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Mountain News: The ongoing tango of the dollar and the loonie



WHITEFISH, Mont. — The Canadian and U.S. dollars have been doing the monetary tango. The loonie has dropped to 70 cents as compared to the U.S. dollar, the lowest since 2003, according to the Globe and Mail. That compares to 110 cents in 2007, an all-time high.

This means that it takes $145 in Canadian currency for $100 of goods or services in the United States. Conversely, it makes Canadian resorts like Banff and Whistler much less expensive for American visitors.

In Montana, where 19 per cent of visitors come from Canada, this dipsy-doodle of exchange rates has been keenly felt. Just a few years ago, visitors sometimes arrived with U-Hauls to buy goods from Costco and other stores. When the Great Recession hit, the Canadians still had money to spend, buoying the local economy.

Now, when they do go south, the Canadians are leaving less money behind in places like Whitefish, located a five-hour drive south of Calgary.

"There are still a lot of Alberta (license) plates in the parking lot, but we're way down in our Alberta lodging," said Nick Polumbus, director of sales and marketing for Whitefish Mountain Resort. "Maybe they're staying with friends now or finding a less expensive place to stay during their ski trip."

In Kalispell, located a short drive south of Whitefish, the local Costco manager tells the Flathead Beacon of a 30-per-cent reduction in the number of Canadian customers.

Resort real estate has also been impacted. In 2012, when the U.S. economy was still recovering, some 225 properties in Flathead County were purchased by Canadians. The Beacon reported that last year Canadians purchased only 21 properties.

Oil prices explain the difference. When oil was $140 a barrel, Canada was prospering, owing to its giant production from the oil/tar sands of Alberta. Now, with all the oil being produced from shale formations, there's a glut and oil has dipped to less than $30 a barrel.

It could get worse for Canadians. CBC reported in January that an analyst with investment bank Macquarie expects the loonie to lose another 10 cents by the end of 2016, to reach an all-time low of 59 cents.

All this adds up to a very cheap road trip to places like Banff and Whistler for Americans, both because of low gas prices and the favourable exchange rate. Whitefish town manager Chuck Stearns told the local newspaper, the Pilot, that he expects unusually heavy summer business to Whitefish.

Will free admission crowd national parks?

BANFF, Alta. — Canada's national parks will celebrate their 150th anniversary in 2017, and Parks Canada, the federal agency that administers the parks, plans to make all passes purchased in 2016 good through 2017.

Could that mean too much crowding in Banff National Park? Park visitation increased 7.4 per cent last year and 10.4 per cent the year before. The Rocky Mountain Outlook reported that some policies are needed to steer visitors to spring, fall, and winter months, as there are enough already during summer.

Warmer, drier winter a harbinger of future

BANFF, Alta. — It's been warm and dry in the Bow Valley, including Banff and Canmore. In November, temperatures warmed one to two degrees Celsius above normal, and since Christmas they've been two to three degrees above normal. Precipitation is down about 25 per cent.

El Niño explains this winter's weather, but this winter's weather also fits in with projected long-term climate changes, pointed out John Pomeroy, a local resident who is also the Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change. He told the Rocky Mountain Outlook that the area can expect warmer temperatures and less snow into the future.

"The winter minimums have gone up four or five degrees C since the early 1960s and there's been overall a warming of 1.5 to two degrees C," he said. "A lot of that is in winter; not much is evident in summer."

Climate change models suggested continued winter warming in the next several decades. In turn, that means less snow and more winter rain.

Lake Powell tied at the hip to Colorado ski lifts

ASPEN, Colo. — Just how much more water can be drawn from the rivers that originate near Winter Park, Breckenridge, and Aspen, as well as Crested Butte, Telluride, and Durango, before the electrical supply powering the ski lifts gets wobbly?

That sounds a bit like a zen koan, but in fact, it's at the heart of a discussion now underway in Colorado. The Colorado River that originates in those mountain towns is already heavily tapped by local farms. Then there's the matter of the giant straws that convey 55,500 to 74,000 hectare-metres per year to Denver, Colorado Springs, and other cities at the base of the Rocky Mountains as well as other farms on the Great Plains.

There's only so much water in the Colorado River, and its use is strictly governed by interstate compacts: a 1948 compact apportioning use among the headwaters states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. More importantly, those four upper-basin states are obligated to allow roughly half the water in the Colorado River to flow downstream from Lake Powell and through the Grand Canyon, to the lower-basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada, as well as to Mexico.

Just how much water remains to be developed in Colorado, whether for ski areas, cannabis farms, or Front Range cities? Nobody really knows.

But an upcoming $50,000 study funded by several organizations from the Western Slope of Colorado aims to get a better answer. Aspen Journalism reported that water organizations on Colorado's Eastern Slope also want to get involved.

Chris Treese, the external affairs manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, recently explained the dynamics. If Lake Powell drops so low it can't produce hydropower, he said, it also means the dam will not be able to release enough water to meet its rolling 10-year obligation under the 1922 Colorado River Water Compact.

"The earlier crisis point — and I don't think that's overstating it — is when Lake Powell falls to a level that is below the point where power can be produced through the dam," Treese explained. That, in turn, means there's too little water in Lake Powell to release the roughly 1 million hectare-metres required to meet the compact obligations.

Aspen Journalism explained that this call for a more definitive study has been spurred by a disagreement among river basins on Colorado's Western Slope. The Yampa-White River Basin (which includes Steamboat Springs) wants to reserve the right to dam and divert more water. The Gunnison Basin (which includes Crested Butte) is concerned it will hasten what is called a "compact call," or reduced water use in all basins.

And about that electricity? The turbines at Glen Canyon Dam, which creates Lake Powell, produce massive amounts of electricity, along with those at other dams in the West. This low-cost (and non-carbon) electricity is then distributed to utilities that serve many of the ski towns in Colorado and other states, too.

Happy memories of a bike race now on hold

ASPEN, Colo. — The U.S. Pro Challenge, which has brought some of the world's best bicycle racers to the Colorado mountains in the last few years, is taking a hiatus. As has occurred with previous bicycle tours in Colorado, there's a giant gap between revenues and expenses. Organizers are trying to find a deep-pocketed title sponsor.

Former Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland, a bicycling enthusiast, said the races gave him something that only happened once during his quarter-century in elected office: Being asked for his autograph.

It was during an evening when Aspen was uncommonly happy with the world, he explained in a column in the Aspen Daily News.

"Ask any mayor if that's a common experience, a town full of people who are just plain happy about their day and eager to stop and share that feeling," he wrote.

Such expressions of gratitude and happiness aren't common in ski towns, he went on to say. "In a town that can be 10-per-cent empty much of the time and First World problems like a six-minute traffic jam on Main Street take on crisis overtones, a day of pure joy is worth remembering."

Snowmelt systems big user of outdoor energy

ASPEN, Colo. — In 1999, Aspen and Pitkin County adopted what amounts to a tax on what is considered to be extravagant use of energy in homes. The tax in the Renewable Energy Mitigation Program applies to homes that exceed 464 square metres in size and those with high-energy features such as private snowmelt systems, heated outdoor pools, and outdoor spas.

Snowmelt systems burned the most energy, 84 per cent of exterior use, in the 280 homes subject to the tax between 2010 and 2014, according to a study by the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, or CORE, which administers the program.

People building these new homes or upgrading existing ones can offset their high energy use by installing renewable energy features themselves or pay an in-lieu fee. Since 2000, those fees have added up to $12 million. The money is allocated to community energy efficiency and renewable projects.

However, whereas a decade ago 59 per cent of homeowners mitigated their high-energy use with on-site renewable energy, in the last few years it's been about 75 per cent, according to a recent CORE report.

In the last decade, similar programs have been adopted by Eagle County, Crested Butte, and Telluride/San Miguel County, among possibly others.

Rocks in Colorado roll into power lines, roads

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Rocks were rolling in mid-February, first at Telluride and then in Glenwood Canyon.

The rock at Telluride knocked over a transmission line supplying electricity to Telluride, including the ski area, on the Saturday of Presidents' Day Weekend. The outage lasted 22 hours, illustrating yet again just how dependent we have all become on the electrical grid.

Ski patrollers and lift ops helped remove people safely from the lifts, and restaurants and other businesses kept going as best they could, the Daily Planet reported. A comedy festival carried on, aided by a backup generator and candles — and no doubt a few jokes inspired by the occasion.

Getting the word out, however, was challenging, given the lack of electricity, as San Miguel Sheriff Bill Masters told the Telluride Daily Planet. Most technology, of course, relies upon electricity.

Rocks also rolled into Glenwood Canyon, blocking Interstate 70 at the tail end of Presidents' Day Weekend for a full week.

I-70 is just one of four highways crossing Colorado from east to west, and depending upon where you are, the rockfall created the need for a lengthy detour. It's normally 319 kilometres from Aspen to Denver, for example, but the winter-time detours involved either a 534-kilometre journey through Steamboat Springs or a 471-kilometre trip through Gunnison, all of this on winding, two-lane highways.

Video game follows life of a fire lookout

JACKSON, Wyo. — A new video game set in Wyoming called Firewatch has been released, but it's not an action-packed, excitement-overloaded game, reported the Jackson Hole News&Guide.

Instead, it's one that allows the user to help the characters develop through a focus on the storyline. That story involves a fire lookout named Henry, who in 1989 — the year of the big fire in Yellowstone National Park — decides to get over the deterioration of his marriage by disappearing into the Shoshone National Forest of Wyoming to scout for wildfires.

The creator, Nels Anderson, a 2001 graduate of Jackson Hole High School, told the News&Guide that he sent his San Francisco-based team digging deep for details from which to fashion a credible backstory. They met with old lookouts, flipped through 1950s lookout cookbooks and apparently read some Jack Kerouac. The so-called beat writer once worked as a fire lookout, until the boredom drove him away. He did get a novel, Desolation Angels, out of the experience.

The game is available for $20 and is programmed for Mac, Linux, and Windows.

Avy bags work, but here are the asterisks

JACKSON, Wyo. — How about those avalanche air bags? Molly Absolon, an avid backcountry skier, sifted through the evidence and came up with a mixed perspective. They work, but not in all situations, and they just might encourage users to take greater risks than they would otherwise after lugging the expensive, heavy devices into the backcountry.

"The consensus among most avalanche experts these days is that they reduce avalanche mortality by about 41 per cent," she wrote in the Jackson Hole News&Guide. "But the picture gets more complex when you start talking about the psychological effects of wearing one. Does having that device on your back cause you to take more risks? Are people caught in avalanches because they are wearing air bags?"

Absolon explained that when safety devices reduce risk exposure, people tend to engage in riskier behavior, something called risk compensation.

Another consideration is this: they do not protect the wearer from trauma, especially if the avalanche goes over a cliff or through trees.

In January, two skiers who went into the sidecountry from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort without any of the basic equipment were killed. But none of this — nor the bags that can be deployed once an avalanche starts — probably would have saved them. The Teton County coroner said that the two skiers probably had died of trauma after they were swept over a cliff and before they were buried by snow at the base of the slide.

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