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Mountain News: Ski towns nervous about flow of cash

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. – The conventional wisdom is that ski towns may hurt during economic downturns but not as much as elsewhere. Still, edginess is evident in reports from across the West.

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. – The conventional wisdom is that ski towns may hurt during economic downturns but not as much as elsewhere. Still, edginess is evident in reports from across the West.

In Colorado’s Summit County, rumors spread that Vail Resorts, a major developer of real estate, will not start new housing it had planned at Keystone. A company official said no decision had been made.

But housing starts in Summit County have definitely slowed — a 30 per cent decline, a building association official tells the Summit Daily News. Real estate sales have also declined. Prices continue to rise, but more slowly than last year.

In Steamboat Springs, reports the Pilot & Today, cash-buyers are asking for — and getting — discounts on properties as concern spreads about the viability of credit sources.

In Aspen, a development that envisions two large hotels, affordable housing, and a new lift, all in a long-neglected area near the city’s downtown district, is in doubt, reports The Aspen Times. Financial consultant Byron Koste told a task force that the outlook for the development is grim because of the absence of financing.

In Vail, rumors have been floating of imminent foreclosure proceedings by Capmark Financial Group against the Vail Plaza Hotel. This is the major hotel located at the town’s middle entrance on the ski-hill side of Interstate 70. The Vail Daily found circumstantial evidence to support the rumor.

Town governments are also tightening their belts in expectation of flat and even reduced revenue. Vail, for example, is projecting $51 million in revenues next year, compared to $54 million this year. Sales taxes collections are expected to be flat, while real-estate transfer tax is projected to decline nearly 14 per cent.

“I’ve got some anxiety, but I don’t think there’s a reason to panic,” said Stan Zemler, the town manager, told the Vail Daily.


Bears pay ultimate price

BANFF, Alberta – From Banff to Tahoe, bears are back in the news in mountain resort towns across the West.

In Banff National Park, wildlife wardens killed a black bear that had been feeding on garbage but also crab apples. Officials from Parks Canada say that one way or another, they want crab apples gone from the town.

“The crab apple situation needs to be taken seriously,” said Steve Michel, Parks Canada’s human-wildlife conflict specialist. “Residents need to remove all the fruit, and if they’re not prepared to do that, they should consider cutting the trees down.”

No existing town law requires apples to be picked and fallen fruit to be removed.

Earlier, the town’s composting facility was forced to stop accepting food when a 10,000-volt electric fence that surrounds the rotting collection malfunctioned. Undeterred, a bear made repeated visits.

Farther west along the TransCanada Highway, two black bears were killed while feasting on rotting fruit — mainly apples — that had dumped along the banks of the Columbia River. While the bears were doing only what came naturally, what concerned officials was the proximity of an elementary school, explains the Revelstoke Times Review.

In Whistler Village, a large male black bear met a similar fate after biting the leg of an Australian tourist who was walking as the bars closed. The bear fled, but returned into Whistler the next evening, and was shot when discovered on the driving range of a golf course. This, said Pique, is the ninth bear intentionally destroyed in Whistler this year, but the first in Whistler Village. Another three were hit on roads.

In the Truckee-Tahoe region, where 78 bears were killed by cars last season, only 12 bears have died this year. A bear activist says bears stayed in the backcountry because of a good berry crop.


Even sculptures made in China

CANMORE, Alberta – Even sculptures are being outsourced to China. That’s the story in Canmore, where an artist was commissioned to create a big, stone carving of the top of a man’s forehead.

The artist, Al Henderson, said no sculpture-carving companies exist in Alberta. Instead, he created a model, digitally imaged it, then dispatched the data to China. There, an 11-ton piece of granite was carved into the 7.5 ton sculpture by artisans in Fuijan. From there it was shipped to Canmore, at the east entrance to Banff National Park.

A Canmore councillor, Ed Russell, said he was bothered by China’s record of human rights violations. To offset the greenhouse gas emissions caused by transportation of the sculpture, Canmore’s Biosphere Institute paid $154 to Carbon Zero, a company that sells offsets.

The sculpture has other international connections. It was inspired by a trip to Scotland in the late ’90s, and the person who served as the model is a Canadian paramedic who this week returned from an assignment to an ambulance unit in Afghanistan.


Sidewalk paved with tires

ASPEN, Colo. – Aspen city officials have deiced to install sidewalk pavers made from recycled rubber tires in two blocks of the town’s downtown shopping mall.

In doing this, the city will divert 1,800 tires from the landfill but also eliminate the production of carbon dioxide that is necessary in creation of cement. Another advantage to the rubber pavers is that they are more permeable, and hence reduce stormwater runoff and allow more precipitation to reach roots of trees.


End of trail lined with $100 bills

MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. – Preston Morrow went hiking last week, and he found a trail lined with money. It was not, however, as happy a discovery as you might think.

Morrow, a manager of a sporting goods shop, had aimed to reach an old mine located west of the Mammoth Mountain ski area. But because of a late start, he aborted his trip short of his destination and instead hiked off trail to get the views from the ridgetop.

That’s where he found a string of $100 bills, plus a pilot’s license and a couple of other pieces of identification. However, the name on the license meant nothing to Morrow, he later told The Sheet, a newspaper in Mammoth Lakes.

But when Morrow showed his discovery to fellow employees the next morning, they instantly recognized the name: Steve Fossett, the retired banker from Chicago who became an adventurer, setting 116 sporting records for such things as being the first man to balloon nonstop around the world.

Fossett disappeared last year after taking off from a private airstrip south of Reno, Nev. His stated purpose was to studying dried-up lake beds in Nevada to gauge their suitability for a future ambition, to set a land speed record.

At Mammoth, searchers subsequently found the plane wreckage strewn across the mountainside in a 450- by 400-foot swath. Most of the fuselage had disintegrated, although here and there were items: a faded sweatshirt. Charred bone was to be tested. Investigators described a high-impact crash several hundred feet short of the ridgeline.

The crash vaguely resembled another high-profile disappearance, that of an A-10 jet piloted by a young Air Force captain, Craig Button. Button had flown from Arizona in early April 2007, but broke from formation. His plane was observed from the ground several times. Radar equipment was later used to track the plane’s flight to mountains located between Vail and Aspen.

Nearly three weeks later, an intense search revealed the debris scattered amid the still-accumulating snow on Gold Dust Peak. Avon is the nearest town. The impact occurred 100 feet below the summit of the 13,365-foot peak on the steep north face. The human remains took about four months to recover. Evidence pointed toward a suicide.

Fossett was a part-time resident of Beaver Creek, which is located about five airline miles from the site of the A-10 crash on Gold Dust. Although of modest origins, he gained considerable wealth working out of Chicago.

Early in his post-retirement adventuring career, Fossett had skied from Aspen to Vail in what he believed was a record of 55 hours. Vail distance racer Dawes Wilson, although somewhat younger, took that as a challenge. He promptly skied the same route, unaided by assistants to break trail, in 45 hours.

Later, however, Fossett did establish Guinness Book of Record marks in any number of endeavors, all with considerable danger involved and requiring great mental focus to survive.

In July, the London Daily Mail reported speculation that Fossett may have faked his own death. Some things just didn’t seem to add up. For example, despite his high-altitude experiences, he wore only light clothing and took only a single bottle of water on this trip. Also, he failed to take a global positioning system watch, which he was said to always wear when on solo flights.


Texan’s theatre won’t fly in Eagle

EAGLE, Colo. – Eagle has always held the big-money, big-house, second-home economy of Vail at arm’s length. True, many local residents make their livings by building, financing, and servicing those big up-valley homes at Vail and Beaver Creek, 20 to 30 miles away.

But a decade ago Eagle vowed to remain different. It said no gated communities would be allowed, and it also said that houses could be no larger than 7,000 square feet.

Town officials, reports the Eagle Valley Enterprise, recently noticed excavation of a crawl space that was intended to increase the size of a home to 10,000 square feet.

Faced with an edict, the homeowner, a part-time resident from Texas, must remove what appeared to be a home theatre. At least for the record, the homeowner wanted to “do the right thing,” according to his architect.

But if Eagle is keeping the line drawn on house sizes, it appears to be losing a broader battle about geographic naming. Increasingly, the town is referred to as being in the “Vail Valley,” an advertising locution that causes local teeth to grind in annoyance.


County decides to do as it says

EAGLE, Colo. – Landscaping crews this year ripped up 10 to 15 per cent of the turf from the moat of grass surrounding the Eagle County Courthouse and Administration Building. The goal, said county officials, is to walk their own talk.

The county government last year adopted building regulations that require improved energy efficiency and natural resource conservation. Saving water does both.

“If we’re requiring the public to do this, we need to demonstrate how,” said Pedro Campos, lead designer for a landscaping architectural firm called Vag, which was the consultant for the project.

“It doesn’t make sense to bring England to the Rocky Mountains, which is mostly what people are trying to do (with their grass and flower gardens),” said Nicola Ripley, the director of horticulture and resources for the Betty Ford Alpine Garden in Vail.

The de-sodded areas, says the Eagle Valley Enterprise, will have perennial pants, shrubs, mulch and some trees — and also some grasses.

Liz Gardener, a suburban conservation coordinator for Denver Water, told Planning Magazine this year that the key is to use regionally appropriate plants and designs. There can even be conventional grass, but not huge amounts. With careful planning, homeowners can reduce water use by 30 to 60 per cent, and still have fantastic landscapes.

In Eagle County, nursery owner Bill Stephens Jr. notes that xeriscaping initially costs much more, but over time saves money.

Less understood is the cost of water in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Most water used for landscaping is purified, which requires electricity. Pumping it requires electricity. Water used for landscaping does not need to be purified in sewage treatment plants, but those plants also require large amounts of water. In California, where vast amounts of water are pumped across mountain ranges, 19 per cent of all electrical use is devoted in some way to water.


Prison technology to detect wildlife

DURANGO, Colo. – For decades wildlife researchers have been trying to figure out the roadkill equivalent of a better mousetrap. They’ve tried tall fences to keep deer and elk off highways, and they’ve tried signs to warn motorists to slow down.

So far, nothing short of very expensive wildlife overpasses works very well in keeping apart car hoods and deer hooves. And despite what you may have heard, there’s no scientific studies to back up the claims of those sonic deer-whistles you could buy at Wal-Mart.

But now, the Colorado Department of Transportation has a $1 million experiment underway on the flanks of the San Juan Mountains, just east of Durango. There, a wildlife detection system unlike any other that now exists in the United States has been installed.

The technology is already in use at prisons, airports and military operations. Cables have been buried a foot deep and lateral to the highway. Deer, elk and other large animals trigger changes in the earth's electromagnetic field. This change is detected by the cable, which then transmits signals to two signs, one in each direction, that alert motorists to the presence of wildlife.

“One reason we looked at the system for this area is that it’s a known migration route,” explained Nancy Shanks, a spokesman for C-DOT. “Instead of setting up a barrier, with fencing, we wanted to allow free movement of deer and elk to their various habitats, and instead change motorists’ behavior.”

The major question here is whether real-time warnings will slow traffic sufficiently to avoid collisions. Early anecdotal evidence suggests success, but the Western Transportation Institute of Bozeman, Mont., has allocated $150,000 for an independent and multi-year evaluation.

Something similar was tried in Wyoming, between Pinedale and Jackson Hole. There, infrared lights are used to detect movement of large animals. However, tumble weeds and heavy snowfall also triggered the flashing signs, causing motorists to disregard them.

Better results are reported from a refined use of infrared light technology in an experiment in Yellowstone National Park, in the Gallatin River Valley. Only one collision with wildlife occurred, says Rob Ament, road ecology program manager with the Western Transportation Institute.

“It’s all about sensitivity of the beam, so that it’s catching animals and not the smaller stuff,” he said.

The institute has been conducting research near most of the ski towns of the West.


Reservoir may power turbine

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – Our great national effort to slow or stop our expansion of greenhouse gas emissions continues, one project at a time.

In Gunnison County, that effort is yielding agreement to take a hard look at retrofitting an older dam at Taylor Park Reservoir to produce electricity. Engineers believe that dam could produce up to eight megawatts of electricity, but a steady supply of electricity is necessary to meet the requirements for 400 homes.

The dam is located between Crested Butte and Gunnison, on the western flanks of the Sawatch Range.

In the big scheme of things, this still isn’t much electricity. Crested Butte and Gunnison would still get nearly all of their electricity from the burning of coal, mostly from power plants west of Steamboat Springs.

Aspen did something similar in the 1990s, paying for installation of a turbine in Ruedi Reservoir. It has also investigated installation of a turbine in the dam at Ridgway Reservoir, north of Telluride, but that task looks more challenging.

All computer climate models agree that the American Southwest will become intensely hotter as a result of increased greenhouse gases, which in itself suggests shorter winters and greater evaporation and transpiration. Some models also suggest less absolute precipitation.


Beetle-killed trees to be houses

KREMMLING, Colo. – Instead of crushing all of the beetle-killed lodgepole pine trees into pellets, suitable for wood-burning stoves, some of the better logs are going to be setaside for use in construction of houses.

That’s the plan at Kremmling, where Confluence Energy, the maker of pellets, began operations earlier this week. The latest twist, reports the Sky-Hi Daily News, is a decision to set aside the better logs — straight ones, at least 6 to 10 inches in diameter — for use in building homes. Colorado Blue Logs is the name of the venture, with operations expected to commence next spring.


Mink ranchers warned

SUMMIT COUNTY, Utah – Mink ranchers in Summit County, where the resort town of Park City is located, have been advised that vandals may attempt to damage their property or release the animals.

Thousands of mink were recently released from a mink farm elsewhere in Utah. A group called Animal Liberation Front claimed responsibility.

Jerry Vlasak, a spokesman for the group, told the Park Record that mink farmers “torture and kill animals.”

Dave Edmunds, the sheriff in Summit County, had a sharp retort: “They’re criminals, and I don’t sympathize with them one iota.”

What happens when mink are released from farms is also disputed. A local extension agent, Sterling Banks, said mink, because they are not bred for wild conditions, die from exposure or are run over by cars if freed. But Vlasak, the Animal Liberation Front spokesman, said freed mink can better survive in the wild than when kept on a farm, where they are most certainly killed.

Jody Jensen, a furrier in Park City, told the newspaper that mink provide excellent thermal insulation for people. But aside from their fur, she finds no redeeming quality. “First of all, they’re the meanest, ugliest critters on the Earth, and they will bite and attack,” she said.