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Mountain News: Breckenridge tops Vail

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By Allen Best

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. – For the third time in the last quarter-century, Breckenridge has led the United States in skier visits.

Breckenridge this past season registered 1.65 million skier visits, compared to 1.60 million for Vail. After surpassing Mammoth Mountain in the 1970s, Vail has mostly held the title of most-visited resort.

Vail’s skier numbers have not increased markedly in 15 years — despite the largest ski area expansion ever in North American history. Breckenridge, in contrast, has gained significantly, and so has Beaver Creek, which this past season reported 890,000 skier days.

The big story this season was the growth in destination skiers, which in turn allowed Vail Resorts to increase profits 15 per cent for February, March, and April, as compared to the same quarter last year. The company also reports an increase of lift ticket and pass sales from September through April of 9.1 per cent.

 

Aspen homes getting bigger

ASPEN, Colo. – Average home prices in Pitkin County, where Aspen and Snowmass are located, are about 25 years ahead of the rest of the country.

While the average size of a new house built in the United States topped 2,400 square feet in 2005, Pitkin County topped that level 25 years ago, reports The Aspen Times.

The average house size as of 2005 was 5,203 square feet.

Real-estate agents tell the newspaper there are several reasons. One, with lot prices now running $400,000 or more, homebuilders putting up spec homes often construct as big a house as government regulations will allow, to justify the investment. Also, increasing numbers of people are retiring to their vacation homes, and as such want more space.

Elsewhere in the Roaring Fork Valley, the same phenomenon of upsizing is also noted in the mid-valley area, where homes being built this year are nearly 800 square feet larger than they were just a year ago.

If the general trend remains larger, there is also a greater awareness of sustainable issues. Michael Ernemann, an architect in Aspen for 35 years, says more clients want to take advantage of solar-orientation and some even have asked for solar photovoltaic and micro-hydroelectric energy.

 

E-mails questionable

PAGOSA SPRINGS, Colo. – Was the environmental review of a road across Forest Service to service a real estate development near the Wolf Creek Ski Area prejudiced to the outcome?

That’s the suggestion in e-mail communications released this past week by Colorado Wild, a watchdog group that opposes the project for 2,200 housing units being planned by billionaire B.J. “Red” McCombs.

In an e-mail posted just before Christmas 2004, the Virginia-based environmental consultant assembling an environmental impact statement asks for the developer’s help in securing tickets for four company executives and their spouses to a Washington Redskins football game.

“These are the folks who really put their heart and soul into your EIS,” wrote Dr. Mark Blauer, director of Tetra Tech. The message was sent to Bob Honts, who is the frontman for McCombs at the project, called Wolf Creek Village.

Colorado Wild’s executive director, Ryan Demmy Bidwell, said his organization is checking into the legality of such favours.

“Regardless of whether it was legal or illegal, it is an entirely inappropriate relationship or action between a project proponent and allegedly independent contractor,” he said.

One consultant who prepares analysis for environmental impact statements — but not a fan of the Wolf Creek project — nonetheless downplayed the significance of the request. Although the contractor is working for the government agency, the nature of the work requires frequent contact with the developers, he said, nor are such requests salient in the big scheme of things.

Another e-mail message, sent in June 2005, further hints at a less than impartial relationship. “Like you, we would like this project to be over and for you to start construction of your Village,” Blauer tells Honts.

Andy Stahl, of the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, suggested the requested favours may not be a legal issue. “The court judges an EIS on the basis of what’s between its front and back covers,” he said by e-mail. “Not legally relevant is who wrote it, why they write it, who paid for its writing, who is sleeping with whom, etc.”

But Stahl, like Colorado Wild, argues that what lies between the covers of the EIS is deficient. The development needs the road across Forest Service land, and to the inholding within national forest lands that McCombs obtained in a 1986 land exchange.

The Forest Service, in its EIS, had concluded there were no environmental impacts from the road construction. Colorado Wild, in its lawsuit, argues that the point is not the road, but the real estate project that would be enabled by the road. The group says the EIS should disclose those environmental impacts.

While this was getting sorted out, Colorado Wild obtained a preliminary injunction to block construction of the road. Federal magistrate David L. West has recommended extension of that injunction through 2007, until after the Colorado Wild-Forest Service case is expected to be heard.

 

Mayor vows limit on freebies

ASPEN, Colo. – Mick Ireland, Aspen’s new mayor, says he’s not accepting schwag to the various events in Aspen such as the Jazz Aspen Snowmass. In fact, he said he will accept nothing more valuable than a bottle of water, although he will attend events to give speeches as a representative of Aspen if called upon. “It’s one thing to attend and another to avail yourself of something of value,” he said.

The Aspen Times says outgoing mayor Helen Klanderud attended a huge number of events, often on passes organizers provided, and initially suggested she may have accepted tickets to the expensive ($1,000 per ticket) Food & Wine Magazine Classic. Not so, it turns out. She paid.

Still, Klanderud readily admitted to some freebies, and defended them as part of the mayor’s job. “Particularly for the mayor, there is an expectation to extend yourself a bit to show support. I’m not suggesting anyone try to follow my schedule, but there is a part of it that goes with the job,” she told the newspaper.

 

Franchise retailers still in limbo

BANFF, Alberta – Banff continues to talk about what place, if any, chain and big-box stores should have there. The talk was triggered by a proposal by Indigo, Canada’s largest bookstore chain, to set up shop in Banff, much to the distress of the existing long-term bookseller.

While Indigo will receive its business license, the issue remains very much alive, reports the Rocky Mountain Outlook. While Banff reserves the right to refuse any business license, the municipality has never refused a business on the basis that it is a chain store.

Meanwhile, down-valley in Canmore, at least one town councillor is talking about trying to create obstacles to big-box retailers. Such businesses as Wal-Mart can’t be banned outright, but zoning ordinances can limit their size and perhaps discourage their presence.

 

Telluride turns mutinous

TELLURIDE, Colo. – The protracted and sometimes disjointed discussion about the future of energy has turned mutinous in Telluride.

There, at an annual meeting of the local electrical co-op, San Miguel Power Association, impassioned local citizens defied tradition — and perhaps the organization’s bylaws — in ordering the electrical co-op to start buying 5 per cent of the utility’s electricity from local sources.

At issue is the perceived danger of global warming and what the local response should be. What is emerging at Telluride, and at other places, is the argument that communities should have not only the opportunity, but the obligation of providing at least a portion of their needs locally and from non-carbon sources.

Telluride resident Pamela Zoline-Lifton says San Miguel Power’s existing board misunderstands its mission. “They think they need to provide cheap, cheap power,” she said, “but what they really need to provide is responsible power, and they haven’t recalculated that yet.”

Triggering the dispute was the plan announced last year by Tri-State Generation and Transmission to build two and possibly three coal-fired power plants. Aside from large dams, coal is the cheapest source of reliable electricity.

Tri-State serves about a third of electricity in Colorado, mostly in the rural areas beyond the urbanized Front Range corridor, plus large sections of New Mexico, Wyoming and Nebraska.

Two of the 44 member utilities — Colorado’s Delta-Montrose and New Mexico’s Taos-based Carson Electric — have refused. Others, most notably Gunnison County Electric, hesitated, with much discussion about whether Tri-State has done enough to encourage conservation and develop alternative energy sources. San Miguel, which includes several counties in the San Juan Mountains, also hesitated.

A week before the meeting, Telluride had been host to a day-long discussion about our energy futures. Participants had been galvanized by images presented by national Geographic editor Dennis Dimick of glaciers rapidly receding and other effects attributed to the effects of global warming.

 

Oak trees coming to Tahoe?

LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Big changes are ahead for Lake Tahoe as a result of global warming, and they’re already underway, says a scientist.

A study of 7,300 measurements over a 33-year period found that the lake’s water temperature increased about 0.88 degrees Fahrenheit (0.5 degrees Celsius). This is, says Robert Coats, a research ecologist with the University of California Davis, consistent with the warming reported at other big lakes around the world, including the Great Lakes, Switzerland’s Lake Zurich, and Africa’s Lake Tanganyika.

This is also about double the increase in ocean temperatures.

Most of this warming at Tahoe is explained by increased night-time temperatures of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius).

Coats, preparing a lecture at Incline Village, Nev., told the Sierra Sun that while the effects of global warming are complex, interrelated and difficult to predict, it’s inevitable that there will be environmental transformation in the Lake Tahoe Basin. If precipitation and warming trends stay the course during the next century, oak trees — currently found 3,700 feet lower in elevation — will replace pine trees.

He said global warming will, at the very least, be “difficult,” and at the far end catastrophic. “It’s anybody’s guess, but big changes are in store without question,” he told the newspaper.

 

Nudging toward green power

EAGLE COUNTY, Colo. – By drawing up regulations governing their use, officials in Eagle County hope to encourage development of more small-scale solar panels, wind turbines, and hydroelectric generators. The proposed regulations would specify that a landowner in unincorporated areas has the right to build an 80-foot-tall wind turbine, except near property lines, explains the Vail Daily. By specifying that they are uses by right, except as specified, the county also seeks to encourage hydroelectric generators that provide up to 500 kilowatts of energy.

 

Big projects in the works

TRUCKEE, Calif. – Four major projects are in the planning stages at Truckee, with a possible yield of more than 1,000 new housing units and 350,000 square feet of commercial space. Two of the projects are on Truckee’s south side. Also being worked up are plans for the old railway yards near downtown, reports the Sierra Sun.

        

Construction becoming women’s work

PARK CITY, Utah – More women are operating construction machinery in Park City and surrounding Summit County.

“I can run any piece of equipment out there: front-end loaders, graders, scrapers,” Tracey Vincent, a long-time operator, told the Park Record.

“You definitely have to prove yourself as a woman,” said Vincent. “I don’t think that they want you to succeed, because it’s their world. I think the old-school thought is that some women should be home cooking or with the kids. I don’t think they know any better.”

Handling the equipment, she said, is tricky, and she concedes that some women at construction sites are “here just looking for a husband.” But, she added, some female construction hands are “good, if not better, than the men.”

Some female equipment operators said they just preferred being outside (or at least in a cabin) as opposed to an office. But, says Taryn Fickas, who drives a dump truck, “you got to work in a man’s field to make the money.”

 

Stiff winds blow down trees

FRISCO, Colo. – Hundreds of trees were uprooted, a few cars were destroyed, and dozens of homes were damaged in the Frisco, Silverton, and Dillon areas of Summit County when a cold front tore through on June 6. Winds of 90 mph were also reported in the storm, which left snow at about 8,000 feet and above.

 

Boom! Then rocks roll

CANMORE, Alberta – A rockslide had the city of Canmore paying full attention in early June. The Rocky Mountain Outlook said that shortly after noon a loud boom was heard through the town, followed by a cloud of dust and an undetermined quantity of limestone crashed down onto the steep slope of nearby Rundle Mountain. None of the falling rock descended to the road below, nor were any climbers believed to be on the rarely used route on the mountain’s face.

 

Antler arch sold for $51,000

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. – Elk antlers are easy to come by in Jackson Hole, location of the National Wildlife Elk Refuge. And for 50 years, giant arches of antlers have stood at each of the four corners of the Jackson Town Square.

But the arches are to be replaced, and the first one was put up for sale this year. It won’t go far — just a mile down the street to the Best Western Inn, whose owner, Jerry Johnson, bid $51,000, outlasting an interior designer representing a client who just bought a house in Park City.

This was also the 40th year for sale of antlers collected at the refuge. Some 5,379 pounds of elk antlers were sold, with newer brown ones going for higher prices than older, bleached antlers. Also available for sale were bison and elk skull plates. Nearly $760,000 was raised, with 20 per cent going to the Boy Scouts, who collect the antlers and help put on the sale.

 

Fraser couple opts for simple life

FRASER, Colo. – In something akin to a man-bites-dog story, the Winter Park Manifest tells of a couple from nearby Fraser who deliberately got rid of their lone car. Their goal is to save money and simplify their lives. Neither do they own cell phones, televisions or computers.

If Collette and Pat O’Connell need computers, they go to a library. If they want to watch a sporting event, they go to the home of friends or some other venue.

The O’Connells tell the Manifest that not having a car has slowed down their lives. “It feels like we’re going 25 mph on the interstate with three or four lanes of traffic,” says Pat, a pastor at a local church. Collette believe the absence of a car allows them to have more interaction with other people.

For trips to Denver, the O’Connells consolidate errands and then rent a car from a local taxi company, at a cost of $70 to $85 per day. Other times, they use public transportation.