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Mountain news: Taos Ski Valley raises hourly wage



TAOS, N.M. — Earlier this year, Vail Resorts announced that it would boost its minimum wage to $10 per hour. Now, Taos Ski Valley has done the same.

Gordon Briner, chief executive of the ski area, noted that this is just the entry wage and most staffers actually earn more.

The people who own or run the ski areas, however, are still pulling down some big bucks. Taos is owned by Louis Bacon. Forbes this year said he's worth $1.75 billion.

Vail Resorts is publicly owned. Arn Menconi, a former commissioner in Eagle County, where Vail is located, combed through SEC filings to learn that Rob Katz, the chief executive of Vail Resorts, made a little over $5 million last year.

Most splendid time of year in a ski town

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — It's autumn and the crispness of the air, the brightening of the foliage, and the somewhat more relaxed pace of life provide a quiet smile to life in mountain towns.

"It was a bit of a surprise to see a dusting of snow on the high peaks," wrote Mark Reaman, editor at the Crested Butte News last week. "Not sure why that should be a surprise in the middle of September, but every year, it is."'

Summer has become very busy in Crested Butte, and Reaman acknowledged that busyness has its place. July and August have become "the prime economic bubble that allows us to live here the rest of the year," he wrote. But now, he added, "it is our time. It is busy enough with tourists that we can still work and make a buck... but without the absolute chaos."

Do bears sit in the woods?

ASPEN, Colo. — Stories about bears pilfering from trash cans have been conspicuously absent from newspapers in Colorado this summer. In Aspen, wildlife managers say it's because natural food sources have been abundant, keeping the bruins out of the trash bins.

"There's been some stuff in and around Aspen, but overall it's been really slow," said Perry Will, area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

The Aspen Daily News says police had been called 388 times as of mid-September last year. This year, it was 182 calls.

But while bears have been staying away, moose have been spotted more frequently by locals hiking in forested areas close to town. One resident told the newspaper that he wonders if people should start carrying mace canisters, as are sometimes used to keep aggressive bears at bay.

Severed fiber optic line disrupts commerce

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — Last week, a fiber optic line along U.S. 40 was severed as the highway crosses the Continental Divide east of Steamboat Springs. That temporarily ended all 911 calls and, for a longer period, affected telephone and Internet service to 6,000 customers of CenturyLink.

It was inconvenient, of course, but also costly. A website designer, Kent Morrison, told Steamboat Today that the outage easily cost him $700 in revenue.

"This is not about buying shoes online," said Morrison. "This is about people trying to work remotely in a rural community getting hosed."

Steamboat Today says the outage renewed talk about the need for redundancy of broadband Internet connectivity.

Black Canyon joins dark sky designation

MONTROSE, Colo. — The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is named for its dark walls. But at night, it's dark enough there to see the Milky Way, a treat many people in the developed world can't enjoy because of light pollution.

The Telluride Watch reports that the International Dark-Sky Association has selected the park to join the 28 designated national parks. Most are in the United States, but a few are in the European Union.

"The bottom line is that, in many parts of the world, especially in the Untied States, there are fewer and fewer places like Black Canyon left," John Barentine, the association's program manager, said.

San Miguel River to meander once again

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Telluride has agreed to create some twists and turns in the San Miguel River. The river emerges from the town in a straight channel, its meandering ways reconfigured during the mining era.

Several years ago, the town acquired a 230-hectare area, now devoid of structures, called the Valley Floor, located at the town's entrance. The plan approved by the town council last week calls for a "re-meandering" of the river, to improve fish habitats and restore the floodplain ecosystem. This first phase will disturb two hectares of land at a cost of $1.7 million, the thrice-weekly Daily Planet reports.

Political landscape for wilderness shifts

TAOS, N.M. — The Taos News points to a seeming contradiction by the Bureau of Land Management in how it regards wilderness suitability of its land parcels in New Mexico.

In 1991, the agency concluded that the Rio San Antonio had wilderness characteristics that were "less than outstanding." It dismissed a 30-metre deep gorge in the wilderness study area as a relatively small portion of the 2,954-hectare tract.

But several years ago an agency representative testified before a U.S. House of Representatives committee about Rio San Antonio and another parcel. Jamie Connell, acting deputy director for the Bureau of Land Management (and 13 years ago a Forest Service ranger in Colorado's Summit County), described the landscape as "dramatic," offering "outstanding opportunities for solitude."

Both of the areas lie within a newly designated monument.

The stark landscape of San Antonio hasn't changed much in thousands of years, observes J.R. Logan of The Taos News, but the political landscape constantly shifts.

So does the interpretation of what wilderness is and why it's important.

"Everything about wilderness designation is politics, and frankly, it always has been," says Craig Allin, a professor of political science at Cornell College in Iowa.. Allin, the author of The Politics of Wilderness Preservation, said agencies reflect the politics in Washington D.C.

Jay Turner, associate professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and author of The Promise of Wilderness, pointed out that the concept of wilderness had also changed. When adopted by Congress in 1964, the law was used to preserve broad landscapes of mostly high mountains. Over time, as many larger tracts were preserved, attention was turned to lower-elevation and more diverse ecosystems.

Some of that same attitude can be found regarding BLM lands in Colorado. For example, in the late 1980s, the BLM tilted hard against wilderness designation for several parcels of land in the Castle Peak area, about 56 kilometres northwest of Vail. But while the lands have been proposed in various bills, they still lack formal wilderness protection, although the BLM now manages them as such.

What's evidence for Superfund impacts?

SILVERTON, Colo. — Silverton and Durango continue to stew about how to best prevent water from being contaminated by long-abandoned mines in the mountains above Silverton.

In many places, polluted areas have been cleaned through the federal program called Superfund. But Silverton and San Juan County officials have resisted that, at least in part because of fears that a Superfund designation would taint the reputation and hence the precarious economy of the small town.

Silverton has a population of not quite 700 people and San Juan County just a few dozen more. The economy depends primarily upon summer tourists and a few during winter, especially since the Silverton Mountain Ski Area was established. Alone among Colorado's 64 counties there are no tillable agriculture areas in San Juan County.

What would happen if mining areas were designated as a Superfund site? The Durango Herald reports a mixed bag of evidence. After the Aug. 5 spill from the Gold King Mine, the Environmental Protection Agency has said that designation could raise Silverton's property values 18 per cent.

The evidence for that? Locals, reports the Herald, were perplexed by the lack of specificity. An EPA official admitted to a slight reduction in property values when an area is placed on the Superfund list, because of the public's negative perception of the designation.

The source of the EPA estimate was a 2011 analysis by academic researchers.

Christopher Timmins, co-author of the study, told the Herald that he would be "cautious" using those statistics to sell the case for Superfund designation in Silverton.

"It's clear on average these treatments do very well, but any particular location could fare very differently based on specific attributes of the place," he said. "And there are some things about Silverton that would make me nervous.'

The study looked at the recovery of 331 Superfund sites between 1990 and early 2000s. But while the average increase from the pre-cleanup baseline was 18 per cent, some areas continued to have reduced real estate values long after Superfund designations.

Silverton, he said, might already have that stigma because of the Gold King Mine blowout.

Sifting for other evidence, the Herald latched on to two other Superfund sites in Colorado: Leadville and Summitville. In Leadville, one source said that while the town's economic fortunes have improved, it probably has nothing to do with the Superfund cleanup and more to do with the resumption of mining at a long-idled molybdenum mine that now provides a payroll for 300 people.

At Summitville, above the San Luis Valley, just north of the New Mexico border, a real estate agent said that people stay away after natural disasters, and Summitville was like a natural disaster.

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