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Mountain News: Ski season should have been a bust…

KETCHUM, Idaho - Go figure. The economy still struggles, snowfall was lousy for much of the season, but Sun Valley did extraordinarily well during ski season. The resort hosted the second most skiers ever, a history that extends to 1936.

KETCHUM, Idaho - Go figure. The economy still struggles, snowfall was lousy for much of the season, but Sun Valley did extraordinarily well during ski season. The resort hosted the second most skiers ever, a history that extends to 1936.

Elsewhere in Idaho, reports the Idaho Mountain Express , the story was similar: Brundage, a small ski area near McCall, had its best financial season ever, despite snowfall that was 33 per cent below normal. And at Schweitzer, in the Idaho Panhandle, the snowfall was down by nearly half - but skier visits were up 7.5 per cent.

The National Ski Areas Association reports nearly 60 million skiers, close to the record of two years ago. More than two-thirds of ski areas reported increased business this season, despite the fact that most parts of the country received 20 to 32 per cent less snow. Of course, Houston and Dallas, two areas that are home to lots of skiers, got unusual amounts of snow this winter.

In Wyoming, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort told the same story. "During the first 55 days of the 128-day season, we had arguably the lowest recorded snowfall of the past 30 years," said Jerry Blann, president of the resort. Yet skier days were fourth highest since the resort opened in 1965.

Go figure.

Meanwhile, Colorado resorts have been issuing no such hosannas. But the Aspen Times does note that April was a miracle of its own, delivering the most snowfall ever within the town, if not necessarily on the local ski hills. Still, by early May, the local snowpack remained significantly below average.


Aspen can have cake and eat it, too!

ASPEN, Colo. - In what surely cannot be regarded as a surprise, a consultant paid for by the Federal Aviation Administration has concluded that a longer airport runway in Aspen will produce more tourists but not spur new building.

The study holds that the longer runway - 8,000 feet, compared to the current 7,000 feet - will be able to accommodate planes that currently have to leave seats empty because of weight restrictions in the thin air. Aspen is at about 8,000 feet. As such, it's easier to get to Aspen than to leave - and so some passengers have to drive to other airports, including Denver and Eagle, to leave.

If all these seats currently sitting empty could be filled, according to the study, 11,000 additional people can be accommodated in Aspen annually, leaving the community $29 million wealthier.

The Aspen Times notes that in reaching this cake-but-eat-it-too conclusion, the consultants navigated a tricky community discussion. The public has long been leery of runway expansions. One proposal promoted in the 1990s was soundly rejected by voters of Pitkin County.

The current proposal has been estimated to cost $17.5 million, with the FAA willing to pick up most of the tab.


More money to improve airport

TELLURIDE, Colo. - The Federal Aviation Administration has dislodged another $3 million, giving boosters of the Telluride Regional Airport the $20.4 million they need to complete improvements to the facility.

The airport, although not the highest, may well by the most picturesque airport in the United States. It sits on a mesa just outside of Telluride, drop-offs at either end of the runway and sharp mountains in the distance. The runway used to have a butterflies-inducing drop in the middle that last year was corrected with $23 million of heavy, dirty lifting and moving.

With these additional improvements to the aprons and taxiway, plus other work to the terminal, Telluride supporters believe the airport can become an important link to the outside world - and a vital conduit to money-laden tourists.

Currently, most Telluride visitors arrive at an airport in Montrose, 65 miles but about 90 minutes away. Because of these improvements, this closer-in airport will be able to accommodate smaller plane. Still, those planes - notably the bombardier Q400 - will have a larger payload than the Dash 7 planes of before, 76 passengers vs. 32.

This news incited renewed debate on the website of the Telluride Watch . One blogger concluded that the airport improvements will make Telluride more competitive with Aspen and Jackson Hole. Another called it an enormous public-works fiasco. "This is not 'welfare for the rich?'" And others wondered whether the airport would be all that safe, given that Telluride gets 300 inches of snow per year, compared to 50 in Montrose.

Others dwelled on its importance in boosting tourism. "The sarcasm of the 'no growth, never crowd' is tiresome and only reveals their inability to think complicated thoughts," said a blogger. "They are as fundamentalist in their thinking as no-debt tea baggers. The discussion should not be rampant growth verses no growth. It should be planned, intelligent, sustainable growth... In the case of Telluride, that can only mean tourism. What else is there that can support a community?"


Recession stripped wages by 14%

JACKSON, Wyo. - Wages in Teton county decreased 14 per cent and the number of jobs shrank eight per cent in the year after the economic collapse. The Jackson Hole News & Guide reported that the constriction was most evident in the finance and insurance sector, particularly in income. The construction and services/ accommodations sectors also shed jobs and income. The figures come from a report by the Wyoming Department of Employment.


Build it, but will they come?

BASALT, Colo. - Build it - but will they get financing? That's the pivotal question in Basalt, a community 18 miles down-valley from Aspen. The Aspen Times reports that developers have approvals to build 440 to 500 additional housing units. Tens of thousands of square feet of warehouse space have also been authorized in addition to 313,000 square feet of commercial space.

Meanwhile, other developers are waiting to get projects approved. But, for the time being, the Basalt Town Council says no mas, no mas. The problem is that nobody has been building - and no one seems intent on pouring footers.

"We don't need to put infrastructure in the ground and just look at it," said one developer and general contractor, Briston Peterson. "Until it turns around, I won't put a shovel in the ground."

Meanwhile, a major project called Willits Town Center, which was to have included a Whole Foods Market, remains conceptual. Bank of America closed on the project for 281,000 square feet of commercial space, claiming that the developer had defaulted on remaining loans of $36 million.


Bottled water debate continues

BANFF, Alberta - Canadians in resort towns continue to talk about the banning the sale of plastic bottled water in municipal buildings in both Whistler and Banff.

Banff's proposal brought a sharp response from a reader of the Rocky Mountain Outlook . "Why is bottled water periodically singled out as the whipping boy to represent tens of billions of single-use disposable food containers consumed around the world annually?" asks Alvin Shier.

Add sugar, chemicals and colouring and the water becomes a sports drink or soda, and hence escapes the ban-the-bottle bogeyman, he says. A better target for wastefulness, he concludes, would be the world's automobiles.


Private club allows puffing

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. - In Utah, until recently, if you wanted to drink wine or hard liquor in public, you had to join a club. Now, a business in Breckenridge aims for the same concept with smoking marijuana.

The business is called Club 420, using the numerical moniker for the drug. The Summit Daily News reports that the club opened April 20 and is operated by Collette Wilson, a former math teacher. She said club members have the opportunity to use vaporizers, which she said is a significantly healthier alternative to direct smoking. No cannabis is sold at the club.

Breckenridge took the unusual step last year of decriminalizing the drug without allowing public consumption. The Daily News says the club appears to operate within the law, as consumption is not allowed in a "place of business generally open to the general public."

Rick Holman, the police chief, said town officials hope to get a proposed law before the town council this week that would expressly prohibit consumption of cannabis within a business.


Bank stays afloat, with help

ASPEN, Colo. - The Alpine Banks, a major lender in the resort towns of Colorado's Western Slope, has reported a first-quarter loss of $23 million. Glen Jammaron, the president and vice chairman, said that it looks worst than it really is, but he admits that it's plenty big.

"This is deeper than we thought it would be," he said of the recession affecting resort towns. "I don't think anyone thought it would be as bad as it was - and is."

The bank had $60 million in troubled commercial-mortgage assets that it sold at a discount, incurring a loss of $20 million.

Jammaron told the Glenwood Springs Post Independent that to secure its position Alpine Bank received $70 million from the federal government, which it intends to repay within the next three to four years.


Aspen doesn't like them apples

ASPEN, Colo. - If all goes as hoped, the 40-odd crabapple trees lining several of Aspen's downtown streets will flower but bear far fewer fruit. Bears have been drawn to the tiny apples in past years. The trees are, in a sense, low-hanging fruit.

Chris Forman, the city forester, said a chemical that is not an insecticide will be sprayed on the trees, triggering the trees to abort production of fruit. At the same time, it shouldn't affect the honeybees that collect pollen from the blossoms.

Just the same, the city will not spray other crabapple trees in parks until finding out first just how well this experiment goes.


The tree is falling! Or is it?

CHEYENNE, Wyo. - The U.S. Forest Service has now received $40 million to cut trees around campgrounds and along trails and roads in forests that have become a sea of dead trees. But Rick Cables, the Denver-based regional forester, say it's not nearly enough. He says he needs $100 million to curb the danger to people. Lacking that money, he recently told a congressional committee he might have to close down forests. But the Associated Press reported that Gov. Dave Freudenthal of Wyoming was skeptical. "I think that is a bit of over overreaction," he said.


Tamarisk not so thirsty

DURANGO, Colo. - Raft in almost any canyon-lined river of the West and you've undoubtedly seen large swathes of tamarisk lining the shores. Like many of us, the plant came to North American relatively recently, in its case from Eurasia. Biological predators have not evolved to check its spread and so it has displaced cottonwoods, rabbit brush and other native species. And, according to public perception, it chugs water - water that could otherwise be floating downstream to Las Vegas, Tucson or San Diego.

But a new report from the U.S. Geological Survey finds that neither tamarisk nor Russian olive, another invader of recent centuries, consume any more water than the natives they displace. However, tamarisk do consume more water than some other plants on higher terraces.

The Durango Telegraph consulted a group called the Tamarisk Coalition, which points out that water is not the only issue with tamarisk. It represents monoculture that discourages biodiversity.