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Mountain News: Slumping hills and other natural disasters



JACKSON, Wyo. — While the devastation and loss of human life from the mudslide in Washington State has been exceptional, mudslides in mountain areas are common enough.

So are avalanches, floods, and rolling rocks.

After two big winters of heavy snows in the early 1980s, water-saturated soils in Colorado began sliding. Homes were mostly spared, but narrowly, at an old mining town called Red Cliff. Downstream on the Eagle River, a hummocky hill called Meadow Mountain belched mud onto Interstate 70, closing the highway for the better part of a week.

At nearby Vail, destabilized boulders tumbled into a house in that city's Booth Creek neighbourhood. At another neighbourhood, Potato Patch, one house slid into another.

Jackson Hole doesn't have to look back several decades for muddy precedents. Three years ago, a mudslide blocked the highway that hugs the Snake River for three days. Workers commuting from the exurban areas of Alpine had to take an hour-long detour.

Now comes geological instability within the town of Jackson: a crack in the town's butte. On one side, East Gros Ventre Butte defines the town, and a resident there in December noticed the wide crack in the soil.

Last week, after new evidence of movement, the town ordered the evacuation of 60 residents. As well, two restaurants, a liquor store, and a Walgreens were evacated on the slim chance that the hillside would let loose. Cracks were visible in the hillside and the movement stretched power lines and buckled pavement in a parking lot.

The Jackson Hole News&Guide reports that a landslide specialist flown in from Oregon concluded there was a relatively small chance that the soil would "lurch" and fall onto the Walgreens below. "I can't rule out that there will be a big lurch, but it's not likely," said George Machan, of Landslide Technology.

Machan pointed to several possible causes, but the town officials as of the weekend were still trying to get their arms around the cause and scale of their problem. On Monday, they decided to spend $700,000 to crate what the News&Guide described as a "massive weight" in the parking lot at Walgreens, to temporarily counter the force of the slow-motion earthen slide.

Of greatest singular concern to Jackson officials is potential rupture of a waterline that delivers one third of the water consumed in the city of 10,000 people. If broken it would flood the town with 2 million gallons of water in 30 or 40 minutes, said Larry Pardee, the town public works director.

Not all mountainous areas pose the same mudslide potential found in coastal areas of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, according to Spenser Havlick, a semi-retired professor at the University of Colorado. Soil compositions are different, and so are precipitation levels.

That's not to say interior mountain ranges are without dangers. Anytime you cut into the toe of a mudslide area, as is often done for highways and even residential development, it elevates the risk.

In general, it's best to leave room for nature to do what it will, he tells students in his course, "Thinking Like a Mountain," a phrase taken from Sand County Almanac, the seminal conservation book by Aldo Leopold.

Mountain towns have done a generally good job of mandating that people can't build homes in the runoff zones of avalanches, he says. But in zoning to reduce destruction of property or loss of human life from floods and other natural disasters, communities have been less cautious.

He lives in Boulder, one of the towns swamped by last September's rains that drenched the foothills of the Front Range. While well away from creeks, the basement of his house still flooded. But it could have been worse — and might have been worse in Boulder had it not been for work during past decades to limit development in known waterways.

More heartache yet could have been avoided had construction of houses and other development been banned from floodplains.

But will Colorado learn any lessons from these floods? Hard to say.

Wilderness Act turns 50

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Amid passing landmark civil rights legislation and starting to fret about Vietnam, the U.S. Congress 50 years ago passed the Wilderness Act.

The law specifically designated 9.2 million acres of public lands as "untrammeled by man" and created a way for the further designation of lands. Moving Mountains, the symposium held in conjunction with the Mountainfilm in Telluride film festival, this year has a highly regarded lineup of speakers focusing on that topic.

Douglas Brinkley, the well-known historian frequently seen on television, will be there to talk about his various books, including The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America. He has also written about the preservation of wilderness in Alaska.

Jared Diamond, whose Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997, will speak.

Cheryl Strayed will be there, too, to speak about her experiences. While in her early 20s, she set out on a 1,610-kilometre backpack trip along the Pacific Crest Trail, knowing almost nothing about backpacking but hoping the experience would give her some insights into her then-troubled life. It seems to have, because her book, Wild, has won rave reviews and broad attention.

David Holbrooke, the festival director, tells The Telluride Watch that he believes the "untrammeled by man" definition must be extended beyond the 109.5 million acres of federally owned lands now designated as wilderness, roughly 50 per cent of it in Alaska. That definition must be expanded to the oceans, where so much of what's most threatened "lies under the surface."

The definition of wilderness has always been tricky. As many commentators have noted, there is plenty of evidence of people within formally designated wilderness. You can, for example, see a lot of old mines, occasionally cabins.

And as William Cronon, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, has noted, the whole idea of wilderness may be false. It supposes a landscape primeval untouched by human hands. In fact, Native Americans had no dualistic notions regarding landscapes.

But the fact that humans are now having an impact as never before on the natural world is clear enough to even the most myopic among us.

"What does wilderness mean to you?" That will be the question posed to Moving Moutains attendees. Holbrooke told The Watch that he himself has no pithy answer.

"We need a definition that has universal meaning, yet individual meaning," he said.

Also commentating about wilderness at the festival will be Katie Lee, regarded as the grande dame of Western songs (and a notable river runner, too) and Dave Foreman, a cofounder of EarthFirst.

Ten-year remodelling of base underway

TAOS, N.M. – While nobody really questions the value of the mountain terrain, Taos Valley Ski Area is setting out on a 10-year project to reinvent its base area, to become more competitive with other resorts in the Rocky Mountains.

"Most people recognize that it's been a long time since Taos Ski Valley has done a significant upgrade," says Gordon Briner, chief operations officer at the resort.

The Taos News also talked with Ken Gallard, who lived in an uninsulated cabin with no running water when he moved to Taos. "We need to get back on the radar," he said, presumably referring to recognition as a top ski area. "We've got about 60 years of Band-Aids up here."

The family of Ernie Blake, the founder of Taos Ski Valley, earlier this year sold the ski area to Louis Bacon, a hedge-fund manager from the East Coast. Bacon has purchased extensive real estate in southern Colorado in recent years along the spine of the Sangre de Cristo Range. Taos is at the southern terminus of the same range.

Group takes pulse on testing facility

KETCHUM, Idaho — Can Ketchum and Sun Valley horn their way into the growing and apparently lucrative market for high-level athletic performance testing? That's the intent of Sun Valley Economic Development. The organization seeks partners to create a 140-square-metre facility where testing for aerobic, anaerobic, strength, flexibility, and wellness performance can be conducted.

Harry Griffith, the group's executive director, tells the Idaho Mountain News that he hopes to gain designation as a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic training site. It already has such designation for Nordic skiing, but he hopes to expand the designation to include other snow sports.

In addition to elite athletics, another major market would be recreational sports athletes and health and wellness practitioners.

Business not quite the same as usual

PARK CITY, Utah — While a spokeswoman for Park City Mountain Resort predicted "business as usual" for the next ski season, the Park Record notes a subtle shift in the packaging of pre-season ski passes that reflects a heating legal battle over use of the ski area.

Powdr Corp., owner of the ski area but not the land on which it operates, has been tussling for several years with Talisker, owner of the land as well as the nearby Canyons Resort. Talisker says Powdr failed to renew the lease for the land, described as extremely favorable to Powdr, and is now wrestling in the courtroom to control the land and hence the ski area.

Previous season-passes were sold with the proviso that passes would be refunded on a prorated basis if the resort is shut down for all or part of the season. For the previous two years, pass holders were also advised that Talisker Land Holdings had stated that it would not interfere with the ability of Park City Mountain Resort's ability to operate.

That last sentence is absent this year — and small wonder. Talisker Land Holdings, now represented by Vail Resorts, last August served an eviction notice. Park City, meanwhile, has indicated in court filings that it will dismantle and remove most of its ski lifts if forced off the land.

Meanwhile, a delegation from Vail visited Park City, and Vail Daily editor Don Rogers returned home to confide to his readers that it looks like Vail Resorts has the better hand.

Powdr, he says, "sounds a bit desperate to my not quite unbiased ear. CEO John Cumming comes across like he arrived at a chess match thinking he's playing a particularly blustery form of checkers."

Rogers say that Powdr's threat to remove chairlifts and other plans, should it lose the court case, has handed the figurative high ground to Vail Resorts.

"They get to give comparatively mild responses that such tough talk is not constructive to resolving the issue, and golly gee it's not our fault you didn't renew your lease on time, and oh by the way we'll pay fair market value for that base area. Let's be reasonable here."

Coal digging slides in Steamboat area

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — Steamboat Springs was never a coal-mining town itself, but there were coal mines both south and west. One giant coal mine continues to operate at Twentymile Park, which is located at about that distance from Steamboat.

Steamboat Today reports that production at the mine last year was down 10 per cent. That fits in with state and national trends. Natural gas has been cheaper and, because of its lower carbon content, has been a preferred choice.

But Twentymile Coal Co. is the largest taxpayer in Routt County and the second-largest employer, with 400 employees.

California river trumps Colorado

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — California, with its continued drought, trumped Colorado this year in the American Rivers' annual listing of the nation's most endangered river.

In announcing its list, American Rivers said the San Joaquin River was threatened by outdated water management and excessive diversions.

But for at least a decade, the organization has been raising alarms about further transmountain diversions from the headwaters of the Colorado River and its tributaries. Most of Colorado's best-known ski resorts — from Steamboat to Winter Park, Breckenridge to Vail, Aspen to Crested Butte — are located in this arc of headwaters.

Several of these creeks and rivers are already heavily plumbed, to draw water across, under, and through the Continental Divide to cities from Fort Collins to Denver and Colorado Springs and the farms beyond.

Could Colorado's cities get one more major transmountain diversion? That's been the underlying tension in Colorado since the 1980s. It remains the quiet aspiration of some water developers even as it becomes clearer that very little water may remain in the Colorado River for development.

"It's not that we're being stingy about sharing our water," says Ken Neubecker, of American Rivers. "Quite frankly, there's not much water left to share."

Still, the Yampa River presents an inviting target. In theory, at least, it still has unclaimed water — at least as Colorado meets commitments to California and Arizona. The river originates in the Flat Tops Wilderness and flows through Steamboat Springs on its way to Dinosaur National Monument, the water ultimately headed toward Lake Powell and, once upon a time, the Sea of Cortez.

"There are very powerful water interests that really want a new trans-basin diversion," Matt Rice, of American Rivers, tells the Steamboat Today. "A multibillion dollar project is hard to comprehend in this economic climate, but as long as the Yampa has ample water in it, I would suggest it's going to be a threat."

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