Mountain News: 

Aspen defends environmental stance

By Allen Best

ASPEN, Colo. – The Aspen Skiing Co. is building a major real-estate project at the base of Snowmass. It continues to expand ski terrain at Snowmass. And, on top of all this, its top executives have spent most of the last year driving around in hulking SUVs.

It would seem that any other ski company would get raked over the coals for that kind of track record. Certainly, Vail has. And even Crested Butte has been flunked in one ski-area report card for even thinking about real estate and ski area expansion.

Yet Aspen gets straight A’s in that same ski area report card. It has been lauded regionally and even nationally for efforts to combat global warming. And the ski company just launched an advertising campaign that seeks to draw attention to global warming — and in the process encourages people to visit Aspen, because Aspen is trying to stop it.

Mutterings of hypocricy have circulated for several years in the Roaring Fork Valley, where Aspen is located, but recently they erupted into print. Leading the charge was Roger Marolt, a typically brash columnist in The Aspen Times.

He capped his column with what is, in Aspen, the ultimate insult: Comparing Aspen Skiing unfavorably with Vail Resorts, which has now purchased a much larger quantity of wind-power electricity. “Is Vail greener than Aspen?” he asked tartly.

This debate points toward the ultimate question for all ski resorts who want to be seen as environmentally benign while catering to the world’s wealthiest people: How can you truly be a tree-hugging environmentalist when most of your customers arrive in jets, even private jets. Jets are singularly the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in Aspen’s economy.

In a coincidentally timed “sustainability” report that had been in preparation for four months, Aspen chief executive officer Pat O’Donnell acknowledged the inconsistencies as being the “elephant in the room,” both within the company and the community more broadly.

The use of the gas-hog SUVs, he explained, was the result of “bad judgment.” The company has a sponsorship deal with Nissan, which provided 12 vehicles for which it was seeking exposure. Among the freebies was Nissan’s largest SUV, the Armada. A website, www.fueleconomy.gov , reports the Armada gets 13 miles per gallon in city driving and ranks the vehicle as among the worst in emitting greenhouse gases.

Five months ago, Aspen Skiing informed Nissan that contract or not, the Armadas could not be used. Nissan agreed, and is instead providing the smaller Pathfinders.

In the sustainability report, O’Donnell admitted to “some merit” in the questioning of the expansion of Snowmass ski terrain, but ultimately rejected the thesis. “The logical extension of the criticism would be to shut down operations altogether,” he said. “Aspen Skiing Co. is a business trying to minimize its enormous impacts, operating in a way that enables us to be sustainable. But we are still a business,” O’Donnell wrote in the annual report.

O’Donnell also rejected criticism of the base-village redevelopment at Snowmass. He described the previous development as “sprawl posing as a mountain town.” He added: “We had to fix it if we wanted to stay in business.”

Rush to cap houses at 12,000 sq. ft.

SUN VALLEY, Idaho – Town officials in Sun Valley are moving to a cap on the size of homes. The average size of homes is now 3,500 square feet, and the mayor and city council had wanted a cap of 10,000 square feet, the cap imposed in Jackson, Wyo. The intent, Mayor Jon Thorson said, was to “protect the integrity of Sun Valley.”

But the planning commission achieved a consensus of 12,000 square feet. The cap is being rushed, explains the Idaho Mountain Express, as Idaho voters in November will vote on a proposal, modeled after a similar one approved by Oregon voters two years ago, that will require Idaho counties and cities to pay landowners whose property values are decreased by land-use laws.

Park City studying Reno

PARK CITY, Utah – A delegation of city officials and business leaders from Park City this year is going to the Reno-Lake Tahoe region. The delegation every fall goes to a different resort area because, explains tour organizer Myles Rademan, “Anytime you get out of your own zip code, it opens your eyes.”

Reno is known as a gambling town, but the economy has been shifting, notes The Park Record. Whereas gaming revenues once provided 80 to 90 per cent of the revenues, it’s now down to about 50 per cent.

Rademan suggests that the shift might be instructive for Park City. Because of global warming, skiing might be providing fewer revenues for Park City in the future. Bill Malone, executive director of the Park City Chamber/Bureau, similarly notes that Park City might well learn about how to market summer from the Lake Tahoe area. “They do a spectacular amount of summer business,” he says.

Steamboat for sale in pieces

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. – Two of the biggest pieces of the resort puzzle at Steamboat Springs are now up for play.

Earlier this year, American Skiing Co. announced it was testing the waters for potential sale of the Steamboat ski area, one of its most consistently successful ski areas.

Now, several major components of the base area are being marketed. Those components include the 315-room Sheraton hotel, the Thunderbird Lodge, and a commercial complex called Ski Time Square. Also available for sale are the golf course and Graystone residential subdivision.

The owner is Ski Time Square Enterprises, which is composed of six individuals plus Starwood Hotels.

Denver-based HVS Capital was hired to market the properties, and the firm’s managing director, Mike Sullivan, told The Denver Post that he expects the properties will fetch "well over $100 million." He also said “there is a high probability that whoever buys the base-area properties would also buy the mountain. It makes good sense."

The base area of the ski area has been the target of redevelopment for the last two years. An urban-renewal authority was formed in 2005 to fund more than $18 million in public improvements there.

Suzanne Bott, the town’s senior planner, told The Post that consolidating ownership of the base area and the ski area could yield some “amazing redevelopment."

Loss of immigrants felt

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. – The labor pinch is becoming more pronounced in the Aspen-Glenwood Springs-Rifle area, reports the Rocky Mountain News, and wages for such jobs as landscapers and painters have been climbing.

The oil-and-gas boom in the Rifle-Parachute area has contributed to that pinch, drawing workers in the Rifle area who might otherwise have gravitated 30 miles upvalley to Glenwood Springs or even 80 miles to Aspen. But the newspaper also reports a secondary cause: some illegal immigrants left last spring when the dialogue about immigration heated up.

The result has been increased wages. One advertisement offered to pay painters-in-training $20 to $30 an hour.

Jackson nears worker tipping point

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — You may have noticed that the world of late has been full of “tipping points.” This old figure of speech is being heard in everyday conversation, including those in resort areas.

One tipping point in resort areas seems to be when 40 per cent of the workforce commutes. So says Christine Walker, executive director of the Teton County Housing authority. And if that is correct, Jackson Hole is rapidly moving toward losing its “soul,” to use another currently popular expression.

A study found that only 7 per cent of workers commuted from outside Jackson Hole in 1990. That grew to 20 per cent by the century’s turn, reports the Jackson Hole News&Guide, and now it’s up to 33 per cent.

In the case of Jackson Hole, most workers come from across Teton Pass from the Alta, Driggs, and Victor areas. This is an hour from Jackson Hole, and prices there are lower and the lots (given the same price) much bigger and the mountain backdrop just as magnificent.

Winter housing crunch starts

ASPEN, Colo. — Seasonal housing is tightening up rapidly in Aspen. The largest employer, the Aspen Skiing Co., which employees 2,000 during winter, has already filled up its 300 available beds and is scouting out locations down-valley 20 miles.

Seasonal housing complexes in Aspen managed by the City of Aspen and Pitkin County are also rapidly filling, reports The Aspen Times. At one project, called the Marolt Ranch, 18 of the 94 available units were snatched within a week by workers who paid nearly $3,000 for first and last month’s rent plus a security deposit. The complex is expected to be full, or nearly so, by Nov. 1. A similar flurry of signed-cheques is reported at Burlingame Housing. “I don’t think I’m going to have anything left by the end of the month, if even then,” said manager Mary Ferguson.

Aspen’s housing market in 2002-03 was so slack that affordable housing was available even during ski season. By last year a more familiar story had returned. The crunch came to a head, says the Times, when a group of young, foreign workers crowded into the Aspen City Council chamber to bemoan sleeping on couches while looking for housing.

Part-time population rises 27%

CANMORE, Alberta – The non-permanent population in Canmore continues to rise. A census this year revealed the non-permanent population had grown 27 per cent in the last year, and doubled since 2003.

That means that almost a third of Canmore’s population is part-timers, notes the Rocky Mountain Outlook. The municipal council wants to have the part-timers included with the full-timers in the annual census, to demonstrate to provincial officials — who control the purse strings in Canada — the services that they must provide.

Agassi involved in Idaho resort

DONNELLY, Idaho – Tamarack, the new resort between Boise and McCall, in Idaho, will be taking on a decidedly tennis flair. There, tennis greats Andre Agassi and Stefanie Graf have become joint-venture partners in a project to be called the Fairmont Tamarack.

Fairmont Hotels & Resorts will manage the homes and a hotel, which is to be the top-calibre offering at the resort.

Agassi, the son of an Iranian immigrant, retired last week after years at the top of tennis. Graf, his wife, is a German who was a long-time leader in the women’s division of tennis. Both will be active in developing what is called a “lifestyle offering,” but they will also be financial partners, along with Bayview Financial LP.

Other key members are the design team of Wilson & Associates, which has six offices on three continents; and a Vail-based architectural firm, VAg Inc., which specializes in residential resort architecture and prides itself on environmental awareness.

Hoteliers protest short notice

CANMORE, Alberta – Hoteliers in Canmore were cranky or worse after the municipal council ordered no smoking in public places — including hotel rooms — by Oct. 2. The lodge operators said they needed much more time — at least six months, said one representative — in order to get rooms converted to non-smoking status. That process requires cleaning carpets, drapes and mattresses, and sometimes even repainting,” explained Dany Stadmueller, Canmore Hotel and Lodging Association. In Canmore, at the gate to Banff National Park, September is still high season, and the lodges have been hamstrung by shortages of workers who have been lured to the better-paying energy development jobs in Alberta.

Mt. Shasta glacier expanding

MOUNT SHASTA, Colo. – Not all the glaciers in the world are melting. Whitney Glacier, located on California’s Mount Shasta, is growing, and scientists think global warming is the reason.

Temperatures rose one degree Celsius during the last half-century in California, and that greater warmth has resulted in less snow lower in the mountains generally, said glaciologist Slawek Tulaczyk, of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

But warmer air carries more precipitation. Temperatures remain cold enough in the high mountains for snow. So, that increased precipitation is yielding more snow in just one place that the team of researchers have found, Mt. Shasta. Shasta is located in far northern California and, with a height of 14,161 feet, is second in height only to Mt. Rainier in the volcanic Cascade Range. Tulaczyk and his team believe the glacier on Shasta is the only river of ice in the world that is now growing.

“At the higher elevations and on Mount Shasta, more snow is being dumped,” Tulaczyk told the Sacramento Bee. By the calculations of Tulaczyk and his team of researchers, the newspaper noted, it takes a 20 per cent increase in snow precipitation to counteract a one degree rise in the temperature.

But why is the glacier on Shasta growing, but not those on Rainier, Mt. Baker and other high peaks in the Cascade Range in Washington state?

The climate of California differs from that of the Pacific Northwest. California peaks, including Shasta, get nearly all their precipitation during winter, in the form of snow. But farther north, at Rainier, precipitation is more evenly distributed throughout the year.

That means more rain, and rain actually helps melt snowpack, said Tulaczyk, when asked by Mountain Town News. “This is our guess as to why there is a difference in glacier behavior.

Tulaczyk and his team do not expect the glacier on Shasta to continue expanding. Climate change computer models forecast temperature increases of 3 to 4 degrees Celsius, and Tulaczyk said snow precipitation at the higher levels would have to double to maintain the equilibrium.

Indeed, Tulaczyk and his team see just the opposite ending: increasing temperatures will “result in the loss of most of Mount Shasta’s glacier volume over the next 50 years, with near total loss by the end of the century,” they say in a paper published by Climate Dynamics. A separate paper issued by the research team says the same thing will happen in the Sierra Nevada.

The Bee notes that Nestlé USA is planning to tap springs fed by Shasta for a 500-million-gallon-a-year bottling plant. The bottles are to be issued under the brand of Arrowhead. However, given the 50-year contract, Shasta could be reduced to a pile of rocks for half the year. “This is quite worrisome, a Nestlé spokesman told the Bee.

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