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Mountain News: Aspen left in the dust

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JACKSON, Wyo. - Teton County had the highest wealth per-capita in the United States during 2007.

That conclusion was reached by Jonathan Schechter, the numbers-based trends analysts for the Jackson Hole News & Guide. He studied the Bureau of Economic Analysis per-capita income measurements and also the Internal Revenue Service, which measures income based on tax returns.

"By both measurements, in 2006, Teton County was, on a per-capita basis, the wealthiest county in America," Schechter writes. He says that for three straight years now, Teton County has bumped Manhattan for that distinction.

"Two decades ago, when I moved to Jackson Hole, the great concern was that we would become another Aspen. Today, we've left Aspen in the dust."

Perhaps surprising, the area around Pinedale, Wyo., the centre of one of the nation's most frenzied drilling booms in recent years, also was one of the wealthiest counties in the nation based on per-capita income. By these criteria, tiny and rough-hewn Pinedale was more affluent than Steamboat Springs, Breckenridge and Vail, not to mention Park City and Sun Valley, Schechter reports.

Union goes to bat for fired patroller

MT. CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. - The union representing ski patrollers at Crested Butte Mountain Resort is going to bat for Billy Rankin, a ski patroller who was fired by the resort company. Grounds for protest were not disclosed, nor did Rankin return a phone call seeking clarification.

Ken Stone, the chief operating officer at the resort, told the Crested Butte News that we will not choose outside vendors or suppliers or employ people "who have a conflict of interest with the company's vision or policies."

Rankin is a member of the Crested Butte Town Council, and in that capacity he voted to send a letter from the town to the Forest Service expressing concerns about the expansion of the ski area onto a new mountain, called Snodgrass. The letter also recommends the Forest Service not allow the expansion.

The handbook signed by employees of the resort stipulates that employees agree not to take action against the company or put themselves into situations where conflicts of interest could arise. Rankin admitted to the newspaper that he had not read the handbook when he signed it.

Grizzly education centre rejected

CANMORE, Alberta - The thin line between education and exploitation was explored in Canmore during recent weeks as the town, which is located at the eastern entrance to Banff National Park, considered a proposal for what was described as a grizzly conservation centre.

The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, located in the gateway community of West Yellowstone, Mont., was presented as the model. Ruth LeBarga, sponsor of the idea for Canmore, said the centre would attract people from around the world who would leave with more respect for the bears and less likely to come across them in the wild.

"The program is meant to break down fear and provide more knowledge on how bears behave and why," she said.

"If this project can save one human life and one bear life, is it not worth your support?" she asked the municipal councillors.

In Canmore, she found some support for further consideration. But others had heard enough.

"Canmore does not need a 'zoo' with captive bears, five in a miniscule enclose of a mere 5 acres where they cannot get out of sight/sound/ smell of each other," wrote Jean Craven, in letter published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook. "This is not conservation; that is exploitation and the display of an 1800s' mindset that I thought was long dead."

A majority of Canmore's councillors agreed. "It's an affront to the dignity of bears to have tamed, caged bears in a wild area," said André Gareau. "I do not think this is a good fit for Canmore." Others also said Camore already offers sufficient opportunities for education.

Real estate still drab

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. - Real estate numbers across several resort areas in Colorado looked somewhat similar. Sales volume in the first quarter of the year for the Steamboat and Vail/Eagle Valley markets were only 26.9 per cent compared to the same period last year. It was somewhat better, 36 per cent, in Summit County, while in Grand County it was worse, just 18 per cent.

The Steamboat Pilot & Today talked with Dennis Hanlon, a real estate agent in Park City, Utah, and founder and president of the Rocky Mountain Resort Alliance, which tallies these figures.

"The resorts have been affected by the economy, but they're not dead," Hanlon said. "Things seem to be improving." He pointed to small gains in the stock market as evidence, which is what he said will "start restoring consumer confidence."

Climatologist's skepticism is ebbing

GUNNISON, Colo. - Nolan Doesken wears the title of Colorado state climatologist. A meteorologist by training, he tends highs, lows, means and all the other records collected within the last 150 years with the utmost attention to detail.

The massing of detail, he told a water group in Gunnison recently, now leaves him "pretty close to a converted skeptic" in the issue of global warming. "Warming winters have outnumbered cooler ones by a whole lot," he said.

But Doesken, reports the Crested Butte News, seemed to indicate that the theoretical causes aren't iron-clad. With the global economic recession, emissions of carbon dioxide due to burning of fossil fuels might well be expected to be in decline, he noted. "But C02 continues to increase this year. I just got the results and (C02) is going up at the same rate as it was before the global recession," he said.

It's possible, he added, that there will be a lagged response in C02 emissions to the economic decline.

Doesken pointed out that one major mystery remains the role of water vapor, which is a far more effective greenhouse gas than C02. "The big question is what happens to water vapor?" he said.

"If a warmer atmosphere leads to more evaporation and more water vapor in the atmosphere - without increasing cloudiness - then that magnifies the greenhouse effect," he explained. "If the added moisture results in increasing thick clouds, then more solar energy is reflected back to space and the overall warming could be offset to some degree."

Mayor survives challenge

ASPEN, Colo. - Mick Ireland has been re-elected mayor of Aspen, narrowly defeating challenger Marilyn Marks. She interpreted the vote as a "huge voice for change," but Ireland saw the vote tally as a mandate to "stay with managing growth, not slowing it; creating affordable housing, protecting the environment; and building an economy that's stable."

The Aspen Times, in an editorial, indicated that the close vote was more an indictment of Ireland's style, not his substance. "He can be abrasive, even rude at times, but his record demonstrates an absolute focus on Aspen's health, as a resort and as a community. To us, Ireland's manners leave much to be desired, but his priorities as a public servant are never in doubt."

Dead trees raise fire spectre

EDWARDS, Colo. - Forest fires have been much on the minds of Colorado's mountain towns of late. Scientists point out that forests can always catch on fire, given certain thresholds of heat and drought. But seeing dead trees has a way of pointing out this obvious potential.

Those dead trees have been conspicuous, owing to an epidemic of mountain pine beetles now in its 13 th year. Nearly 2 million acres of lodgepole pine have been affected in Colorado and another 500,000 acres in contiguous areas of southern Wyoming.

Trees remain in their "red and dead" stage for three to four years after being attacked by bark beetles. After that, the needles fall off, exposing the gray trunks of dead trees. Those trees will take 15 to 20 years to blow down. Fire risk heightens both during the red-needle stage and again after the logs have fallen to the forest floor.

Conditions this year have been wetter, making conflagrations such as those seen in 2002 unlikely. Nonetheless, local emergency personnel and others in the Eagle Valley figured it was a good time to do a training exercise. The exercise, explains the Vail Daily, assumes a car had started a large wildfire that threatened homes in the high-end Lake Creek and Cordillera areas, about 20 miles west of Vail, forcing evacuation of residents.

But several scientists have challenged just how much the pine beetle epidemic has elevated the risk of wildfires. A team of scientists headed by Bill Romme, of Colorado State University, several years ago concluded that the wrong conclusions were being drawn from the current bark beetle epidemic. "The key point about lodgepole pine forests is that they were dense and burned infrequently historically, and they are dense and burn infrequently today."

Last year, geography professor Tom Veblen, of the University of Colorado-Boulder, added new ammunition to the argument. His research found fires correlated with 500-year cycles of sea-surface temperatures in the North Atlantic Ocean.

The take-home message from that evidence, says Veblen, is that natural cycles dominate. In other words, drought conditions determine when fires occur, and logging and other management has relatively little affect. Creating defensible space around subdivisions makes sense, he says, but massive logging in the name of fire suppression cannot be justified.

The Forest Service admits that much of the beetle-killed forests cannot be harvested, because of wilderness or other designations, but also because slopes are just too steep.

However, Forest Service officials - backed up by elected officials in Colorado - have been regularly lobbying Congress for more money, pointing to the need for tree removal along roads and powerlines, near campgrounds, and in urban-wildland interface areas. But the greatest need of all is in municipal watershed areas, regional forester Rick Cables tells Forest Magazine, in the summer 2009 issue. He points out that fires near Denver in the last decade have caused extensive and expensive sedimentation of that city's reservoirs. Other reservoirs for Denver and other water districts are also located among forests hard hit by bark beetles.

While some forests and scientists quibble about the role of logging, new forests are appearing. Regeneration commonly begins three to five years after an area has been logged. But forests also regenerate naturally, and so saplings have begun to arise among the dead, needle-less trees that remain standing.

"The forest that is coming in is more diverse than the homogenous stands of mature lodgepole that existed before," reports the Sky-Hi Daily News. "Aspen and spruce are regenerating with lodgepole pine. We are beginning the stage of the forest renewing itself."

Central heating considered

SILVERTON, Colo. - Several entrepreneurs tell Silverton town officials they should give a woody biomass central-heating plant a shot.

Unlike most towns, Silverton has no delivery of natural gas, which is cheap. Instead, buildings are heated by coal, which is messy, or by propane, which is expensive.

David Gibney, of Forest Energy Systems, a firm based in Show Low, Ariz., says that Silverton has a nice layout for a central heating system. Several buildings in close proximity burn coal for heat. As well, streets remain mostly dirt. As such, they could be dug up without great cost for installing of the underground hot-water lines.

At least one other Colorado town - Oak Creek, which is near Steamboat - has heard a similar pitch for a centralized heating system. It, too, relies primarily on propane and coal.

Energy-performance contractors tell Colorado Biz Magazine in the June issue that woody biomass heating plans, such as one being installed at a recreation center in Fairplay, Colo., compete very well with propane. The investment will be repaid in only two years.

The Silverton Standard & the Miner reports that the town board there took no action. However, one trustee, Jim Lindaman, questioned whether there is enough wood available in surrounding forests, even if a bark beetle infestation hits.

Officials from the Governor's Energy Office tell Colorado Biz that guarantees of supply remain a major barrier for many biomass projects across the state.

Pesticide ban studied

REVELSTOKE, B.C. - A move to ban cosmetic pesticides and herbicides in Revelstoke has been gaining support, reports the Revelstoke Times Review. Cosmetic pesticides are those used such as to eliminate dandelions.

A speaker at a recent meeting, Dr. Warren Bell, a physician from nearby Salmon Arm, B.C., said adequate testing was never done to see what effects the chemicals had on other animals, including humans. He said there are many alternatives to synthetic pesticides for golf courses, for example.

An anonymous blogger on the newspaper's website, identified as GolfGuy, accused Bell of bias. "Most of us are stewards of the environment and only use pesticides as a last resort," said the blogger, who seemed to indicate that he is involved in golf course maintenance.

The newspaper says several community groups have endorsed the ban.

Another big-box store...

SILVERTHORNE, Colo. - Big-box stories have popped up with great regularity along the Interstate 70 corridor in the last decade. Target, Wal-Mart Supercenter, The Home Depot and Costco have become nearly as conspicuous between Silverthorne and Glenwood Springs, a distance of 90 miles, as snow-capped peaks.

Next in line may be another The Home Depot, this one in Silverthorne. Nearby Frisco rejected a Home Depot five years ago, heeding the warnings of opponents that the store would turn Summit County into a Denver suburb and put small, local retailers out of business.

Those same arguments, reports the Summit Daily News, are now being waged in Silverthorne, where The Home Depot proposes a 100,000-square-foot store. The proposal has the requisite zoning, but the town council could still rule the proposed building doesn't fit into the community.

Mother admits to drug use

PARK CITY, Utah - A 29-year-old woman from near Park City in January gave birth to a drug-addicted baby. The woman admitted she had ingested methadone, cocaine and opiates while pregnant with the child, reports The Park Record. The baby immediately suffered respiratory distress after delivery in nearby Evanston, Wyo. and had to go through withdrawal and treatment.

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