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Mountain News:

Dust in the wind, stories in the snow

SILVERTON, Colo. — Are cattle grazing in Arizona causing snow near Silverton, Crested Butte and Aspen to melt more rapidly during spring? That interesting line of conjecture was submitted at a recent meeting of geographers held in Denver.

Everybody who skis the backcountry or who has dug a "hasty pit" to study the stability of a snowpack has seen layers of dust left by winter storms. The dust can look like the layers of frosting in a cake.

Thomas Painter, a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, said that as the snow melts, the exposed dust layer forms a dark surface crust, somewhat like a dirty roadside snowbank. This crust soaks up nearly twice as much sunlight as uncontaminated snow.

Computer models predict the dirty snow melts 18 days earlier than white snow, although that has not yet been proved, a scientist told the Rocky Mountain News.

Six of seven dust storms in the San Juans and Elk Mountains studied by Painter’s team were traced to northeastern Arizona, mainly to grazing lands on the Navajo Reservation. Painter blames cattle grazing. He further points to tubes of sediment from the bottom of mountain lakes in southwestern Colorado that indicate the red desert dust began flowing into Colorado 150 years ago. Cattle began proliferating in the Four Corners region about the same time, he said.

Or did they? Sheep are more common than cattle, and in any event, livestock grazing probably did not begin until somewhat later. However, a regional event called the Little Ice Age, which was at a time of wetter and colder weather, ended about 150 years ago.

But why does any of this matter? Well, if temperatures warm in the West, conditions may become drier. If they are drier, that means more dust – and more dust means snow disappears more rapidly in the San Juans.

If snow disappears more rapidly, then the bare ground will soak up and absorb heat more readily, further increasing the temperature – and in turn affecting local vegetation, from trees to alpine wildflowers. And if the vegetation changes, then the animals that browse them will… Well, you get the idea.

Steamboat’s aging population

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — The greying of ski towns across the West would be a surprise only to Rip Van Winkle. Through the 1990s, the biggest jump in proportionate population growth rates in Breckenridge, Vail, and many other places was in the 60-plus age bracket. Younger people were still more common, but they ceased being the overwhelming majority.

Now, in the new century, the bulge is becoming even more conspicuous as baby boomers within ski towns get ever more grey hair while baby boomers from elsewhere begin to retire to ski towns. This trend is being noted in Steamboat Springs, where the retirement-age population is increasing at a rate six times the national average.

Meanwhile, the population of Gen Xers is not growing nearly as fast, and, in fact, might be declining. For a number of years school enrolment in Steamboat Springs and even its bedroom communities has been lagging. While there was a slight growth this year in one of the bedroom areas, near Oak Creek and Yampa, the same general trend holds true. Gen Xers from many ski towns seemed to have moved to the cities rather than endure the great expense of raising families in an expensive resort environment.

Steamboat Springs continues to grapple with the implications of these demographic wrinkles. A city planner, Tom Leeson, told The Steamboat Pilot that a task force on growth is looking at the rate of growth, why it is occurring, whether it is a problem and what tools the community is using or can use to help manage it.

In looking at the greying of Steamboat, the local task force wonders whether one consequence will be a less vibrant community. Don’t get the wrong idea here – grey-haired people in ski towns are by no means somnambulant sorts. Leisure for many is 100 days of skiing each winter, not a rocking chair. But, for the most part, they are having a good time, not engaged in running a community.

In Steamboat, answers are not yet clear, but the task force is reported to be considering what can be done to encourage a more year-round employment base, to retain younger, child-bearing people.

Affordable housing selling quickly

EDWARDS, Colo. — Yet more evidence has arrived that the delivery of hundreds of new lower-end housing units in the Eagle Valley is being sopped up by a hot and hungry demand.

All but a handful of the 282 townhomes, condominiums and single-family homes that are being erected at the Miller Ranch, a project in Edwards, located 10 miles west of Vail, have been sold. This comes a year earlier than had been expected, reports the Vail Daily.

After the terrorist attacks on Manhattan and Washington D.C. in 2001, construction of speculative second-home mansions ground to a halt in the Eagle Valley. Instead, several major lower-income projects were begun in Vail, Avon, Edwards, and Eagle. Those construction starts were accompanied in some cases by warnings of an affordable housing glut.

The units, which range from $130,000 to $240,000, will not be completed until next year. Eagle County government is the co-developer.

The homes are restricted to those working full-time in Eagle County or who earn at least 75 per cent of their income from Eagle County businesses. As well, buyers must live there full time. Appreciation is capped at 6 per cent per year.

Jerome won’t become condos

ASPEN, Colo. — The purchaser of Aspen’s storied Hotel Jerome does not plan to ride the most popular wave of the moment in ski resorts by converting the hotel’s 91 rooms into time-share condominiums.

The current owner, Jim McManus, who is 71, said his children did not want to manage the hotel, nor did his wife. As such, he entertained an offer from the Gaylord family, which owns the famous Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. McManus said he decided to sell to the Gaylords partly because of their pledge not to turn the hotel into condominiums. "I’m totally opposed to fractional ownership," McManus told The Aspen Times. "Aspen needs good hotel rooms.

McManus also chose the Gaylords, who are doing business as Oklahoma Publishing, because they have the money to do renovations. They have spent $185 million in renovations at the Broadmoor in recent years, helping continue its 29-year reign as a AAA five-diamond resort. The Gaylords have pledged to spend $10 million in renovations at the Hotel Jerome to complement renovations of $4.5 million already underway.

A-Basin reacts to growth

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. — While business has been flat at many ski areas across North America, it continues to grow in places close to major metropolitan areas such as Denver. Among those ski areas in this new wave of growth is Arapahoe Basin.

Ironically, while Arapahoe Basin is among Colorado’s oldest ski areas, it stagnated for several decades. New owners have installed a snowmaking system and also partnered with Vail Resorts on season passes. As a result, skier days have grown to 300,000 annually during the last three years.

"We’re already extreme busy right now, and it’s projected to get even busier," said Alan Henceroth, director of mountain operations. "You hear a lot of talk about how flat the ski industry is, but that is not true here."

The Summit Daily news explains that A-Basin wants to build a mid-mountain restaurant and also expand into an adjacent, mostly above-timberline area called Montezuma Bowl. While A-Basin currently has 490 skiable acres, the expansion would yield another 300 to 400. It would be used from mid-January through May.

Henceroth said the expansion would serve as a "bigger and better" marketing tool to help boost skier numbers further. Like other resorts located along Colorado’s Front Range, A-Basin hopes to capitalize on the demographic bulge of the echo boom generation, which is now in its early 20s. As well, the urban corridor along the Front Range is expected to add more than one million new residents in the next two decades.

Aspen sales setting records

ASPEN, Colo. — Real estate sales during the first three months of 2005 suggest the Aspen market could be headed toward yet another record this year. Sales during the first quarter hit $430 million, an increase of 33 per cent over sales at the same time last year. Sales last year topped $1.6 billion.

Citing a Land Title Guarantee Co. study, The Aspen Times reports that this year’s strong performance was not skewed by a few huge sales. In fact, the number of transactions is significantly higher than last year.

Jackson Hole passed on rich list

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — Mirror, mirror, on the ski world wall, which is the most filthy rich resort of all?

Examining IRS records for 2003, Jonathon Schechter reports Wyoming’s Teton County, which is essentially Jackson Hole, slipped to No. 2 in per capita, although it remains the richest of the resort counties of the West.

"Despite images and reputation, by every measure Teton County is more wealthy than any other resort community, including Aspen, Vail, Sun Valley and Telluride," he writes in he Jackson Hole news & Guide.

Teton County had led the nation for many years, probably owing to the fact that Wyoming does not have an income tax, causing many second-home owners to declare their vacation homes as their primary residences. Teton County’s mean adjusted gross income per return was nearly $94,000, behind only that of Fairfield, Conn., which is essentially a suburb of Wall Street. Of the top 20 counties for income, only Teton and New Mexico’s Las Alamos County are not near a metropolitan area.

Another way of looking at wealth is the number of exemptions per income tax return. By that measure, Pitkin County, where Aspen and Snowmass Village are located, is tops – or rather, lowest – in the nation, although Colorado’s Summit, San Miguel and Gunnison counties make the top 20, as does Teton. So does Denver and Washington D.C., for that matter.

Indian paintbrush picked as Canmore’s civic flower

CANMORE, Alberta — The Indian paintbrush has been chosen as the flower of Canmore, winning out in a civic vote of 1,000 residents over other candidates that include columbines, brown-eyed Susans, and the clematis.

For a time, it appeared there might be a bit of a stink about the name Indian paintbrush, as at least one municipal councillor seemed to think the name could be considered derogatory. The name comes from the fact that the dominant colour is red, which is somewhat the complexion of aboriginal Americans.

Why anybody would consider this connection between a wonderful flower and a race of people offensive wasn’t clear. Apparently it wasn’t clear to the councillor who first brought it up, as she subsequently dropped the objection, reports the Rocky Mountain Outlook. The paintbrush will be used in trade shows promoting the city and in connection with the municipal logo.

Picket fences animal hazards

BANFF, Alberta — Construction of sharp picket fences may be banned in Banff in an attempt to protect wildlife, particularly, ungulates from getting injured. The Rocky Mountain Outlook reports that several animals have been injured during the last decade while trying to hop the half-dozen pointy fences found in the town, and in one case an elk was impaled and had to be killed.

In some areas of Banff National Park, where the town is located, the national agency has prohibited fences altogether. In the town, however, guidelines only recommended low and rustic fences.

Keeping bears at bay

SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo. — With last year’s bear encounters still fresh in mind, newspapers in resort communities across the West have been carrying stories about bears now emerging from hibernation.

Avon, located west of Vail, beefed up its regulations over the winter, after local police were dispatched 70 times to reports of bruins and people interactions. While nothing much came of these interactions, the potential is always there for lethal consequences, both to bears and to people.

This new law aims to make Avon less interesting to hungry bears. Aping what Vail, Aspen and other communities did long ago, Avon now requires residents and second-home owners to keep their trash inside until the day it is to be picked up.

As well, residents of a trailer community in Avon are to get bear-proof containers. Actually, bear-resistant might be the better description. "If it’s a determined 600-pound bear, it could still be a problem," explained Jeremy Frees, operations manager for the company Waste Management. The $250 containers have locking lids and are made of heavy-duty plastic, he explained.

Whether plastic containers are enough remains to be seen. Aspen and Snowmass have been at this much longer, and last year wildlife officers felt it necessary to kill a dozen bears that had gotten into trash, homes, and businesses.

Wildlife officers are urging homeowners to think of bears when they buy doors and door handles. Bears can easily figure out how to open doors with flat handles, but can’t get their paws around round handles.

Strong snowpack, no fatalities

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — It wasn’t a great year for snow in the Tetons, at least until March. Still, the snow came in somewhat regular doses, helping create a stronger snowpack than had existed for several years. That stronger snowpack is credited with the fact that no avalanche fatalities have been record this year, the first time in five years.

CB gets cash infusion

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — Thanks to the deep pockets of Tim and Diane Mueller, who purchased Crested Butte ski area a year ago, $57 million in upgrades are planned for this summer.

Snowmaking will be expanded, the ski school will get better facilities, and a quad is to replace a T-bar lift. As well, three Sno-cat groomers are being purchased to help reinforce Crested Butte’s marketing claim of having Colorado’s best corduroy.

One of the biggest goals is to make the ski area more kid-friendly, with the philosophy that if kids like Crested Butte, the parents will also come – and return again. Crested Butte has a low retention rate. To get those kids and keep their parents, Crested Butte is working on creating a kids’ map of the ski area that will include kid-only trails, fun zones and club houses.

Dox Susie on read list

WINTER PARK, Colo. — While many cities have One Book reading programs, few small towns have done so. Grand County, where Winter Park, Granby and other resort towns are located, began the program this year, naming "Doc Susie" as the shared reading material.

Virginia Cornell, a former owner of the Winter Park Manifest, wrote the book about Dr. Susan Anderson, who set up a medical practice in the logging town of Fraser (located two miles form Winter Park) in 1907, soon after the railroad arrived. Hers was a hard life of ministering to railroaders, loggers, and the first few skiers, often for not much money, but it was also a very interesting one, as is made clear in Cornell’s book.

Durango adds hybrid to fleet

DURANGO, Colo. — Durango’s city government has added a Toyota Prius to its fleet, to set a good example. "Our air quality is one of our most valuable resources; anything that we can do to help preserve that quality is a good thing," Durango City Councilor Virginia Castro said of the Prius, which uses electricity as well as gasoline.

With the same goal in mind, reports the Durango Telegraph, the city last year began using a diesel that includes 20 per cent derived from biological sources such as soy beans. The fuel is used in 85 vehicles. The biodiesel is easier on engines, but more important is the reduction in pollution.

Home prices jump 12 per cent

DURANGO, Colo. — Single-family home prices in Durango increased more than 12 per cent in the first months of this year, as compared to last year, while condos and townhomes rose nearly 10 per cent. Raw land increased even more, 20 per cent.

Home prices nearly everywhere in the United States have soared, but the Durango Herald points to what may be a wider gap between median family incomes, $60,000, and median home prices, $300,000

Cottonwoods too thirsty

KETCHUM, Idaho — There were some hard feelings in the Wood River Valley where Ketchum and Sun Valley are located, after employees of an irrigation district began felling cottonwood trees that line the district’s canal.

The irrigation district uses the 20 miles of canals to deliver water for irrigation of 8,000 acres. A mature cottonwood sucks 60 to 80 gallons of water per day from that canal that should instead go to alfalfa, corn, or whatever else is being grown on the farms, say the irrigation district officials. Homeowners along the canal lamented the loss of the sun-shielding trees, reports the Idaho Mountain Express.

School remodelling too pricey

PARK CITY, Utah — When school officials began scoping the remodelling of the high school in Park City last summer, they were told it might cost $14 million. This winter, as the project’s scope was tallied, the figure had gone up to $19.5 million.

Now, after getting bids, the lowest one came in at $26 million, shocking everybody involved. The higher price is attributed to the Salt Lake City region’s booming economy. School officials have decided to chill their heels, in case the economy chills, reports The Park Record.

Tahoe considers roundabouts

LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — To somebody who was in Colorado’s high country 10 years ago, reading the newspapers in the resort areas around Lake Tahoe is like going back to the mid-1990s.

To wit, city officials in South Lake Tahoe are mulling whether to install a traffic roundabout. A $5,400 report notes roundabouts result in fewer and also less severe accidents while improving traffic flow. Still, some doubters wonder just how safe these would be when there was black ice, reports the Tahoe Daily Tribune.

For the record, one of the first modern roundabouts was installed in Vail in 1995 after similar hand-wringing doubts, and now they are found across the West. Among the towns now considering roundabouts are Telluride and Silverthorne.