Mountain News: Big snow year or just something average? 

click to enlarge WWW.SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - SNOw predicTIONS  The forecast is for a heavy snowfall in Aspen much like that of 1983-84.
  • SNOw predicTIONS The forecast is for a heavy snowfall in Aspen much like that of 1983-84.

ASPEN, Colo. — Aspen Weather meteorologist Cory Gates is predicting an upcoming winter like that of 1983-84. If you were in Colorado ski country then, you remember that winter well.

Gates, who has run a subscription-based daily forecast for the last five years, told a crowd in Aspen last week that he believes a weak La Niña and warmer temperatures in the north Pacific caused by a Pacific Decadal Oscillation will produce snowfall 10 to 20 per cent above average for Aspen.

Predictions by Gates last year for the four ski areas in and around Aspen were very, very close to what happened, the Aspen Daily News reported.

But the Aspen Times reported that other meteorologists aren't nearly as bullish on a big snow year for Aspen. The newspaper cites meteorologist Chris Tomer of On the Snow, who sees "near-normal" snowfall for ski areas along the I-70 corridor in Colorado. Joe Ramey of the National Weather Service sees no preferred storm track.

But what if Gates is right about a big winter? It wasn't so much winter as a wet, snowy spring in 1984 that was the big story. It caught hydrologists in the Colorado River flat-footed. When temperatures finally warmed in June, surging floodwaters rapidly filled Lake Powell and nearly tore out Glen Canyon Dam.

Turning highway's lemon into a tourism lemonade

BAKER, Nev. — U.S. Highway 50 passes the Monarch ski area and comes within 48 kilometres of Crested Butte in Colorado. Arriving at Lake Tahoe, it passes by Heavenly and Sierra-at-Tahoe, plus Kirkwood and other ski areas nearby.

That leaves most of the intermountain West to cross, though. Especially in western Utah and Nevada, it can be a lonely if enchanting travel across big, dry, and sparsely populated valleys. A few decades ago, it could be an hour or more between cars or trucks driving through Eureka, Austin, and other old mining towns bisected by the highway.

Now, the two-lane highway can sometimes be almost busy. The Las Vegas Review-Journal traces the new busyness to a photo published in Life Magazine 30 years ago. An accompanying caption contained a warning from a spokesman from the American Automobile Association: "We don't recommend it. We warn all motorists not to drive there unless they're confident of their survival skills."

That warning angered the few merchants along the highway, who demanded that the magazine recant the heresy. But then tourism boosters in Nevada had a better idea: an official passport.

"Now, summertime brings streams of tourists, whose stamped Highway 50 passports can earn them a certificate that proclaims, 'I survived America's loneliest road,'" explained the Review-Journal.

Sunset Magazine and Newsweek in recent years have also devoted stories to the "loneliest road in America," which may help explain its busyness of late. Too, in the 1980s, a new national park was designated near the Nevada-Utah border. Great Basin National Park's Wheeler Peak is, at 4,000 metres, the highest point in Nevada.

Green Party official makes case for coal-fired plant

TELLURIDE, Colo. — An avowed environmentalist is making the case for a coal-fired power plant. The enviro is San Miguel County Commissioner Art Goodtimes, the only member of the Green Party in elected office in Colorado. The power plant is at Nucla, which is near his home about an hour west of Telluride.

The plant is owned by Tri-State Generation and Transmission, which delivers electricity to 43 electrical co-operatives in the Rocky Mountain states, including some of the ski towns. WildEarth Guardians, an environmental group, had sued, arguing that Tri-State's coal plants were violating federal air quality standards for regional haze.

In the negotiations that followed, Tri-State agreed to close the Nucla Station plant by 2022, causing the loss of 83 jobs at the plant and the adjoining coal mine. The local towns of Nucla, Naturita, and Norwood have been relatively poor since the end of the uranium boom in the 1960s. These jobs pay better than most.

Goodtimes has represented those towns at the county courthouse in Telluride for several decades. At a recent meeting covered by the Telluride Daily Planet, Goodtimes made the case for his constituents. The closing was more about economics than about haze, he said.

"Closing a plant that is going to have minimal, if any, effect on haze for any of our national parks, that does not make any sense. It sounds really bad. You made a decision that seems to me to be based on your economics, not upon your responsibility for air quality."

Sarah Carlisle, a Tri-State representative, agreed that economics had affected the plan. Cheap natural gas has undercut coal, she said. The coal plant at Nucla had operated a third of the year. She agreed with Goodtimes that the plant is among the cleanest of the plants operated by Tri-State.

In a followup interview with Mountain Town News, Goodtimes explained that the plant, with among the fewest emissions in Tri-State's fleet of coal plants, will have less beneficial impact on air quality than shutting down other plants. WildEarth Guardians, he charged, was "snookered" in agreeing to the plant's shutdown.

"It looks good on paper, but I don't think it appears to have a whole lot of impact on haze," he said.

Goodtimes calls for a calculated approach to easing out of coal. Instead of enviros cheering the loss of the plant and locals being pissed off, he said, there needs to be a deliberate, bottoms-up approach.

"I am not a big fan of just big-government bailouts," he said. "We need selective empowerment of local people to find a new direction."

A lament about 'cult of wolf worshipers'

JACKSON, Wyo. — The debate goes on about the role of charismatic megafauna in ecosystems of the Rocky Mountains. Penning a letter in the Jackson Hole News&Guide, local resident Ila Rogers objected to the "cult of wolf worshipers."

"The worshipers like to quote the experts who said we needed wolves, but they disregard those same experts when they said the numbers needed monitoring," Rogers wrote.

He suggested a link between the increase in wolves and declining ungulates in Yellowstone National Park. "I have not seen a moose in Yellowstone in years, nor do I see the herds of elk that roamed the Lamar Valley."

He said he doesn't hate wolves, but added that "refusing to allow management is like living in Disneyland."

5,000 grizzlies ID'd from Banff to Yellowstone

WHITEFISH, Mont. — Earlier this year, grizzly bears were discovered to have returned to the Big Hole River Valley of Montana after a century-long absence.

The discovery, said the Whitefish Pilot, illustrates just how far DNA analysis of bears has come in the past 25 years.

Tracking of grizzly bears through DNA analysis of hair follicles started in the 1990s in British Columbia. It was continued with a study that gathered about 34,000 hair samples and ultimately identified 545 individual grizzlies. That study looked at both natural bear rubs — where bears rub on trees or in some cases, fence posts — and in hair traps, where bears were enticed into barbed wire "traps" to a lure station. When the bear went to smell the lure, they would leave hair on a four-barbed wire fence.

After years of research both in the U.S. and Canada, the database of individual bears in various ecosystems from Banff National Park to Yellowstone National Park numbers is about 5,000, according to David Paetkau, president of Wildlife Genetics International.

Backcountry loses favour

JASPER, Alta. — The backcountry trail system in Jasper National Forest created in the 1980s and early 1990s is becoming neglected. The Jasper Fitzhugh reported that trail crews built more than 900 bridges over a 15-year period thanks to a healthy budget and a high priority given by Parks Canada to make the Jasper backcountry more accessible.

That was then, funds have been slashed, and bridges swept away in floods are not being replaced.

"The 1970s was the backpacking era," explained Brian Patton, co-author of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide.

"All of a sudden, Parks Canada took no interest in the far backcountry because Jasper didn't have the same sort of day-hiking opportunities that Banff and Yoho had, so it became the backpackers' park."

On his website, Patton keeps a list of decommissioned trails in Jasper. He blames the deterioration on shifted priorities.

Parks Canada now wants to do the things that are popular with the mass of tourists. He points in particular to a proposal to build a paved trail from Jasper, the town, to the Columbia Icefields.

One idea pitched to Parks Canada is to make greater use of volunteer labour. One such group, Jasper Trails Alliance, is accredited to clear trails in any of the mountain national parks.

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