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Mountain News:

Vail conference centre going to voters again

VAIL, Colo. — Come November, it’s sink-or-swim time for Vail’s long anticipated conference centre.

Two years ago, town voters approved an increased lodging tax with the idea that the money would be used to build a $45 million conference centre. Further study predicts much higher co-operating costs than was originally expected. Costs are now estimated at $65 million. To cover that increased cost, the town wants to know whether the lodging tax should be boosted once more.

There is some speculation the tax will have a tough time. Two years ago, Vail – like most resorts – was struggling. Now, tourist visits, real estate sales and tax sales are all up, raising the question of whether a conference centre is really needed to spur the economy. Opponents fret that the nation’s conference market is so saturated that residents of Vail will end up missing other revenues to subsidize the convention centre.

Despite a mid-sized airport only 35 miles away, the closest airport with year-round regularly scheduled flights is at Denver International Airport, 120 miles away.

Jackson tries to cut garbage

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — While what happens in Las Vegas may stay there, that’s not true of the trash in Jackson Hole. Like many resort areas, the trash is exported – in this case, to a landfill in neighboring Sublett County.

While the ethics of that exportation could be challenged, the more immediate issue is the cost. Running garbage trucks long distances (in Wyoming, all distances are long) costs good money – and that was before the price of gas began escalating.

With that in mind, many efforts are underway in Jackson Hole to promote the mantra: "reduce, reuse, and recycle." The Jackson Hole News & Guide reports the effort is succeeding. Recyling increased 10 to 19 per cent this summer. People increased purchases of wind and other "green" electricity sources by 21 per cent. Traffic into a reuse business called the ReStore rose 8 per cent.

Organizers in three environmental organizations credit a catchy advertising campaign that that ran on 267 cable stations, backed up by print and radio ads. The Teton County Board of Commissioners is backing that effort up with a $10,000 commitment toward public awareness.

Now, workers have been digging through a residential trash container, sorting out what could be diverted or recycling. The research will provide county authorities with a better idea of what items could be recycled – and hence generate income for the county, to be applied against the cost of exporting the trash.

More business-like and boring

ASPEN, Colo. — Once upon a time, it was easy to keep Aspen and Vail straight. Aspen got the movie stars, Vail the corporate moguls. Aspen had a two-lane highway, Vail an interstate. Aspen said "stay out" to population growth, while Vail – or last least Eagle County, where Vail is located – say "c’mon in."

The distinctions are blurring. Aspen now has four lanes of freeway to the town’s edge, while Eagle County is talking about an Aspen-style move, a moratorium on upzonings.

And now, Aspen is getting a clientele somewhat more like that of Vail, reports The New York Times. "The face of Aspen’s wealth is changing," reports the newspaper. "The party scene of the 1980s and ‘90s has faded as a new kind of buyer has taken over in the second-home market."

The newspaper quotes one real estate agent who reports most buyers now are Wall Street types from New York, California, Texas, and Florida, younger Baby Boomers, from their mid-40s to mid-50s. "These buyers prefer a long day on a mountain bike to a long night of partying, and they see Aspen as a family paradise."

Banff’s boa mystery solved

BANFF, Alberta — For several days people in Banff were wondering just how long a big boa constrictor could survive in the early autumn of the Canadian Rockies. A snake skin had been found on a vacant lot, and authorities surmised a pet boa had gotten loose.

In fact, no mice were in danger, let alone the public. Indeed, somebody’s pet boa had shed its skin, and the colorful artifact had been gleefully claimed by a tattoo artist, who thought he might make use of it. But, returning home from a pub a bit on the wobbly side, he inadvertently left it in the lot and hence the public mystery.

Realtors can’t afford Aspen

ASPEN, Colo. — Real estate is getting so expensive in Aspen that even the Aspen Board of Realtors is leaving Aspen. In moving down valley 18 miles to Basalt, directors figure to live what they preach and buy property, instead of leasing space, reports the Aspen Times.

However, this puts the Aspen Board of Realtors into Eagle County, which is where Vail is located. Despite this indelicacy, the group intends to keep its original name.

A battle lost

KETCHUM, Idaho — In many ski towns of the West, there has been a quiet war going on for the last 10 to 20 years. The war is between real estate development and tourism.

That battle is suggested in Ketchum where a local grocery store, Williams Market, is closing. The owner, Chris Williams, said the decision was premised in the changing demographics of the Ketchum area. Like many ski towns, Ketchum has fewer shops catering to tourists and more shops and businesses catering to locals.

"The merchandise business has not been extraordinarily brisk," he told the Idaho Mountain Express. "I can’t speak for boutiques or the construction business, but some suppliers appear to be doing well. Basically, every new project has been related to residential development."

In Ketchum and Sun Valley, skier visits have remained flat for several decades at about 400,000. More of the skiers are locals, a trend observed at Aspen, Steamboat, and many other ski resorts of the West. And, beginning clearly since tax reform during the Reagan administration, fewer condos are put into rental pools as wealthy purchasers find that rental income is of no major importance. In Ketchum, the number of hotel rooms has actually declined by 40 per cent.

The city government in Ketchum, which sits at the base area of the Sun Valley ski area, has imposed a "de facto ban on new hotels, refused to build affordable housing, and fought practically every new idea that’s come down the pike," laments the Idaho Mountain Express.

"New commercial spaces are not being filled by new tourist-related businesses, but by offices – finance, real estate and such," continues the newspaper. "Compared to just a decade ago, downtown is empty and far too quiet after 4 p.m. Some areas are largely deserted except during July and August."

Yellowstone Club creator has plans

BOISE, Idaho — Montana’s Yellowstone Club was billed as the world’s first private ski and golf resort. To join the club, located near the Big Sky Resort, located between Bozeman and West Yellowstone in the scenic Gallatin River Valley, members must first prove a net worth of $3 million or more. The initiation fee is $250,000, and $16,000 in annual dues are assessed.

The man who created that club, Tim Blixseth, is now in the news in Idaho. He has purchased 180,000 acres of timberland from Boise Cascade. He intends to trade large chunks of that land to the Forest Service, giving the federal agency control over the wonderfully scenic Payette River Canyon between Boise and McCall. But he intends to continue logging other chunks of the property, which is located in the broad region around the Brundage and Tamarack ski areas.

The Idaho Statesman reports that some neighbours worry that Blixeth will log off the woods and develop the land into subdivisions. Land values in the region have doubled and even tripled in the last year. Furthermore, government review in unincorporated areas is negligible. Blixseth says he has no interest in selling the property, and probably will buy even more. "Development is a long way away," he told the Statesman.

Conservationists seem to have high regard for Blixeth. He had originally planned a ski resort in an area of Montana that environmentalists and the Forest Service thought would have been environmentally destructive. Instead, he did a land swap, keeping the development land more compact at the Yellowstone Club.

The Idaho Statesman says that the latest dream of the 54-year-old Blixeth is the Yellowstone Club World, a global resort club with properties already in Scotland, Mexico, and Alaska. He wants to buy resort properties around the world for use exclusively by his members. Membership fee is on a sliding scale of up to $10 million.

Dumb & Dumber go to jail

VAIL, Colo. — The two seasonal workers from New South Wales, Australia, who robbed a Vail bank of $129,500 in March, have been sentenced to prison.

Dubbed "Dumb and Dumber," the two did not disguise their accents and they wore badges similar to ones worn by staff at the ski shop where they worked. Minutes after robbing the bank they used their ski passes to board a chair lift about a quarter-mile from where the bank is located.

The next day, after buying more than $11,000 worth of jewelry, the two men tried to purchase one-way tickets to Mexico with their stolen loot. Soon after, a police officer who recognized their photos as they tried to pass through airport security arrested them.

"What I did was greedy and selfish, but I’m still not sure why I did it," Anthony Prince, 20, said as his parents and those of his partner, Luke Carroll, 19, looked on. "All I can say is I knew better; I was raised better."

Prince was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison and Carroll to 5 years.

Need for moratorium questioned

EAGLE COUNTY, Colo. — Eagle County appears headed toward a moratorium on upzonings.

Two of the three county commissioners say they don’t like the direction the county has been headed and want to chill while reconsidering whether trend is destiny. The county has been nearly doubling in population every decade since Vail opened in 1962, and at the current pace is expected to hit 65,000 in population within a decade.

Arn Menconi, a county commissioner, says that even with no additional upzonings, property owners currently have rights to build up to 12,000 housing units in Eagle County and its towns.

Of special concern are the homes for wealthy and part-time residents. "Eighty per cent of the applicants we see are for second-home developments, says Menconi.

He is supported by a member of the Avon Town Council, Brian Sipes. "Someday we’ll be built out. Let’s catch our breath and figure out how long it’s going to take to get there," he said.

But Rick Pylman, a planning consultant, remains unconvinced. "There are no big pending developments that justify it. This is valid when the sewer plants are overflowing."

Terrill Knight, another long-time planning consultant, suggested the ban might encourage a rush of bad projects.

Scottybobs in specialty stores

SILVERTON, Colo. — The wooden telemark skis now produced in Silverton by Scottybob are going to be sold this winter through specialty stores.

Reversing the course of technology over the last 30 years, the skis are made entirely of wood, albeit with some special designs that acknowledge the needs of telemark turns. Instead of selling through chain stores, the three-year old firm intends to work only with specialty stores, where personnel understand telemark skiing.

Another small ski area opening

WESTCLIFFE, Colo. — For years the mom-and-pop ski areas were closing. Now, stories are appearing of small ski areas being opened. The latest such story comes from near the town of Westcliffe, in south-central Colorado.

There Terry Cook is erecting a single chairlift at the Aspen Country Mountain Park. He bought the chairlift and a Snocat groomer from Idaho’s Bogus Basin Ski Area.

Steady supplies of snow seem to be a general problem in that region, but Cook claims the location of his ski area last year got 342 inches. He plans to charge $22 for lift tickets, drawing customers from Pueblo, a city of about 110,000 located an hour’s drive to the east.

A ski area featuring a single rope tow operated at the site for at least 20 years, but patrons lost interest in 1990 when another ski area opened nearby. That ski area subsequently closed.

Racial/ethnic divisions explored

JACKSON HOLE, Colo. — In the wake of two sexual assaults, including a rape, and five beatings by Hispanics inflicted on Caucasians, the Jackson Hole community continues its troubled introspection.

The Jackson Hole News & Guide reports 200 people turned out at a session to talk about suddenly tense relations between Latinos and Caucasians. Latinos far outnumbered the Caucasians, and among them was Martin Serrano, a construction worker who spoke in Spanish.

Serrano warned against generalizations. "No one likes this kind of crime," he said. "We are not all bad people. We are, for the most part, good people.

"We’re here to work," he said. "We hope you can see us that way."

One man of Japanese descent, who was not identified, said he is often mistaken for somebody from Mexico and, as such, harassed. He has had dog excrement thrown at his house and car, he said.

"I live in fear," said the Japanese-American. "I have been physically intimidated, psychologically attacked and had my personal space invaded."

He added: "If you’ve never been a minority, you can’t see it or smell it," he said of the undercurrent of racism he believes is brewing in Jackson Hole. "It’s dangerous to put this under the table," he added.

Others want to know why the four suspects had been allowed to remain in the United States illegally. One of the suspects had been arrested last year for driving without a license or insurance, but not deported. One speaker, Lisa Hester suggested the issue is not racism, but illegal activity She also questioned whether community members are paying for services provided to illegal immigrants.

Meanwhile, in a letter published in the newspaper, the woman identified as the mother of one of the sexual-assault victims also warned against generalizations. "Our hearts now go out to our Latino community, which does not deserve the intimidation, judgment and tension that seems to be present," she wrote. "When I came to Jackson Hole 40 years ago from Los Angeles, I was labeled a ‘hippie,’ an unwanted element in what was then a very tiny community. Although this attitude didn’t last long, I understand what targeted people are feeling."

Seniors complex pitched

SUMMIT COUNTY, Utah — A housing complex for those aged 55 and over is being proposed in Summit County, about 25 miles east of Salt Lake City. Russ and Doug Sorenson, who constitute part of the Five-Star Investment Group, want to build 200 apartments and 120 condominiums plus beauty salons, a recreation center and other amenities in a $40 million project.

Whitewater parks examined

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. — Following in the path of Breckenridge and Vail, whitewater parks have become the rage in mountain towns during the last few years. Now, an international conference on that very topic is to be held Oct. 4-7 in Glenwood Springs.

The conference devoted to whitewater parks is being held in conjunction with one devoted more broadly to whitewater in general. The goal, an organizer told the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, is to allow those communities wanting to know how to create parks to learn from the experiences of other communities that have them.

Among those now trying to create water parks are Steamboat Springs and Glenwood Springs.

Stop me if you ever heard this one

WHITEFISH, Mont. — Across the West, the mantra in new resort areas is this: "We don’t want to be like Aspen and Vail and Jackson Hole." And with this statement of disdain usually comes the professed belief that somehow, it’s possible to take some other road.

So make what you will of a report by Bloomberg News about new hotspots in Montana. The rush is on by the high-tech nouveau rich to these pretty mountain valleys, says Bloomberg.

The poster child is the Whitefish-Kalispell area. Riveting mountains in the background, proximity to Flathead Lake, and oodles of golf courses are just the beginning of the amenities. It also has a ski area, Big Mountain, and is near Glacier National Park.

Another hotspot is the Bitterroot Valley, south of Missoula. There, West Spiker, the spokesman for a members-only resort, says Montanans are "afraid to death that little towns are going to become like Aspen or Vail, where the billionaires chase out the millionaires, and employees have to live 45 to 50 miles away to drive to work." But, he adds, it "won’t ever happen, because people come to Montana for what Montana is. They don’t want to change it."

Maybe not, but their money will.

Warning bell clanged

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Seth Cagin, publisher of The Telluride Watch, continues to clang the warning bell about his community’s vulnerability to avalanches.

Twice in recent years avalanches have exposed the local vulnerable electrical supply. Telluride and its twin, Mountain Village, are connected by two power lines from the outside world. One line is particularly vulnerable to avalanches, and when destroyed two winters ago, forced limited use of ski lifts. The secondary line is aging – perhaps getting too frail to bear the full task of supplying the resort’s growing electrical demands.

Plans have been afoot for several years to upgrade this old power line, but property owners in the scenic mesas to the west of Telluride have objected to above-ground lines. Just who pays for putting the lines underground has been the subject of a protracted dispute that has now gone on for two years.

Given that legal imbroglio, reports Cagin, elected officials say they’re "stuck." He isn’t buying it. Officials in Louisiana, he notes, were "stuck" for years before Hurricane Katrina visited, knowing full well their growing vulnerability.

"We have worked ourselves into an untenable situation, a situation in which we can all see the hurricane bearing down on us, with inevitable disastrous consequences, and all we do is report that we’re stuck, unable to prepare for it in any meaningful way," he writes.

Building pace picks up

RIDGWAY, Colo. — If you see a photo extolling the beauty of Colorado’s mountains, chances are good that it comes from near Ridgway, at the north portal to the San Juan Mountains.

For all its knock-down beauty, however, Ridgway and Ouray County have not been bowled over by development. That, however, is starting to change.

The Telluride Watch, which does business on the other side of that magnificent background of mountains, reports that current building proposals would double the size of Ridgway.

Speed dating arrives

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. — Speed dating for unattached Gen Xers is arriving in Summit County. The way it works is that men and women are given the opportunity to have up to 12 meetings lasting six minutes during an evening. The event is at a brewpub already noted for its lively singles season. The event is limited to singles aged 26 through 39, reports the Summit Daily News. Cost is $39 per person.

Inmates could be warmed by fires

CARSON CITY, Nev. — A company based in Carson City, Nev., near Lake Tahoe, is trying to put together a partnership that will yield a $6.4 million project that will take waste wood and create energy and mulching soil.

Such projects are now being talked about frequently in mountain towns of the West, where aging forests are yielding dead trees that are becoming fire hazards. Few such projects have actually been built, however.

The facility in Carson City would consume such things as empty pallets. Trees from thinned forests in the increasingly fire-prone forests around Lake Tahoe could provide a quarter of the wood. As an energy source, the facility in Carson City could save a nearby prison $1.2 million in fuel costs.

More yet could be coming. While the U.S. government’s Healthy Forest Initiative laid out a plan for thinning of forests near settled areas, it provided no money to do so. If the U.S. government ever quits launching wars in the Middle East, cutting taxes, and having to contend with hurricanes in the South, there may actually be money to thin forests – and provide trees for such facilities.

Air pollution worse in park

SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — Many people visiting Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park think the blue haze is part of the naturally charming scenery.

It’s not. It is part of the air pollution that makes this park, located south of the Mammoth ski area, the smoggiest national park in the United States. The Los Angeles Times says that mountains that John Muir once described as "not clothed with light, but whole composed of it" have, on many summer days, the clarity of miso soup.

Federal clean air standards are violated 63 days a year, better than 103 days in the Los Angeles Basin, but far worse than the five days of the San Francisco Bay Area. As such, ozone levels are harmful for human health.

Because Sequoia-Kings Canyon has been designated by the Clean Air Act as a "class 1 airshed," the National Park Service has some control over big emitters within 90 miles of the park. The trouble is, the pollution comes not from a single factory, power plant, or smelter. Instead, most of the smog in the Sierra Nevada comes from many sources in the nearby San Joaquin Valley and the San Francisco area – cattle feedlots, household chemicals, unpaved roads and diesel trucks, to name just a few.

Lacking authority to take action itself, says the Times, park rangers at Sequoia-Kings Canyon go out of their way to tell people about the polluted air. For example, in a gift shop at the park headquarters, a smog forecast sign, designed as a rainbow, greets visitors.

Particularly for people with pre-existing lung conditions such as asthma, the smoggy air poses problem. One mother now packs a breathing-aid device called a nebulizer, along with the boots, camp gear and canteens that are di rigeur for park visits.

The air pollution has also crimped the hiring, reports the Times. Job Posts carry a generic disclaimer that working in the park "may pose human health problems due to air pollution."

Meanwhile, on the edges of Jackson Hole, air quality in both the Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks is likely to be affected by the gas-well drilling near Pinedale, 70 miles to the south. A report issued this year predicts up to eight days of haze per year in Teton and three days in Yellowstone when drill rigs are most active. However, the BLM has historically underestimated impacts to air quality, the Jackson Hole News & Guide observes.

Leave some for the fish

EAGLE VALLEY, Colo. — A measure of both the continuing drought and greater demand for water is found in an item in the Eagle Valley, where Vail and Beaver Creek are located.

As elsewhere in Colorado, a minimum streamflow water right was filed in the late 1970s. That water right, in accordance with the law used in Colorado and many other states of the West, is catalogued in a legal system called the prior appropriate doctrine. In other words, those that are oldest have the first rights. As such, the water right filed in the 1970s to ensure water for fish and other aquatic life is still junior to water rights filed by ranchers a century ago, for example.

But this water right for fish is senior to some of the newer users, such as those for residential development.

This is the first time the right has been imposed on the river. Even three years ago, when the river was running extremely low, due to drought, state water authorities did not issue the "call." Just why they failed to do so was subject to considerable discussion, but never any formal explanation from state authorities.

Although weather conditions this year have seemed good, in fact they have been dry, explained Dave Merritt, chief engineer with the Colorado River Water Conservation District. The lowest-flow period is from September until January.

Putting a lid on its street lights

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Telluride was the first town in the country to get rid of its gas street lights. Nonetheless, like so many towns, it has acorn-shaped globes that are meant to resemble old-time gas lights.

Trouble is, those acorn-shaped street lights illuminate the sky and adjacent mountain slopes better than they do the street. To force the illumination to the ground, where it will do some good, the lamp posts are being retrofitted with pagoda-like fixtures. The new fixtures, explains The Telluride Watch, bounce 50 per cent more light to the street and none directly to the sky and adjoining hills – or second-floor bedrooms.

Biodiesel reduces pollution

TRUCKEE, Calif. — A Ford F-250 pickup is among the most polluting vehicles on the planet. It gets only 12 to 16 miles per gallon, and if it burns diesel, it emits an awful lot of particulates that can get into lungs.

So the news in Truckee of a man who is reducing his polluting ways by mixing in biodiesel is only the silver lining of a dark, dark cloud.

Like in the movie called "French Fries to Go," produced in Telluride three years ago, this employee of an architectural firm uses the cooking oil from a Chinese restaurant to create biodiesel. Because biodiesel congeals in colder temperatures found in mountain towns, most people dilute their regular diesel by only 20 per cent.

Everybody seems to win in the arrangement, in which the restaurants saves $45 per month in disposal fees, the driver saves in fuel costs on his thrice-weekly 60-mile commute from home to work. And, not least, the air is slightly less polluted – but only slightly.