Mountain News: Arson on Vail Mountain still vivid after 20 years 

click to enlarge WWW.SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - Twenty years ago, Two Elk—a magnificent cafeteria atop Vail Mountain—burned.
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  • Twenty years ago, Two Elk—a magnificent cafeteria atop Vail Mountain—burned.

VAIL, Colo.—Twenty years ago this week, Vail was in turmoil, trying to make sense of what had just happened.

Two Elk, the magnificent cafeteria atop Vail Mountain, had burned in the dark of night on Oct. 19. Gas cans were found nearby in the forest.

A few days later, an email was sent to several media by a group that variously called itself the Earth Liberation Front. "This action is just a warning," said the email. "Putting profits before Colorado's wildlife will not be tolerated.

Andy Daly, then the president of the operating division of Vail Resorts responsible for Vail Mountain and the adjoining Beaver Creek. In an interview with the Vail Daily, he recalled being awakened at 4 a.m. with news of the fire. In the days afterward, at a community meeting, he brought cheers with his anguished but defiant declaration: "Don't let the bastards wear you down."

Lynx had been central to protests against the Forest Service authorization of the ski area expansion then called Category III. It is now known as Blue Sky Basin, and the expansion area alone was larger than many ski areas, pushing Vail Mountain to above 5,000 acres in skiable terrain.

Lynx early in the 20th century have been described as "tolerably common" in many areas of the Colorado mountains. They had been heavily trapped for their fur. One of the last known lynx had been trapped adjacent to Vail in 1973.

Beginning in early 1999, the Colorado Division of Wildlife released 218 lynx to the San Juan Mountains obtained from Canada and Alaska. That reintroduction was funded, in part, by Vail. All were fitted with telemetry collars, to enable wildlife biologists to track their movements. By the summer after the first were released, three had made their way to the Vail area. One was almost immediately squashed on Interstate 70 near Vail Pass.

Biologists now estimate that a self-sustaining population of lynx live in Colorado's high country, with the core population in remote corners of the southwest

As for the arsonists, they were branded as eco-terrorists, ultimately found out, and nearly all sentenced to prison. They called themselves "The Family." The group consisted of about 20 individuals, most from the Pacific Northwest. Between 1995 and 2001, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, they committed 40 criminal acts. In addition to Vail, they targeted a horticulture centre at the University of Washington, a federally owned wild-horse corral in Susanville, Calif., and a horse slaughterhouse in Redmond, Ore.

The ringleader, William Rodges, who went by the name Avalon, committed suicide while in jail. All but one have now been apprehended. The most recent arrested was in August, when Joseph Hahmoud Dibee, 50, pleaded guilty to arson and conspiracy charges. He had fled the United States in 2006 but was nabbed by Cuban authorities as he prepared to fly to Russia.

Now, just one individual remains on the lam: Josephine Sunshine Overaker, who is believed to be 43 or 46 years old and living in Europe.

Colorado had warmest year in 124 years of records

FORT COLLINS, Colo.—It was the warmest year in 124 years of records in Colorado but also the second driest year.

A new report from the Colorado Climate Center examined temperature and precipitation records for the 2017 to 2018 water year, which ended Sept. 30.

"We live in a climate where we're going to be limited for water. That will happen from time to time. But what set this year apart is the combination of heat and dryness," said Russ Schumacher, the Colorado state climatologist.

The closest rivals to the heat of the past year were 2002 and a year in the 1930s.

For dryness, 2002 was actually drier. This past year was bone-dry in the Four Corners area, including Durango and Telluride, but mostly dry across the state.

There were 1,696 cases of record high temperatures compared to 560 record low temperatures at recording stations.

Even more pronounced were the overnight temperatures. There were 2,971 highest minimum temperatures and just 292 lowest minimum temperatures. One night in June, it got down to only 25.5 degrees Celsius in Grand Junction.

There were also more 90-plus days altogether, including several records. Montrose, located just north of the San Juan Mountains, has had an average of 34 of those hot days in 113 years of record keeping. This year, it had 78.

Mountain towns were not immune to heat. Steamboat Springs had 11 days of 32-plus temperatures, above the average of four but well short of the record 29 days in 2002.

Dillon, located more than 610 metres higher in elevation, kept its record intact. It has yet to hit 32 degrees, at least in modern record-keeping. The town was moved to a higher elevation when Dillon Reservoir was built in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

This piece of art has folks talking

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo.—Elected officials in Breckenridge this week were expected to take up what to do with a commissioned art piece that many residents who live near it think has been entirely too successful.

It's a troll, 4.5 metres tall, made of reclaimed wood and called Isak Heartstone by its creator, Danish artist Thomas Dambo. He was paid US$40,000 by the Breckenridge Creative Arts District to create the piece for the occasion of the Breckenridge International Festival of Arts.

The piece of art definitely had people talking. It was erected about 1.5 kilometres up a trail, and hikers reach that trail from the Wellington neighbourhood, a deed-restricted affordable housing neighbourhood geared for Breckenridge's middle class. That's the rub, explained the Summit Daily News. Residents say hundreds of people go through their neighbourhood daily, parking their cars on the streets and then setting out to find the troll.

"If you guys want, I can promote the 'Burning Troll Festival,'" offered Kristen Petitt Stewart, one of the homeowners. Plus, said Stewart, if the troll might be seen as charming when up close, it's a little creepy when it can be seen staring into people's homes.

Another homeowner, Drew Kosmowski, said it was time to remove the troll or move the trail.

Original plans were to leave the troll intact as long as it withstood the weather and wasn't vandalized.

OK to puff on pot at Lake Louise

BANFF, Alta.—At Lake Louise, smoking marijuana is now legal. But it seems to be the exception as officials in Banff, Canmore, and Whistler all have chosen to be hesitant about adopting rules governing use of marijuana.

Parks Canada allows consumption of cannabis throughout Banff National Park, including tourist hotspots like Moraine Lake. In campgrounds, consumption is limited to campsites but banned in common areas, such as kitchen shelters, washrooms, and trails.

In this, Parks Canada has chosen to treat marijuana the same as alcohol.

In Banff, the town within the park, public officials have chosen to keep their distance. It will remain illegal to publicly consume marijuana.

Down-valley at Canmore, at the entrance to the park, elected officials have elected to ban public consumption of cannabis. The Rocky Mountain Outlook said that Mayor John Borrowman was originally inclined to allow public consumption, but he has been persuaded to take a more cautious approach until the many unknowns around cannabis legalization are resolved.

One councillor, Jeff Hilstad, said he wishes there were designated places in public, such as cafes or lounges, available for those wishing to consume. Federal legislation likely will be adopted within a year to govern use of edibles and outline options for possible cafes or lounges.

The minority viewpoint in Canmore was expressed by Joanna McCallum. She pointed out that under the rules adopted by the municipality, more than half the households in Canmore would be unable to consume marijuana. "If you are not a private property owner, there is nowhere to go," she pointed out. "It is legal, but you can't consume it anywhere," she said. "I have trouble with that when it comes to our visitors.

The rollout of marijuana legalization in British Columbia on Oct. 17 was very different than that of Colorado on Jan. 1, 2014. Colorado had many towns, including Aspen, where stores were open immediately. In British Columbia, just Kamloops had a store opening.

Off-season games, but then the seriousness of climate

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo.—After the latest IPCC report about the imminence of the climate change threat, editors of several ski town newspapers reflected on the inadequacy of action. Perhaps most inventive were the words of Mark Reaman, editor of the Crested Butte News.

"In the current period between fall and winter there are the unspoken games that must take place in every ski town," he wrote. "You have the people who see how long they can go and refuse to put on closed-toed shoes after a summer of flip-flops. They are the ones who wear sandals until the first measurable snow makes it impossible. As the temps hover around freezing, they may move to light shoes but refuse to wear socks.

"There's the game of telling everyone that you haven't yet turned on the furnace. For the long-timers it may take several nights into the teens and a dog's frozen water bowl before they flick the switch to allow the dusty warm air from the heater to kick in," he added

"But what is not a game is the amount of time we have left to make significant changes to our lifestyle (beyond the flip-flops) to protect the climate. The latest report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says we humans have about 12 years to get our binging under control and slow down climate change before the tipping point is reached and the planet moves into its next stage that makes it pretty miserable for people. ... The world's leading climate scientists have warned there are only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5°C (Celsius), beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people."

Reaman's editorial advice: "Vote for those who trust science and are willing to make hard choices to protect the future world of your kids and grandchildren. So do it."

OSHA in Jackson Hole to investigate three deaths

JACKSON, Wyo.—Wyoming agents for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have been in Jackson Hole to investigate worker fatalities in two very difference circumstances.

The first was the death of a hunting guide caused by a grizzly bear. The 37-year-old guide died near an elk carcass killed by his client. The Jackson Hole News&Guide said the guide had a Glock handgun and bear spray for protection. Although he had the gun when the grizzly charged, he never fired it. However, he was able to douse the bear, but only after the grizzly had made contact.

The News&Guide said there is precedent for OSHA faulting employers in the aftermath of a fatal grizzly mauling. In 2015, an Idaho company was fined $39,000 after a 31-year-old employee was killed by a bear in the Teton Wilderness while conducting vegetation surveys for the Bridger-Teton National Forest. He possessed neither a firearm nor bear spray.

OSHA is also investing the death of two men who died in the collapse of an unshored trench. The men had been working alone in a trench that was 1.2 metres wide and 3.7 to 4.6 metres deep.

Good signs seen in Vail Resorts' takeover of CB

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo.—Vail Resorts now owns the Crested Butte ski area, and the early word from people who work there is that the "new owners of the resort are really pretty good," reported Mark Reaman, editor of the Crested Butte News.

"The employee benefits appear to be an upgrade from the previous ownership, and Vail Resorts managers are focused and professional and have the people humming in anticipation of a new ski season."

Reaman said his community seems to want to figure out ways to collaborate with the corporation to "maintain the uniqueness of Crested Butte while skimming off some of the benefits that money can bring to a ski area."

Why Alaska has record heat but it's snowing in Rockies

TRUCKEE, Calif.—Last year, the worst fires of the year occurred on the West Coast during October. This year could be better.

Daniel Swain, on the California Weather Blog, pointed to something called the Omega Block, one of the highest-pressure systems to form over the Northern Hemisphere for decades. It has taken up residence over Alaska, producing record-breaking if relative warmth even into the high Arctic.

"Such blocking patterns are notorious for bringing unusual and persistent weather regimes to adjacent regions, and this block should prove no exception," he wrote. "Many areas across the Mountain West may see earlier October snowfalls over the next one or two weeks than they have experienced in recent years, while the Eastern U.S. will experience simultaneous record warmth."

Swain noted that while no record cold is expected there will be record warmth.

Normally, California is at its most vulnerable by October. As the San Jose Mercury News explained, rain in the state's Mediterranean climate unusually ends by April and, apart from a few light sprinkles, don't resume until November.

"Until we get a bunch of rain, we're still in fire season," said Craig Clements, director of the Fire Weather Research Laboratory at San Jose State University. "If it starts warming up this month, it will get worse."

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