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Mountain News: Crowds continue, but not free-spending ways

VAIL, Colo. - Double-digit revenue declines continued through the summer in mountain towns. In Vail, sales tax revenues were down 24 per cent in August. In Aspen, retail sales were down 16 per cent. In Jackson, Wyo., the decline was 21 per cent.

VAIL, Colo. - Double-digit revenue declines continued through the summer in mountain towns. In Vail, sales tax revenues were down 24 per cent in August. In Aspen, retail sales were down 16 per cent. In Jackson, Wyo., the decline was 21 per cent.

"I think the most important question in all of this is where's the bottom," said Bob McLaurin, Jackson's town manager. "At some point we're going to have to decide whether to look at additional revenue or if we can live with reduced services. But that's a decision that's above my pay grade. That's a community-wide decision."

In all these towns and others, the fundamental story has been that visitor numbers are good, even great. But people have been spending less money.

Consider Jackson, at the gateway to both the Teton and Yellowstone national parks. Those parks have had record numbers of visitors all year. "People are still interested in coming here. They just don't want to spend as much money," said Tim O'Donoghue, executive director of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce.

Jonathan Schechter, a business columnist for the Jackson Hole News & Guide , said there is a need to re-examine, if not fundamentally rethink, how local government is funded and the way in which the community makes money.


Longer runway considered

ASPEN, Colo. - Aspen and Pitkin County are starting to debate the merits of extending their airport runway by 1,000 feet.

The airport manager, Jim Elwood, says having a longer runway will allow existing planes to carry more passengers and gear. Planes taking off from the airport must limit the number of passengers when the temperature is 80 degrees or above. But even in winter, because travelers on skiing vacations tend to carry more weight, the number of passengers must sometimes be limited.

Currently, the average "load factor," or percentage of sold seats, hovers around 70 per cent for flights in and out of Aspen, explains the Aspen Times .

The newspaper also notes that in the early 1990s local residents voted against allowing runway work that would have allowed larger aircraft to use the airport.


Native Americans see it differently

DURANGO, Colo. - In all their transcendent loveliness, Colorado's San Juan Mountains still have problems. Water from most of the San Juan's reservoirs has such high levels of mercury that pregnant women and children have been warned by health officials to limit the number of fish they eat.

The cause of these high mercury levels is not known for sure, although many suspect there's a link to the two coal-fired power plants located in the Four Corners area. For several years now, a new coal-fired power plant has been discussed and cussed.

The latest twist is that the Obama administration, through the Environmental Protection Agency, has ordered a new review of the air-quality permit awarded for the proposed plant during the Bush administration. "The local applause is still sounding," reports the Durango Telegraph .

But several Native American tribes, despite some significant internal dissent, see the story differently. The plant would be on Navajo Nation land and the coal would come from the Hopis.

Recently, the Hopis passed a resolution barring environmentalists from traveling on reservation lands and Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. expressed his support.

"By their actions, environmentalists would have tribes remain dependent on the federal government, and that is not our choice," he said. He urged others - the Utes and Apaches also have land in that area - to side with the Hopi "in the protection of their sovereignty and self-determination, as well as ours."

To the west of the San Juans, near the Utah border, uranium and vanadium have been the subject of discussion. In the Paradox Valley, about an hour west of Telluride, a processing mill is planned. Local residents support the mill because of the jobs it will provide. But organic farmers claim the mill will put them out of business, reports the Telluride Watch .

Mill supporters also say that this will help provide energy independence. The United States currently imports 92 per cent of its uranium from Australia and Russia.

Vanadium, they say, may be substituted for lithium for use in batteries.

In Wyoming, community leaders in Jackson have been plotting how to ratchet down energy use. They plan a major, two-day meeting on Oct. 22-23 to take the conversation community wide.

But Jonathan Schechter, a columnist for the Jackson Hole News & Guide , observes that at least when it comes to electrical use, consumers have little incentive to be efficient. That's because the valley gets its electricity from Bonneville Power, which delivers electricity generated in the many dams in the Pacific Northwest. The base rate for electricity is less than 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to the U.S. average of more than 10 cents. In Hawaii, with no coal-fired power plants nearby, the average rate is 30 cents.


Five-star development downgraded

ASPEN, Colo. - It's a sign of the times. For six years, Aspen has negotiated with a developer about the size of a major new hotel at the base of the ski mountain. A major sticking point has been size and mass.

Now comes a new iteration of the proposal. This schematic calls for 140,000 square feet, or 35,000 square feet less than what was proposed in January. There are to be fewer hotel rooms, and those rooms will be just 450 square feet instead of the previously proposed 500. As well, there will be fewer parking spaces and fewer fractional units.

And finally, Aspen Land Fund II, the developer, describes a different price point. "We've changed our minds about what kind of hotel this is... it's not going to be a five-star hotel, but something lower in category," said John Sarpa, the development principal. "It's not going to be the highest of the high."


Parents fed up with dual immersion

HAILEY, Idaho - Some parents with children at an elementary school with a dual-immersion program have been moving their children to private schools. The Idaho Mountain Express, after talking with the parents, says some object to Spanish being spoken at the school, while others object to what they consider to be a non-American culture.

Of the 363 students, 160 this year are in the dual-immersion program, in which students are taught in both English and Spanish. Some 61 per cent of the students are Hispanic. The newspaper suggested that many of the Hispanics speak Spanish.

"I'm just fed up with dual immersion. We don't need to speak Spanish. This is America. I may sound like a racist, but that's too bad," said one parent.

As you might expect, the newspaper's website had a long list of bloggers expressing opinions.


Ketchum limits idling

KETCHUM, Idaho - Ketchum has adopted a law limiting cars and trucks from idling more than three minutes unless stopped at traffic lights, when in construction zones, or in other conditions over which the driver has no control. The city's aim, reports the Idaho Mountain Express, is to improve air quality.


Missing water 'unacceptable'

BANFF, Alberta - Some 510,000 cubic metres of water have disappeared from the public water system at the Lake Louise resort in the last seven years, according to the Globe and Mail. That, says the Rocky Mountain Outlook, is unacceptable.

"Futurists and environmental pundits alike are predicting future wars will be fought over water, as shortages become more and more dire in the future," opined the newspaper in urging greater attention to the details of natural resource use.