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Mountain News: Jasper told beetle-killed forests have upsides too

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JASPER, Alta. — Red-needled, dying trees are a bad thing, right? Not so fast, suggests the Jasper Fitzhugh, which reported a tripling of forested areas in Jasper National Park since 2014 showing evidence of a mountain bark beetle epidemic.

Colorado had a major profusion of mountain bark beetles in its vast stands of lodgepole pine starting in about 1996. That epidemic is now primarily spent, although a different but related beetle is now making its way through the spruce-fir forests of southern Colorado. The even more extensive lodgepole pine forests of British Columbia have also had a major beetle epidemic in the last decade.

Mark Fercho, the chief administrative officer in Jasper, the municipality within the park, was in Prince George, B.C. when forests there were turning red and dying. He told a recent meeting of townspeople that communities such as Jasper are always vulnerable to wildfire.

"Fire is fire. It doesn't matter if it's beetle infested or not," he said.

A beetle-killed forest is much more volatile, though. He advised residents to fire-smart their homes, such as by clearing vegetation from around the house, and using fire-resistant materials in home construction.

After the epidemic has run its course, forests do recover. The Jasper Fitzhugh reported that the epidemic should be "a welcome sign for a forest that is long past its due date." It identified decades of fire suppression as an unwise and ultimately unsuccessful effort to deny forest succession.

Kevin Van Tighem, formerly superintendent for Banff National Park, had previously told the Fitzhugh that epidemics enable more sun and rain to reach the forest floor, producing an "explosion of biodiversity" once a pine beetle population eruption passes through an area.

More than 90 per cent of the trees in many of the Banff's stands died in the 1980s.

A hot July in Banff

BANFF, Alta. — July was the 12th hottest July since record keeping began 130 years ago. And it was dry, too, the 16th driest July on record.

Get ready for more of the same, warned the Rocky Mountain Outlook. The

The newspaper points out that temperatures in Alberta overall have increased 1.4 degrees Celcius during theH past century (2.5 degrees Fahrenheit), with most of that increase occurring since the 1970s.

More of the same is almost certain. The mean annual temperature in Alberta could increase by at least two degrees C (3.6 F) by the end of the century, possibly as high as four to six degrees C (7.2 to 10.8 F).

This week, the New York Times published a draft report by scientists from 13 federal agencies that concludes evidence of climate change can be found "from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans."

Even if humans immediately stopped emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the report said, the world would still feel at least an additional 0.5 degrees F (0.3 degrees C) of warming over this century, compared with today. The projected actual rise, scientists say, will be as much as two degrees C.

Among the more significant of the study's findings is that it is possible to attribute some extreme weather to climate change, the Times reported.

Influx of shadow-loving sorts expected

JACKSON, Wyo. — Umbraphiles will soon hasten to Jackson Hole and other locations along the path where the moon will completely block the sun on the morning of Monday, Aug. 21.

Umbra is Latin for shadow, and some people will be flying in from around the world to see this spectacle. The United States has not had the sun getting totally mooned from Pacific to Atlantic since 1918. This eclipse will cross the country from just south of Portland, Ore., to Charleston, S.C.

Jay Anderson travelled the path of the eclipse across America four years ago while preparing an extensive report on where best to get stationed to see the eclipse, based upon the likelihood of clear skies.

Jackson Hole isn't the best, but it's pretty near the top, with only a 34-per-cent chance of cloudy skies on that particular date, based on past meteorological observations. A retired meteorologist from Canada, Anderson told the Jackson Hole News&Guide that even better odds for seeing the eclipse can be found in the deserts of eastern Oregon and, in Wyoming, at Riverton. Riverton is on the east side of the Wind River Range, about two hours from Jackson Hole.

Jackson Hole is bracing for a full house — including some who will be flying from across the world. Rod Hill, from Melbourne, Australia, told the News&Guide this would be his ninth full eclipse. "It's very addictive," he said.

Even in Riverton, motel rooms were scarce months ago. One California couple that will be flying to Denver then driving to Riverton, six hours away, had to settle for a smoking room when booking lodging several months ago. The New York Times, in a special section on Sunday, recommended Nebraska as the best opportunity for those wanting rooms along the eclipse path.

Smith's, the largest grocery store in Jackson, will have extra workers from Salt Lake City for the weekend before the eclipse. Special delivery of goods is also planned in advance.

A gas-and-convenience store operator told the News&Guide that he expects busy times but not pandemonium. "I don't think it'll be that crazy," said Tony LeSpade, manager of a Loaf 'n Jug.

Amidst a career change

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — Crested Butte has sort of had two careers. First there was a mining town and then a resort. The big coal mine there closed in 1952 and the ski area opened in 1962.

Arriving in 1970 was Paul Andersen, who found an economy that was marginal during ski seasons and summers so lazy that a dog could sleep all day in the middle of Elk Avenue, the town's main street.

"The streets were dirt, coal smoke hung in the air, and Serbo-Croatian was spoken in the bars, shops and restaurants by the relic coal miners," he wrote in a column published in The Aspen Times. "At night, polka music mixed with the yips and howls of coyotes in the high mountain air at 2,743 metres."

The Crested Butte he remembers is like a museum diorama depicting an otherworldly mountain refuge: snow banks reaching the eves of quaint Hobbit houses through May. He also remembers a nude co-ed bathhouse. Sunshine's Paradise Bathhouse is long gone, "but the mammaries stand out. (I mean, the memories!)," he wrote.

"In the intervening years, Crested Butte has grown and prospered. Today it suffers an identity crisis between community and commodity, a threshold Aspen crossed many years ago," he writes. "There are good arguments for both values, but one thing is for sure: There is no going back to the innocence and simplicity that geography and history conspired for picturesque mountain towns that once offered refuge from the madly spinning world."

Pushing back against solar power

FRASER, Colo. – The plunging price of solar is posing a challenge to utilities deeply invested in centralized power production from fossil fuel plants. The friction is clearly evident in Fraser, a town six kilometres from the Winter Park ski area.

The Winter Park Times reported that Fraser would like to assemble solar arrays with a capacity of 200 kilowatt-hours at its wastewater treatment plant. Electricity costs the town government US$180,000 a year, and town manager Jeff Durbin said solar energy would lower the cost.

That would mean that the local electrical provider, Mountain Parks Electric, would have to buy the electricity and sell it back when the treatment plant needs it. The concept, called net metering, has provoked broad discussion across the United States. Utilities have fought back, as they argue it presents a greater challenge to be able to provide electricity. They argue also that it shifts the cost of maintaining the electrical grid to consumers who do not have intermittent renewable sources of their own.

Mountain Parks Electric, a co-operative that gets its power from Tri-State Generation and Transmission, may cap the amount of solar that members can erect on their homes and businesses: 10 kilowatt systems on homes instead of 25, as is now allowed. Businesses would be capped at 25, instead of the 250 now allowed.

Rob Taylor, manager of communications and member relations for Mountain Parks, explained at a recent board meeting that declining solar prices available to co-op members poses a challenge. "With our rates going up and solar going down, it presents a real eye-opener for us."

The Times consulted with Auden Schendler, the vice president of sustainability for the Aspen Skiing Co. Aspen's four ski areas are all served by an electrical co-op called Holy Cross Energy. Like Mountain Parks, it is governed by publicly elected directors. Schendler has pursued a strategy of pushing for change by promoting candidates more favourable to renewable energy.

"This sort of downgrade to allow solar capacity appears to be the kind of regressive utility politics played by dying co-ops. You can't fight the solar revolution, so it's much better business to get on board the bus rather than let it run you over," Schendler said.

"If I were a business or homeowner in the region served by that utility, I'd be looking for candidates to run for the board who realize utilities are going to have to engage the clean energy revolution."

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