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Mountain News: Ski towns and valleys step up energy changes

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VAIL, Colo. - Ski towns and their down-valley siblings have been conspiring to be part of this great energy transformation underway.

Colorado Biz Magazine reports that town staffers in Vail have been trying to put together the pieces for a woody biomass plant that would generate heat for portions of Vail Village during winter and create electricity during summer.

The proposal has yet to go before the town council, and it seems to rely upon the perhaps thin hope of federal aid. But the larger story is that woody biomass - an ancient form of heating, but improved with new technology - has been getting lots of attention, owing in part to the many beetle-killed pine trees now much in evidence in Colorado and elsewhere.

Experts tell the magazine that woody biomass has a rapid payback in places that burn propane, such as is the case in Fairplay and Oak Creek, two mountain towns in Colorado where wood-burning projects have been completed or are underway. But it's important, they say, to scale the projects to the appropriate size. In other words, wood must be available after the beetle-killed trees have fallen to the forest floor and rotted. Wilderness designations and other protections plus the simple matter of steep slopes and inaccessibility make many forested tracts unavailable for tree harvesting.

Still, enough wood exists to heat many buildings. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, located in the suburbs west of Denver, has a 400,000-square-foot building campus now being heated primarily by wood, most of it killed by beetles, reports the magazine.

One of the places where burning wood has already been cutting down the natural gas bill is in Gilpin County, where the gambling towns of Central City and Blackhawk are located. There, a public works garage has been heated since 2007 with great success.

Seeing that success, the Gunnison County commissioners have been considering woody biomass heating for their new public works garage. As well, reports the Crested Butte News , wood remains a potential source of heat for a major new building on the campus of Western State College.

From the Durango Telegraph comes a story about two entrepreneurs, Andrew Klotz and Ian Barrowclough, who hope to leverage a partnership with a local government into a de facto solar collector farm. The government relationship, formalized in a public improvement district, would allow tax credits, grants, and federal stimulus funds for their project.

The entrepreneurs hope to get 330 homes to allow installation of photo-voltaic collectors. Homeowners would pay the entrepreneurs $70 to $100 per month for the system, and the electric bills should go down a similar amount.

Wally White, a La Plata county commissioner, told the newspaper that he wants to know more. "Government has a responsibility to lead on these kinds of conservation issues," he said.

In Telluride, the town government is considering adoption of a mandatory offset program similar to that pioneered in Aspen in 2000, with later incarnations in Snowmass Village, Eagle County and other mountain towns and valleys.

The concept assumes that homes and businesses have minimum energy needs, but large homes with outdoor spas, swimming pools or snowmelt systems have obligations to offset their so-called extravagant use with renewable energy systems or in-lieu fees. In Aspen, those fees have amounted to $8 million, which has been doled out to energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.

"It's not that we all want to be ascetics and not have any fun and live in the dark, but we do need to be very aware of the choices we make in our personal lives," said Kris Holstrum, executive director of the New Community Coalition, a non-profit that formulated the proposed regulations in Telluride.

Mayors of Telluride and Mountain Village have also announced their goal - if they can get town council and community backing - of creating renewable energy sources sufficient to offset 100 percent of the electrical consumption in the Telluride area by 2020.

In Gypsum, located 37 miles west of Vail, town officials have applied for nearly $1 million in federal stimulus moneys in hopes of replacing an aging water line. The new line, if approved, would include a hydroelectric component, capable of generating 65 kilowatts of electricity, or roughly enough to offset the demands from the town's recreation center, and possibly enough to meet the needs of the wastewater treatment plant.

Up the valley at Edwards, a 5,890-square-foot home has been certified to LEED gold, the second highest in the hierarchy of environmentally benign homes under the U.S. Green Building Council's rating system. A HERS (Home Energy Rating System) analysis found the home will use 62 percent less energy than other homes of the same size built to the applicable building code at the start of construction, the 2006 International Energy Conservation Code.

In Avon, at the foot of Beaver Creek, a deal has been struck between Avon town officials and directors of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. Heat generated in treatment of wastewater will be extracted to melt snow in the town's forthcoming Main Street area and also to heat the town's recreation center. Enabling the project was a $1.5 million grant from Colorado state government under a program encouraging energy efficiency.

Energy plan done, but will it just collect dust?

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. - At great length, an energy plan has been assembled for Crested Butte. Among other measures, the plan calls for government-sponsored audits of homes to identify ways to improve energy efficiency. Another would have a local organization, the Office of Resource Efficiency, collaborating with the school district to develop an energy efficiency curriculum.

But hold on, says Susan Parker, the town manager. Adopt this and the public will have expectations to follow through, she said. "I encourage you to really review this and have a plan on how to deal if the money is not available to implement the projects," she added.

Alan Bernholtz, the mayor, does want to proceed. "I don't want to just pay lip service to the idea of energy efficiency in Crested Butte," he said at a recent meeting. "We have a chance to put our lips to the pavement and actually do something. This is a great thing for the community. It is an energy road map to follow."

Big power line needed for the Sun Valley area?

KETCHUM, Idaho - Another big power line to Sun Valley and Ketchum? Not so fast, writes Karen McCall in the Idaho Mountain Express . Maybe demand can be met by downscaling by improving energy efficiency, encouraging conservation, and developing renewable energy.

As economy slows, so does the crime rate

JACKSON, Wyo. - When the economy goes south, crime goes up. That's the conventional wisdom borne out by statistics.

But exactly the opposite has happened in Jackson and Teton County during the last year. Criminal court filings have dropped 30 percent and jail bookings are down 24 percent, reports the Jackson Hole News&Guide . As well, arrests for driving under the influence have dropped 24 percent year to date.

"This is not normal at all, not even for the off-season," says Troy Sutton, the Teton County Jail administrator. "I haven't seen anything like this in the 15 years I've been here."

The jail can hold a maximum of 45 inmates. A year ago, officials were agitating for a jail expansion to hold 100. But in late May, the jail held only 16.

The newspaper's Amanda H. Miller points out that last year produced the biggest spike in crime that officials had seen. At the time, there was conjecture that the increase was due to Teton County pushing past 20,000 in population, which one study has found is a threshold for increased crime. There was also talk about Jackson Hole "losing its soul."

Evidence of Jackson Hole's less frantic economy can be found in the newspaper's classified advertisements. The rooms-to-rent listing has twice as many ads, and the other rentals are up three-fold.

Why less trouble in a down economy? The newspaper reported several theories, none of them compelling.

Huge grizzly killed in Banff, provoking angst

BANFF, Alberta - A train hit and killed a 600-pound male grizzly bear that last year had withstood an attack for four days by the nine wolves of the Bow Valley.

"The bear was 599 pounds, and was a pretty big, dominant part of the grizzly bear population here, if not all of the ecosystem, and this is a real blow to everyone and to the bear population," said  Steve Michel, a human-wildlife conflict specialist for Banff National Park.

Trains have been identified as a major threat to the grizzly bears, which are believed to be at minimum levels of sustainability in Banff National park. Since 2000, reports the Rocky Mountain Outlook, eight grizzly bears - three of them reproducing females - have been killed along the railway that slices through the park. In addition, those bears had five cubs, who were believed to have also died.

As well, the trains have struck and killed 11 black bears in Banff and another 11 in Yoho National Park.

The Canadian-Pacific Railway has been heavily criticized for allowing grain to fall off passing hopper cars, which in turn attract the bears. A necropsy found no evidence the latest dead grizzly had been eating grain, but Jim Pissot of Defenders of Wildlife Canada speculated that the bear may have been habituated to visit the tracks in search of grain.

The railway and Parks Canada, the manager of Banff, a decade ago came up with ways to reduce wildlife deaths. Pissot said it's now time to take those additional steps, such as fencing and wildlife crossings.

Peter Dettling, also writing in the Outlook, related that he had witnessed the bear withstand an attack by the nine wolves in the Bow Valley wolf pack last year for four days. 'I still feel admiration for him, mixed with deep regret, sadness, frustration and anger," he writes.

While Banff has been called the "crown jewel" of national parks, he says, the truth is very much the opposite. And he further contends that a report made by a park warden in1955 that "the railroad and highways are the greatest wildlife hazard in the park" remains true today.

Breckenridge drawing defensible space line

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. - There were many protests that personal freedoms were being abridged, but the Breckenridge Town Council now appears headed toward adoption of a law requiring that homeowners create a 30-foot defensible space around their homes, to discourage wildfires from spreading to the homes. Within 75 feet of the structures, crowns of trees need to be separated by at least 10 feet. The Summit Daily News says two council members voted against the measure when it was heard in the preliminary reading, arguing that the law over-stepped what the situation requires.

Food & Wine Classic tickets slower to sell

ASPEN, Colo. - Typically, the 5,000 tickets for Aspen's three-day Food & Wine Classic, scheduled this year for June 19-21, have all been sold by late winter. Not this year. A few tickets remained as June approached. Still, organizers were not dismayed. "Relative to what's going on in the world, we're doing really well," said Christina Grdovic, of Food & Wine Magazine. The Aspen Times reports that 70 percent of accommodations in Aspen and Snowmass have been booked.

Building contractors filing mechanic's liens

ASPEN, Colo. - Construction contractors and their subs have been filing mechanic's liens at a furious pace in Pitkin County. As of late May, 331 liens had been filed, triple the number of last year and more than five times as many as for the same period in 2005.
Construction firms or individual workers most commonly file the liens as a way to get paid for labor and materials.

Charles Plimpton, owner of a steel fabrication and ornamental metalworking company, told The Aspen Times that he suspects clients have been taking advantage of the recession to get contractors to reduce their bills. A project developer, however, reports a different situation, a squeeze at both ends.

Backpackers told to pack all wastes out

ASPEN, Colo. - Pack it in, pack it out. That rule applies beginning this summer for those skiing and backpacking to the Conundrum Hot Springs, which is located high in the Elk Range between Aspen and Crested Butte.

More bluntly, the hot springs have been getting wasted. Too much human excrement has been buried, or partially buried, given the fragile and often rocky tundra near the camping spots. About 2,000 backpackers hoof it to the heated water each summer, notes The Aspen Times.

With a grant of $3,000 from the Aspen Skiing Co., the U.S. Forest Service will be providing 2,000 human poop bags called Restop 2. The bags are double-lined, and those visiting the springs will be expected to take the bags home.

Intrawest says n'yet to gondola in Steamboat

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. - Intrawest, owner and operator of the Steamboat ski area, has declined to fund a share of the $7 million high-speed people-mover gondola that had been planned. The base-area developer, Resort Ventures West, instead plans to build a slower-pulse gondola, which has a cost of $3 million.

"We're just a victim of the current economic climate," Chris Diamond, president of the ski area, told the Steamboat Pilot & Today.

The base-area project, Wildhorse Meadows, is located a mile or two from the more traditional ski area base. The high-speed gondola had been expected to eliminate the necessity for skiers to take shuttle buses. The slower gondola will have insufficient capacity to replace the shuttle buses.

It's possible that the slower gondola will be replaced at some time by a higher-speed version, development representatives told the newspaper.

Seven-legged calf not long of the world

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. - A seven-legged calf was delivered by Caesarean section at a veterinary clinic in Steamboat Springs. It calf had two spines but just one head. IT lived for just 10 minutes, although the cow did just fine.

"I've been in practice for 14 years, and I've only seen one other calf with a fifth leg," veterinarian Lee Meyring told The Steamboat Pilot & Today. "It's just a twinning process that had an incomplete splitting of the embryo, then the fetus. "

Few Whistler rooms left for the Olympics

WHISTLER, B.C. -Already, 85 percent of rooms in Whistler have been booked for the 16 days of the Winter Olympics next February.

Whistler's Pique Newsmagazine reports that Whistler.com, one of the resort's primary booking portals, limited how much lodging partners could mark-up their rooms during the event. A survey had shown that tourists would pay a 30 to 50 percent premium for the Olympics, but not more.

Still to be secured, says Pique, are rooms for essential workers needed to stage the Olympics. The newspaper notes speculation that the workers would be housed on cruise ships in Squamish, a port city located about 45 minutes down-valley from Whistler.

Revelstoke notes 52 per cent gain in second season

REVELSTOKE, B.C. - In its second season, Revelstoke Mountain Resort reported a 52 percent increase in skier visits. A resort spokeswoman said no absolute numbers were being released, however.

The resort looked to be on a slippery financial slope last year after majority owner Don Simpson, a Denver-based developer, found the cost of starting up a new ski area to be a larger undertaking than expected. As well, the resort real estate market had started to decline.

A report in the Revelstoke Times Review made no mention of that difficulty, although the paper did say that the resort plans no work on new runs or lifts this summer, and further work on the golf course has been halted. Instead, existing real estate projects will be completed.

In mining areas, the earth just sometimes splits a gut

PARK CITY, Utah - In less than a year, two people and a dog have dropped into openings in the ground that suddenly appeared near local ski areas. But experts say the cases of mine subsidence do not appear to be directly related. "I don't think there's anything sinister about it," said Ron Ivie, the city's chief building official. Luci Malin, manager of the Utah Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program, told The Park Record that subsidence is natural in heavily mined areas, and Park City most certainly was that. Mining continued for about a century.