Mountain News: Steamboat plans plastic bag ban, but legality a bit murky 

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STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. – Steamboat Springs has decided to say no more to freebie plastic bags at four of its major stores come October. But can it legally do so?

It seems late to ask that question. Twelve Colorado towns and cities, all but one of them located within the mountains, have banned or implemented a fee on single-use plastic bags. But the Colorado Sun points to one very basic problem: it may be against a state law adopted in 1993.

The law preempts local jurisdictions from limiting what types of plastics can be recycled. It was created to incentivize people to recycle. The specific language may have been a compromise with the plastic industry, says Morgan Cullen, legislative and policy advocate for the Colorado Municipal League.

In other words, the language was not intended to mean that towns and cities had no authority to ban plastic bags. But it's hazy.

In 1993 "no one was considering the prohibition of plastics," Cullen told the Sun. "And now it's 2019 and the general public has become more aware of the environmental costs of plastics and are beginning to petition their local governments about removing single-use plastics."

Petitioning the Steamboat Springs City Council by local high school students triggered the impending municipal ban. Steamboat Pilot & Today reports that students last November told the council members it was time for Steamboat to join its peers among mountain towns.

The ordinance to be drafted will call for ban of single-use plastic bags at stores of more than 10,000 square feet. Paper bags can be provided but at a cost of $0.20 each. Three quarters of the revenue will go to the city. Smaller retailers can opt into the program and they can retain the fee.

The four stores—two grocery stores, a Walmart, and a Walgreens—distribute 3.8 million plastic bags per year.

A bag ban was first proposed in Steamboat in 1989 by a coalition called Environmental 2000. "It was a relatively new idea," Steamboat resident Johnny Walker told the Steamboat paper. "It was decided to wait and see what other communities were doing before we really took the leap."

Telluride was the first municipality in Colorado to take the leap. That was in 2011. The adoption—applicable to the town's two grocery stores, with the option of a $0.05 paper bag—followed a competition with Aspen to see who could produce the greatest reduction in bags based on voluntary efforts. That same competition was then expanded to other jurisdictions that were then part of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns.

Even then, Telluride was wary of the state law. Kevin Geiger, the town attorney, told the Sun that the 1993 law was pretty clear about local governments not preventing the recycling of plastics. But the provision has stopped Telluride from a longer reach, to ban disposable forks and straws, as some council members want.

The 1993 law also thwarted Avon's reach last year. It banned plastic bags but stopped short of polystyrene, foam containers, as some on the council wanted.

The Colorado Municipal League's Cullen has been working with state legislators on a proposal to clearly delegate to local jurisdictions authority to regulate plastic straws, containers, and other plastics.

And it's only paper bags for customers in Jackson

JACKSON, Wyo. – It's either BYOB—bring your own bag—or a paper bag at $0.20 per bag at six stores in Jackson.

Come November, other merchants in Jackson—the only town in Jackson Hole—must similarly cease free distribution of plastic bags.

The town began taking steps last year, wanting to allow the stores time to prepare. But one of the stores, Whole Grocer, phased out plastic bags in December.

Reaction has been mixed, checkout staffer Caitlin Brooks tells the Jackson Hole News&Guide. "Some are upset about it and want us to tell the manager they want the plastic bags back," she said. "Others say, 'It's about time.'"

Some have protested that paper bags are not better than plastic. But paper bags can have a second life as cardboard, says Carrie Bell, waste diversion and outreach coordinator for Teton County.

"Paper bags have high recyclability," she said. "Plastics really don't."

One of Jackson's grocery stores, Smith's, is operated by Kroger, the supermarket chain that has a similarly branded store in Park City and, in Colorado, a fleet of City Markets and King Soopers. By 2025, it plans to phase out use-once, throw-it-away plastic bags throughout its 2,764 supermarkets and multi-department stores.

Free skiing ends for those 70 and above at Whitefish

WHITEFISH, Mont. – It was another record year for skier visits at Whitefish Mountain Resort, the third in a row. Business is so good that the resort owners now plan to start charging those aged 70 and above $135 for an annual pass.

Riley Polumbus, spokesperson for Whitefish Mountain Resort, said assessing the septuagenarians and their elders a minimal charge was necessary as that age demographic grows.

"This particular age demographic is healthier and more active than ever," said Dan Graves, chief executive of the ski area. "We are very much in awe of these dedicated skiers. However, each year of growth has added to the demands of our facilities."

E-bikes allowed on path linking Summit County

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — Summit County has a 90-km asphalt trail that connects most of the county's six towns with a link also to Copper Mountain and to Vail. It's wonderful for bicycling—but not, so far, for e-bikes.

County officials and Breckenridge both planned to begin allowing those e-bikes that operate only when the rider is pedaling and the motor cuts out when the e-bike reaches speeds of 32 kilometres per hour or greater. Another class of e-bikes has motors that are controlled by throttles and assist riders regardless of whether the rider is pedaling or not. Those, however, will not be allowed.

Clearing the way for the new policy was a new state law in 2017 that permits both classes of e-bikes onto pedestrian pathways where bicycles are also allowed. But the law gave final say to local jurisdictions.

That same path connects to Cooper Mountain and a trail across Vail Pass. Vail has been allowing use of e-bikes, both kinds, on its pathways since early 2018. However, it does not allow e-bikes that go up to 45 km/h. It's possible to then continue down valley on a dedicated bike/pedestrian trail hewing to the Eagle River and then at Dotsero, the Colorado River to Glenwood Springs.

Snowmaking expansions at Vail continues 40 years later

VAIL, Colo. – The armoring of Vail Mountain to the vagaries of weather and now climate change continues.

The Vail Daily reports that Vail Resorts has received approval from the U.S. Forest Service to add about 106 hectares of snowmaking coverage to the mountain. When the snowmaking expansion is completed in several years, about 25 per cent of the mountain's terrain—one of the largest in North America—will be covered.

The goal, explains the Daily, is to deliver near certainty for Thanksgiving skiing.

That's a quest that Vail has struggled with since its opening in 1962. That inaugural year had a parched autumn that continued past Thanksgiving. In the resort's early years, reliable snow was an iffy thing until Christmas.

Beginning in 1978, after one of the worst droughts in recorded history, Vail began investing robustly in snowmaking. Obviously, it hasn't quit.

February cold snap took toll on beetles in Jasper

JASPER, Alta. – It got cold enough in February in Jasper National Forest that by one estimate 90 per cent of bark beetles may have died. But the number of red trees in the park will expand this summer, reports The Fitzhugh, because of concurrent spread of beetles last year.

A 2017 survey found that 93,000 hectares of the park's 200,000-hectare pine forests had been impacted by bark beetles in this epidemic. The newspaper notes that extinguishing wildfire in the past has allowed the forests to become more dense and older, making them more vulnerable to the insects.

Just who has the bottom rung of the resort ladder?

KETCHUM, Idaho – Ketchum and Sun Valley, the first deliberately created destination ski resort in North America, by the end of the 20th century had become something of a quasi-private ski area for locals.

To remedy that, Ketchum—the town at the base of Bald Mountain—set out to revamp its development regulations to make them friendlier to new and taller hotels. The most obvious result was the Limelight, which was built by the Aspen Skiing Co. The community also boosted its direct flight program.

Still, Ketchum and Sun Valley lack the commercial vibrancy of other destination resorts, consultant Ralf Garrison told a recent forum at the Limelight in Ketchum.

Local lodging properties have occupancy rates of 30 to 40 percent during December, January, and February, he said. Competing resorts average occupancy rates of 50 to 65 percent during those same months.

During the winter of 2017-18, he told the Idaho Mountain Express, occupancy rates provided profitability for tourism-reliant businesses on just 62 of the 180 days of the winter season.

Aspen, he went on to say, generates $30 million annually from lodging tax revenue, Jackson nets $27 million, Mammoth $20 million, and Steamboat Springs $10 million.

"You're going to be competing against Gunnison and Crested Butte for the bottom rung of the ladder," said Garrison.

Garrison began his career in the tourism sector in the late '60s at the new resort of Crested Butte, where he helped found the town of Mt. Crested Butte.

Garrison was in Ketchum to make the case for boosted funding from Ketchum for marketing promotion. The Express did not identify who was paying him, although the clearest beneficiary of his remarks was Visit Sun Valley, the tourism promotion agency.

Climate variability is normal, but warming springs are not

WESTMINSTER, Colo.—In Pennsylvania, the groundhog known as Punxsutawney Phil saw no shadow this year. That is supposed to portend an early spring.

In the Rocky Mountains, early springs have been coming no matter what. This was a cold winter in many places, but on average the climate has been warming for several decades. It's sure to get much warmer yet.

A case in point is Colorado's North Park, headwaters of the North Platte River but a short distance from the headwaters of the Colorado River and also the Steamboat ski area.

There, according to Dr. J.J. Shinker, an associate professor from the University of Wyoming, the temperature overall has increased 1.44 degrees Celsius (2.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1909.

But warming during the spring months of March, April, and May has been disproportionate, rising almost 2.21 degrees C (four degrees Fahrenheit) on average since 1909.

"That's a lot of warming in a short period of time," she told members of the Colorado Water Congress at a recent conference. She also pointed out that warming at high elevations has been disproportionately greater than the global average.

This disproportionate spring warming then produces earlier runoff in the North Platte and other rivers. On average, runoff occurs five days earlier for every degree Celsius in warming.

This matters to water managers, who try to ensure the irrigation ditches still have enough water come August and September. It also matters to mountain resorts as warming springs shrink the backend of ski season.

But everybody should be concerned for two more reasons, said Shinker. First, the worst droughts we've seen, the worst on record since European settlement about 150 years ago, don't come close in depth and intensity of those of the past. Forest fires of the past were also giant affairs.

This was part of natural variability. But now there is the overlay of what might be called unnatural variability, this overlay caused by human forcing of the climate.

"The warming that we are seeing is occurring at a rate that is outside the range of natural variability," Shinker said in an interview after her talk to Colorado water managers. "And it's occurring as a result of the greenhouse gases that result from human activity."

Paleoclimatologists can tell much about shifting climates of the past 12,000 years by studying high mountain lakes. Consider Emerald Lake, which is in Colorado's Sawatch Range, near the trailheads to the state's two highest mountains, Elbert and Massive. Scientists studying lake sediments and other clues have documented shorelines that a millennium ago were much lower. The droughts then lasted for decades, even hundreds of years, what are called megadroughts.

Lake of the Woods, which is located in Wyoming along the Continental Divide south of Jackson Hole, also offers evidence deciphered by scientists of a megadrought 5,200 years ago.

The point, said Shinker, is that natural variability has always occurred in the interior West. So, too have, extreme events, such as the wildfires that accompanied a megadrought in North Park about 2,000 years ago.

In the Colorado River Basin, scientists have reached much the same conclusion. Undeniably, there have been several hard drought years since 2000. But Brad Udall of Colorado State University and other scientists have concluded that it's not a drought as conventionally understood. Rather, rising temperatures have begun causing more evaporation and transpiration, resulting in less water getting downstream.

That doesn't mean conventional climatic forces don't have swagger. From her post in Wyoming, Shinker studies what causes natural climatic variability in the interior West, such as movement of the polar jet stream north and south. But now there's an overlay, one created by human activities.

Is electricity from dams 'clean?'

KETCHUM, Idaho—Idaho Power, the electrical utility that serves much of Idaho, including Ketchum and Sun Valley, has announced a goal of getting to 100-per-cent clean energy by 2045. But in this, there is some disagreement about what constitutes clean.

The utility has cut the intensity of carbon emissions from its energy mix by almost half in the last 14 years. And compared to the carbon footprint of electricity in much of the country, including Colorado, the utility is already light on carbon: just 24 per cent from coal and natural gas.

This will affect Wyoming, as some of the power for Idaho comes from the Jim Bridger plant, which is near Rock Springs, roughly halfway between Jackson Hole and Park City.

Idaho Power—like other Pacific Northwest states—is blessed with abundant hydroelectric power. But Ben Lzicar sees nothing clean about the hydroelectric power produced by building dams. Writing in the Idaho Statesman, he cites the threatened populations of steelhead salmon as well as orcas, plus the hundreds of kilometres of healthy and vital riparian habitat that were destroyed when the dams were constructed during the 20th century.

"Moving the goalposts back by calling dams 'clean' isn't doing anyone good," he writes.

One word leads to another

PARK CITY, Utah—Testosterone ruled in a case of two skiers at Deer Valley. Citing a police report, the Park Record reported a confrontation that started when one of the two men blocked the other from getting into a lift line. Why not wasn't clear.

This led to an argument, shouting top to bottom on the next ski run. At the next life line, one skier took off his skis, and the other skier tackled him and held him down. At least one punch was thrown.

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