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Mountain News: Flat. Out. Awesome — or unacceptable



JASPER, Alberta — "Flat. Out. Awesome." So says the website in describing the Glacier Skywalk, which is to open next year between Lake Louise and Jasper, just off the Icefields Parkway.

Flat. Out. Unacceptable. That seems to be the opinion of an advisory board to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.

The transparent-bottomed walkway would allow customers to look through their feet into the depths of Sunwapata Canyon 30 metres (100 feet) below. According to the promotional material on the website of Banff-based Brewster Travel, the developer, it will offer "one of the very few opportunities for a barrier-free wilderness experience in Canada's mountain national parks."

Cost is to be $25, and Brewster says customers are "likely to see hundreds of species."

A similar transparent horseshoe-shaped cantilevered bridge opened at the Grand Canyon in 2007. The skywalk is 150 metres to 240 metres directly above rocks in the canyon, but allows a less restrained view of the canyon and the Colorado River 1,200 metres below.

The $31 million project was developed by a Las Vegas businessman, David Jin, in partnership with the Hualapai Nation, the 2,000-member First Nation that owns the land along the canyon rim.

A reporter for the BBC, a British media agency, said the glass beneath his feet was so clear it was like walking on a cloud. U.S. astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin said it wasn't quite like floating on air "but a vision of hope for the future."

But some environmentalists and National Park Service officials called it a defacement of Grand Canyon National Park.

In Alberta, there's a similar reaction. The UNESCO advisory board says that Glacier Skywalk in Jasper National Park and the recently authorized four-season use of Norquay, the ski area near the town of Banff, pose a high threat to the ecological integrity of national parks.

The Jasper Fitzhugh talked with local critic Kim Wallace, who said that the draft assessment of the UNESCO advisory group confirms her thoughts. "It doesn't belong in a national park, and now there's an international organization affirming my gut-feeling," she said.

Greg Fenton, superintendent of Jasper National Park, told the Fitzhugh that he stands by his decision to allow the 400-metre walk. "I don't see the skywalk being in opposition to or fundamentally creating problems with the designation or the attributes that led to the designation."

In fact, said Fenton, the skywalk will "enhance the opportunities for people to learn about the natural environment and the elements of the world heritage site, (like) glaciation, which was a fundamental or very important element that led to the designation."

Brewster says the current pullout for motorists is "underwhelming." The viewpoint offers a staggering look at the Sunwapta Canyon, but its current amenities don't give travellers much reason to stop.

Telus expands info highway in Jasper

JASPER, Alberta — Despite its location in a national park, the town of Jasper is located on a major railway, a major highway, and a major pipeline. Why shouldn't it also be on a major information highway?

The Fitzhugh reports that Telus is investing $400,0000 to enhance broadband Internet, 4G, and 4G LTE wireless networks in Jasper. The company has invested $1.2 million in new technology and infrastructure in Jasper since 2011.

New ski portal

PARK CITY, Utah — Deer Valley has been talking with local landowners and county authorities about creating a new portal, one outside of Park City. Bob Wheaton, the general manager for Deer Valley, says that the new portal from the east would include several hundred acres of new ski terrain serviced by at least two new lifts. As well, reports The Park Record, the expansion would include a substantial but still unspecified component of real estate development.

Key link to Chicago coming

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — So rural and so remote — and so dependent on big cities. That's the story in Crested Butte, located four to five hours away from Denver by mostly two-lane highway. In the early 1980s, it engineered the first direct flight program.

But that program has always been expensive and difficult to maintain. Now comes silver-lining news that 10 weekday flights to Chicago have been added for next winter, on Saturdays, but just during Christmas and the spring-break periods.

Crested Butte Mountain Resort communication manager Erica Reiter confirmed that United Airlines will be guaranteed revenue, as is the usual practice, but did not disclose the precise terms. The 66-passenger jets will provide nearly 500 seats, and resort officials tell the Crested Butte News that they're confident they can fill three-quarters of them.

About 20 airline miles to the north, it's a whole different world in Aspen. There, United Airlines will be flying 10 times a day from Denver, with as many as 12 on Sunday, this summer. As well, reports the Aspen Times, there will be daily direct flights from Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles.

Time to eat, drink and absorb big ideas

ASPEN, Colo. — It was a time to eat, drink and be merry in Aspen last weekend. The 31st annual Food and Wine Festival was held, and it expected to occupy 80 per cent of Aspen's hotel rooms and more than 50 per cent of hotel rooms at nearby Snowmass Village.

"Many locals have dedicated this week to figuring how they will get into the Wagner Park tent for one of the five 'grant tastings,'" reported the Aspen Daily News. The newspaper explained that "hundreds of exhibitors pour thousands of favourites of some of the world's best wines into glasses that keep getting refilled."

Ticket sales for the festival are capped at 5,000, and they don't come cheap: $1,150 per head. Even so, the event was sold out this year by April, as is the usual.

It's not all sniffing fine wines. There's food, too. Carolyn Sackariason, editor of the Daily News, confided that she has a weakness for macaroni and cheese: "It can make me fat and really happy," she wrote. To that end, she intended to get direction from Laura Werlin, "the best and foremost authority on mac and cheese that I have ever come across."

Meanwhile, the Aspen Center for Physics, which is something of an extension of Harvard, MIT and other high-brow academies, had a lecture focused on the physics of cooking. Other lectures in the series are devoted to quantum computing and "Beauty and Blemishes in the Universe."

Aspen is chock full of other festivals this summer, too. It already had the Summer Words Literary Festival, which featured a Pulitzer Prize winner, Paul Harding, mountain-based writer Pam Houston and a few dozen others, including a large contingent of Chinese writers and writers about China. Next week is the Ideas Fest and then the Aspen Security Forum. Both festivals are relatively new and already draw major attention from the chattering classes of New York and Washington D.C.

Not every talk-fest in Aspen is a home-run, however. The Environmental Forum of the last five years has been suspended due to insufficient underwriting and corporate and foundation sponsorship, the Daily News reports.

In general, the tourism business looks hopeful in Aspen. The Aspen Times say the $151 million in retail sales from June through August last year was a record, and some local officials seem to think this one might be better, or at least bigger.

Chilling episode in one Tough Mudder

AVON, Colo. — It was sweaty, gritty weekend in the Vail Valley. Several athletic competitions were scheduled, including the Tough Mudder, a literally chilling competition.

The Vail Daily says that the event drew 10,000 competitors to run or, in some cases, walk through a course filled with reality TV-type of obstacles. One, the Arctic Enema, requires Tough Mudders to jump into a giant ice bath and then swim through the ice and under a wooden plank. The object, said the Daily, was to neither get hypothermic nor drown.

This is the third year for the event at Beaver Creek.

Bookings, room rates up for summer

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Business is on the rise in Telluride. The Daily Planet reports bookings this spring have been up and local tourism officials see rising bookings through July and August and also higher room rates. The predicted average daily rate for June was $215, according to Michael Martelon, president of the Telluride Tourism Board. That's up about $16 from last year, while the room rates for July and August are expected to be up $8 and $20 respectively over last year.

Vail gingerly talking about limits on bags

VAIL, Colo. — Cautiously, Vail's elected leaders are exploring the idea of crimping the distribution of plastic shopping bags. Telluride, Aspen and other mountain towns have done so in the last two years.

In Aspen's case, the city bans plastic bags altogether but allows paper bags to be sold at a cost of 20 cents.

Ashley Perl, Aspen's environmental health specialist, told Vail officials recently that the ban has worked well in Aspen, but not without bumps. Paper bag companies and plastic-bag lobbyists opposed it. So did local residents who felt they were already being good stewards by reusing those bags for things like cleaning up after dogs.

The Vail Daily reports that the town council there has asked its staff to put together a plan for a similar effort in Vail, but with outreach as a significant component. Kristen Bertuglia, the town's sustainability director, says she will be conducting surveys of town residents, to better gauge their sensitivities.

Meanwhile, in Durango, the city council is contemplating a 10-cent fee on disposable bags. The Telegraph reports that many people appeared before the council recently to add their two cents to the discussion. The council has taken no action.

Breckenridge is planning to start imposing a 10-cent fee on single-use plastic and paper bags beginning in October. That fee is intended to encourage people to use reusable bags, and to help that decision the town has ordered 50,000 reusable bags. The Summit Daily News says the bags are made of 80 per cent recycled materials and are machine washable.

The bags cost the town $1 each. They are partly marketing vehicles for the town, with art on their sides intended to remind visitors of the charms of Breckenridge.

The Daily News notes that communities that have imposed fees have seen up to 80 per cent reduction in the use of disposable bags. More than three million plastic bags are used in Breckenridge each year.

Trash diversion works, but at unbearable cost

ASPEN, Colo. — Reduce, reuse and recycle: It sounds wonderful, but the economics and logistics can be difficult, as Pitkin County is discovering.

According to The Aspen Times, local officials say sale of cardboard, newspaper and office paper generates nearly enough revenue to pay operational costs of the local program.

Importantly, the recycling keeps the goods out of the landfill. Landfills do get filled, and finding a new site would be difficult in Pitkin County. Hauling trash to other locations would become expensive. About 60 per cent of trash is diverted from the landfill in the existing program.

But revenues for glass, aluminum and plastic are relatively minimal, and the cost of collecting, bailing and transporting them to a materials-recovery facility near Vail costs Aspen and Pitkin County $300,000 to $350,000 per year.

What to do? The Times says county commissioners hope to figure out a sweeter spot, continuing the recycling but without such a large subsidy.

No growly engines

GEORGETOWN, Colo. — Bisected by Interstate 70, Clear Creek County occupies the foothills west of Denver to the Continental Divide. It was the scene of some of Colorado's earliest gold and silver mining. "Where the Old West Meets New Adventure" is the come-hither tagline adopted by local tourism promoters.

But for some people, a little less meeting would be useful. The Clear Creek Courant reports that a non-profit group called SOLVE wants designated areas for quiet recreation, such is more common with fishing, hiking and bicycling. Such quiet areas would be distinct from areas where people use ATVs or target shoot.

County commissioners seem to be of two minds about the need for such designations. "If I want to go out in the woods and not hear anything, the areas are endless in this county," said commissioner Tom Hayden. Another commissioner quoted by the Courant seems to think segregation of interests would be useful.

Whitefish looking ot rebuild city hall

WHITEFISH, Mont. — Elected officials in Whitefish have decided to move ahead with a new city hall along with a community parking structure. Total cost is estimated at $11.5 million, reports the Whitefish Pilot. The newspaper notes a strong difference of opinion among officials about the need for additional parking or how to pay for it.

First electric vehicle arrives

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Slowly, ever-so-slowly, electric vehicles are making their way into garages and fleets in cities. In mountain towns, not so fast.

But Steamboat now has what seems to be the first all-electric vehicle, a Nissan Leaf. The Steamboat Pilot & Today reports that business teacher Jeff Troeger leased the care for two years, although he doesn't really expect to take it out on the road. The closest town of any size, Craig, is a 132-kilometre round trip, and that is probably beyond the range of the car.

How much he will actually use it in Steamboat Springs is also questionable. The newspaper's Tom Ross notes that the professor customarily bicycles to and from his duties at Colorado Mountain College.

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