Mountain News: Tourism still matters in ski towns 

ASPEN, Colo. - Is there a silver lining in these enormous economic storm clouds? Well, from the perspective of the ski marketing folks, they feel wanted again.

For the last decade, ski towns have been convulsed with the thinking that they were driven by real estate. "It's all about real estate," said an Aspen mayor at a conference several years ago, and a former town manager from Vail agreed with him.

In fact, economic studies done by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments several years ago showed that real estate had become the top economic driver in Vail, Aspen, and several other ski towns.

But real estate sales last year were down 40 to 50 per cent in most of the major markets, and perhaps worse yet in the also-ran resort valleys. With that, the tourism sector is now feeling more important once again. It's a somewhat enfeebled muscle, to be sure, but what would Aspen and Vail look like this winter if the only ones bringing home the bacon were real-estate agents?

In fact, there always has been a symbiotic relationship between tourism and real-estate sales. Some ski towns, such as Aspen, Crested Butte and Telluride, existed before the ski areas, but real estate prices were inflated by the tourism economy. In other towns, such as Vail and Snowmass, real-estate development subsidized skiing operations.

David Perry, the senior vice president at the Aspen Skiing Co., obliquely noted this synergism in a recent appearance before the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. "We are a ski town, and tourism drives real estate," he said.

Aspen actually had a good January, helped both by the X Games and by inexpensive airfares. Advance reservations outpaced the Christmas and New Year's week, said Perry, former head of Colorado Ski Country USA and marketing director at Whistler Blackcomb.

What are not necessarily holding up, however, are lodging rates. "Will somebody pay full price," joked Warren Klug, general manager of the Aspen Square Condominiums. "Everyone who calls is expecting a special deal," he said. With an interest in protecting what he calls "rate integrity," he is reluctant to offer deep discounts.

Jobless workers fleeing

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. - Seasonal workers are now fleeing ski towns, the jobs they expected unavailable and their savings rapidly being depleted.

In Colorado, the Summit Daily News tells of scores of Brazilians decamping after a month of little or no work. The newspaper says hundreds of Brazilian students were enticed to pay sponsoring agencies as much as $2,000 plus travel expenses to acquire visas and get work at the resort, only to find upon arrival that the slumping U.S. economy had dried up virtually every job opportunity.

One Brazilian said that only two of the 12 countrymen he came with originally remain. "Lots of them decided to leave to Brazil or to another place," he said.

The newspaper also interviewed somebody in Park City, Utah. "Here in Park City, things are very complicated," said the Brazilian, Mathesus Fierro. "I live with 10 Brazilians, and three of them still don't have a job. Most people that actually have a job offer are working as temporary."

He confided that he did have a good job - but he had lost hope many times along the way.

Open-door policy isn't 'green'
BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. - Ohio resident Dan Willer said he was "disgusted" by what he saw in Breckenridge during his traditional January visit this year.

On the town's main street, he found door after door left wide open on a night when the temperature was only 18 degrees. Inside, the heat was blasting. There were six such open-door-policy businesses in one block alone, he recounted in a letter published in the Summit Daily News.

"Why?" he wanted to know. Because, responded the shop managers, people would think they were closed if the doors were shut.

"To add insult to injury, throughout our visit to Breckenridge, we were constantly accosted with what I now consider 'propaganda' that emphasized how 'green' it is," he said.

Those Breckenridge shops, he advised, won't see his shadow darken their doorways ever again. He and his companions are taking their business elsewhere.

For the record, the natural gas burned to heat Main Street in Breckenridge most likely came from Colorado's Roan Plateau. It has become a national symbol of rapacious ruin of wild areas for the extraction of oil and gas.

No ski town need feel too smug about such things, though. This correspondent has noticed that a good many ski town retailers seem to think their well-heeled customers are too dense to read signs with such taxing words as "shut" and "open."

Mayor sees light
CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. -Why do those lights on main street need to be on all night? That was the question from Alan Bernholtz, mayor of Crested Butte.

"We are always talking about trying to save energy and being green, and when I am out early in the morning, all the street lights along Elk Avenue (the main street) are blazing away all night," he told fellow council members recently. "It seems weird. Can we turn half of them off?"

Probably not, town manager Susan Parker responded, as the lights are all on the same circuit. But she promised to look into the matter.

Sledders fined $500

ASPEN, Colo. - Four snowmobilers have been fined $500 each by the U.S. Forest Service for snowmobiling in designated wilderness areas.

Such unlawful incursions into designated wilderness areas are common in the Roaring Fork Valley, says The Aspen Times. Some of the "poaching" is a result of ignorance, and in other cases it is intentional.

Either way, riders have the responsibility of knowing where the wilderness boundaries are located. Through the fines, the agency wanted to get the word out that there could be repercussions from violations.

AvaLungs, luck save trio
VAIL, Colo. - The Denver Post's Scott Willoughby reports a fascinating tale of both arrogance and luck from the backcountry of the Gore Range north of Vail.

Three people were exploring from a base at the Eiseman Hut when they were caught in an avalanche that buried them under as much as seven feet of snow for more than two hours. That they got caught in the avalanche suggests that they chose to ignore everything they had learned about safety in steep-snow country. That they survived can be traced directly to the fact that they had a device called an AvaLung - that and also a great deal of luck, pure and simple.

Penn Newhard, a spokesman for Black Diamond, the manufacturer of AvaLung, said there have been 12 or 13 documented cases of people surviving avalanche burials because of AvaLung.

"But I'm always hesitant to push them too hard," he told The Post. "Even beacons have just under a 50 per cent survivor recovery rate. This isn't like Superman's cape. Sooner or later, someone is going to get dug up with a 'Lung in their mouth, having not survived."

In fact, luck may have been as much or even more important than the device. The snow from the slide was unusually loose. The looseness allowed the men to clear an air passage. More often, avalanche debris heavily compacts, more akin to clay than Styrofoam.

A report by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center says two of the men had passed avalanche courses and were familiar with the area. One was on skis, another on a split snowboard, and the third on snowshoes. Even as they ascended a ridge, they saw evidence of naturally triggered avalanches.

Still, they did not dig a hasty pit, to better evaluate snow stability. Instead, they continued up a 40-degree slope, which is prime avalanche territory. The greatest danger is on slopes of 30 to 45 degrees.

Following a "whumph" of collapsing snow, the snow began moving, and the men were carried a mere 20 feet down the slope. Still, it was enough to bury them as much as seven feet.

All three men were buried for at least an hour before one managed to dig out. The longest and deepest burial lasted two hours and 14 minutes under seven feet of snow.

Brad Sawtell, a forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, credits the men for being well equipped. All had not only avalanche transceivers, but also shovels and probe poles.

All those tools are needed for rapid recovery of victims who are not first killed by trauma or by hypothermia. Suffocation accounts for 75 per cent of deaths.

But 92 per cent of avalanche victims not otherwise killed survive if they are dug out within the first 15 minutes. After that, the odds go down rapidly. Only 25 per cent remain after an hour. After two hours, almost no one survives.

Being buried deeply also makes the odds more dismal. Roughly 2 per cent of avalanche victims survive a burial of seven feet.

Solar thermal for smooth skating
CANMORE, Alberta - It's counterintuitive, Zambonis use extremely hot water of between 160 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit in order to create and smooth ice on skating rinks. Because it has less oxygen, hot water bonds to the surface better, smoothes uneven surfaces, and makes "harder" ice.

And at a heavily used ice arena, such as the one at the Rec Centre in Canmore, Zambonis can flood the two ice surfaces up to 32 times a day, in the process using up to 11,840 litres (3,127 gallons) of hot water.

Because of that high consumption, solar thermal collecting panels were mounted on the building. The collectors are expected to supply one-fifth of the hot water needed. Although in this case the collectors were paid for by provincial grants, normally the saved energy would pay for the project in 13 years, officials tell the Rocky Mountain Outlook.

Solar thermal in most cases achieves a greater bang for the buck than photovoltaic solar collectors, which produce electricity.

Building moratorium in place
OURAY, Colo. - Very little mining remains in Ouray County. But scattered about in the high country, amid the public lands, are 1,292 parcels of private land patented originally as mining claims.

That these parcels could eventually become homesites is something that county commissioners were aware of. Across Colorado, such remote locations have become home for many cabins, but with occasional repercussions, such as the need for extension of fire-protection services. Eagle County (Vail), Pitkin County (Aspen) and Summit County (Breckenridge) have all adopted regulations during the last 20 years that sharply limit what can be done on such parcels.

Wanting to similarly curtail repercussions, the Ouray County commissioners have adopted a moratorium on such land parcels while they draw up regulations governing such development. The Telluride Watch, which is based in adjacent San Miguel County, reports that stabilization work in that county will be allowed to continue on the historical structures that already exist.

Coal-fired power plant reviewed

FARMINGTON, N.M. - Barack Obama takes office, and a week later the Environmental Protection Agency ordered review of all scientific and legal issues raised about the proposed Desert Rock power plant. Is there any connection?

An attorney for Desert Rock said the new review was not unexpected. But opponents indicated said there is now an opportunity to rethink the wisdom of approving coal-fired power plants when, in fact, effort should instead be devoted to renewable energy sources.

At 1,500 megawatts, the coal-fired power plant would be among the largest in the nation, capable of delivering electricity to 1.5 million customers in the West. The new plant is promised to be among the cleanest coal-fired plants yet. The EPA approved the plan last summer over the objections of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and environmental activists, including a local Navajo group called Diné Care.

This new review, notes the Durango Telegraph, will include a hard look at whether emissions from the plant will elevate the ozone in the San Juan Basin, where Durango is located. Several monitoring sites in the basin, although not in Durango itself, have indicated levels of lung-scarring ozone that have recently exceeded federal limits. The basin already has two major coal-fired power plants plus thousands of diesel generators used at oil and gas wells, all of which contribute exhausts that contribute to the ozone.

There is also suspicion that mercury from existing power plants is being deposited in snowpacks in the San Juan Mountains, near Silverton and perhaps Telluride and Ouray.

Black widow bite may be TV fodder
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. - The story of a black widow bite of a Steamboat Springs High School student in 2007 could be made into a documentary production for television.

The Steamboat Pilot & Today explains that although black widow bites are seldom fatal, Mike Amsden was writhing on the floor in pain within five minutes of the spider strike. An antivenin is commercially available in the United States, but with potential side effects. As well, allergic reactions can be fatal in children. As such, the boy's family decided to seek an antivenin available in Mexico that has minimal side effects.

In a scene out of a Hollywood film the purchase was made at the airport in Mexico City. After it was administered to the boy in Steamboat Springs, the pain that had afflicted him for two weeks was gone within an hour.

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