditions 20 to 30 years into the future if big accumulations of large-diameter fuels on the forest floor create severe heating, consume the organic layer of the soil profile, sterilize the soil thus impeding forest regeneration,” said Dave Tippets, spokesman for the Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station.


A matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’

GRAND LAKE, Colo. – The headline on the Sky-Hi News was not “ If the big fire comes,” but rather “when.” The town, although located next to Colorado’s second-largest natural body of water, is located amid a large forest of dead and drying trees. With no week-long 40-below weather in decades to kill them, the bark beetles are now killing lodgepole pine that are as small as five inches in diameter.

To complicate matters, Grand Lake is located at the end of a road. Not even Aspen, Crested Butte or Telluride, which are all located at seasonal dead-ends, are so backed into a corner. As well, the mountain topography has yielded a street system that is anything but rectangular.

With all this in mind, the Grand Lake Fire Protection District is now creating a fire-protection plan. The plan partly intends to address the issue of defensible space. But planners also hope to figure out how firefighters will respond when, or perhaps if, a big fire does occur. Certainly, given prevailing winds in the area, Grand Lake does lie in harm’s way.

Not least, the document aims to provide planning for evacuation of the town in event of a major forest fire, something that is being talked about in Vail, another mountain town located near and among dead and drying forests.

The Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 encouraged such plans, but provided no money directly. However, the federal government, through grants from the National Park Service and other agencies, is paying most of the $50,000 cost for the Grand Lake planning.

A similar plan is also being contemplated in the Winter Park-Fraser area, which is located about 30 miles south. The Steamboat Pilot & Today also reports similar plans in the works in the Steamboat and Craig areas.


Candidates shy away from parties

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. – It’s election season in Jackson Hole, as everywhere else, and trends analyst Jonathan Schechter has been studying the advertisements on behalf of the 10 candidates for county and state offices.

What he noticed was that none of the advertisements he inspected mentioned affiliations with Democrat or Republican parties. “Judging by these ads, the candidates’ near-unanimous view is that identifying their parties won’t help — and will probably hurt — their chances of victory,” says Schechter, writing in the Jackson Hole News & Guide.

Democrats in Wyoming have always been a distinct minority, but Republicans in Teton County, which is where Jackson Hole is located, got pushed around hard in the 2004 election.

But if a political party isn’t worth mentioning to voters, it serves no purpose, Schechter observes. “Since the current situation can’t last, either the existing parties will fundamentally transform themselves, or new parties will arise to replace the current, failing models.”


Bus drivers needed

ASPEN, Colo. – Bus drivers and mechanics working for Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, which serves the Aspen-Glenwood Springs-Rifle area, are getting pay raises.

Starting pay for drivers has been bumped up to $16.13 an hour; before, it was $15. Top pay is $22.56. For mechanics, the new pay range will be $17.70 per hour up to $30 per hour. All are eligible for merit pay raises of about 4 per cent, plus bonuses.

The Aspen Times explains that the bus agency may have to reduce service if it can’t attract more employees. It currently has 120 drivers, but needs another 20 for winter. Many employees have defected to construction jobs or to jobs in the oil and gas boom to the west near Rifle.


Pellet stove part of war on terror

SILVERTON, Colo. – U.S. Rep. John Salazar showed up last Friday at Silverton’s Avon Hotel to say a few words about a new fireplace. It might seem like a trivial thing, but the fireplace really had to do with issues that were both local and global.

The fireplace manages to heat the 2,500-square-foot first floor of the hotel, which is now used as headquarters for the Mountain Research Institute. It consumes pellets made from the piñon pine trees on the nearby Uncompaghre Plateau of Western Colorado that have been dying. As such, environmental advocates cite it as a good example of regional alternative-energy development.

But Salazar said the issue was broader than just the forests of Western Colorado, but really one of how the United States gets its energy supplies. “We cannot drill our way out of dependence on foreign oil,” said Salazar, an opponent of drilling in the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge. He also went on to note that U.S. dollars used to purchase oil in the Middle East had financed terrorism.

In Silverton, nearly all energy is imported from the outside world. The town has no natural gas connections, so is supplied by propane.


Silverton bids farewell to historian

SILVERTON, Colo. – Silverton has lost its historian, Allen Nossaman, who died at the age of 66 from heart and diabetes problems.

Nossaman had purchased the Silverton Standard and the Miner in 1963, and he continued to edit it until 1972. In successive years he was also a judge and janitor, county planner and railroad agent. As well, he was an ambulance driver and bass-drum player in the local brass band, among other positions.

But it was history for which he will best be remembered. While still publishing the newspaper, he decided that Silverton’s past had been “reduced to generalities,” and set out to correct that deficiency, explains the Durango Herald. He subsequently chronicled everything about Silverton, from its miners to its haberdashers, and from its snowslides to its strawberries, all with precise and unerring detail in a three-volume set of “Many More Mountains.”

Nossaman, said Duane Smith, a historian from Durango, was the “Homer of the San Juans.”


Voters asked to dig deep

CARBONDALE, Colo. – Voters in Carbondale this November will be asked if the town should issue up to $1.8 million in bonds to construct and build two large-scale solar energy systems. The action, if approved, is believed to be unique in Colorado.

The town, which is located 30 miles west of Aspen, already has several small solar collectors, including a 4-kilowatt system on the roof of the Town Hall, and another 6-kilowatt system at the picnic shelter. The proposal before voters would yield two new installations, with altogether 250 kilowatts of production.

Solar is generally believed to have a 20-year payback, as the infrastructure costs are considerable, making the electricity far more expensive than that produced by burning coal. However, Colorado voters in 2004 approved a constitutional amendment that requires electrical utilities to sharply increase the amount of power they sell that is obtained from renewable sources. That, in turn, means that Carbondale would help get financing and a market for the power from Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest electrical supplier.


Bookstore needs subsidy

ASPEN, Colo. – Katherine Thalberg died earlier this year in Aspen, leaving behind the legacy of a business called Explore Booksellers. It is a delightful place, located in an old house on Highway 82 just a few blocks from the courthouse, with a trove of well-selected titles well matched with Aspen’s intellectually vigorous residents and visitors. But its future was immediately cast in doubt.

Thalberg’s descendants want to unload the bookstore, and her widower, former Aspen Mayor Bill Stirling — who apparently was not part of the inheritance (they married rather late in life) — has asked for the City of Aspen to “rescue” the business. Thalberg’s daughters want $5.2 million for the store.

While the Aspen City Council indicated it would help out, community sentiment seems skeptical. Beyond some peculiarities of the urgent plea, there is the broader question of how much city governments should prop up individual businesses. In an editorial, The Aspen Times explained that it couldn’t help but feel “a little uncomfortable” with the idea of city government becoming the bookstore owner.

In a parallel case, the Isis Theatre was “saved” when a mixture of private and non-profit foundations came to the table with $7.5 million. The city’s role was limited to that of financier. As a municipality, Aspen was able to secure “substantially lower” interest rates for the project because of its exemplary credit worthiness.


Howling wolves frighten men

KETCHUM, Idaho – Two employees of the U.S. Forest Service were evacuated by helicopter from the Sawtooth Wilderness in September after encountering a pack of howling wolves. The pair was new to Idaho and apparently had no prior experience with wolves. The two men said that wherever they went, the wolves seemed to be nearby.

Steve Nadeau, the wolf program supervisor for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, downplayed the real threat to the men, as did others consulted by the Idaho Mountain Express. “Holy moly — sounds to me like someone’s read too many of Grimms’ fairy tales,” said Nadeau.

Lynne Stone, a resident of the town of Stanley, who regularly observes wolves in the backcountry, said when wolves howl, “The echo can come from 360 degrees.” This is particularly true in the mountains, where there is a lot of rock. “They probably weren’t surrounded by wolves,” she said.

Ed Waldapfel, a spokesman for the Sawtooth National Forest, said seeing and hearing wolves in the backcountry of the Sawtooth and Boise national forests is not uncommon. “These guys were not at risk, and it’s too bad they didn’t take time to enjoy one of the greatest experiences you could ever have in terms of observing wildlife,” he said.

The men had first observed the wolves chasing a bull elk across a meadow.


Climax mine to reopen

LEADVILLE, Colo. – The mining company Phelps Dodge continues to methodically go about the steps that may well yield renewed operations at the Climax Mine, which is located at an elevation of more than 11,300 feet, halfway between Leadville and Copper Mountain.

The mine has what is believed to the world’s largest stone-based deposit of molybdenum, a mineral used for hardening of steel and other purposes. The mine has operated sporadically since World War II, and in the 1970s employed 3,000 people from the Leadville, Vail, and Summit County areas. It was closed in 1981 after prices of molybdenum plunged, but molybdenum prices in the last several years have surged, and are expected to remain high.

Gordon D. Stinnnett, the senior supervisor, told the Leadville Herald-Democrat that the goal remains to get the mine operating again by the end of 2009.


Science lab achieves platinum LEED

LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – A $24 million facility that includes a laboratory, classrooms, and museum along the shores of Lake Tahoe has been opened. The facility was conceived by Charles Goldman, a scientist who for more than 40 years has been working to make sure that pollution does not unalterably destroy the prized clarity of Lake Tahoe.

“The Washoe (tribe of AmerIndians) took great care of the lake, and we now have inherited the responsibility for it,” Goldman said at grand-opening ceremony. “I am guardedly optimistic about the future. I say guardedly, because we have to keep our shoulder to the wheel.”

Visitors to the building are expected to be interested in how researchers collect and analyze data, but also in the building itself, reports the Tahoe Daily Tribune. Called a “green” building, because it uses recycled materials and is energy efficient, it may be the first of its kind to receive the LEED platinum certification, the highest eco-rating a building can garner.


Jackson Hole booming with babies

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. – The birth rate in Jackson Hole is steady, neither going up nor going down. The birth rate of Caucasians is also steady, not going up or going down. Yet the hospital in Jackson has a steadily increasing number of births.

So what’s the story here? Two things. First, the hospital is getting more expectant mothers from adjoining areas: the Pinedale area that is booming with gas and oil development, and the exurban areas west of Teton Pass, where many Jackson Hole workers live.

Also at work is that more Hispanics are having babies. No Hispanic births were recorded in 1990, but 100 were last year, nearly a fourth of all babies.

Meanwhile, Aspen is also seeing more babies. The hospital there plans to spend $6.5 million to triple the size of the maternity ward, which has remained little changed since 1977.