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Mountain News: Top stories of the year



Every mountain town in 2018 struggled with the pinch in housing availability at prices affordable to those working in the hospitality and service industries. Many towns struggled to come up with meaningful climate-action plans. Several in Canada as well as Colorado grappled with rules for marijuana legalization, while a few Colorado towns worked through refinements of rules governing legalization.

Here are two other stories with common themes in 2018. They will almost surely be themes going forward in 2019.

Alterra in 2019

In retrospect, of course somebody would come along to challenge Vail Resorts at its own game. Largely under the direction of chief executive Rob Katz, the company had crafted the Epic Pass to create customer loyalty, improve the annual revenue stream, even as it created geographic diversity.

California hurting for snow? Well, use your Epic Pass in Colorado. Or Whistler. And last year, as Colorado limped along, Whistler—in its first year as a Vail Resorts property—came on line like gangbusters.

The new monster on the block was hatched by KSL Capital Partners and the Chicago-based Crown family, owners of the Aspen Skiing Co. Early in 2018 the unnamed company became Alterra, and then later gained its first chief executive, Rusty Gregory, the long-time boss at California's Mammoth Mountain. As the 2018-19 ski season began, it had 14 major resorts. Vail Resorts didn't sit idle, adding Crested Butte to its lineup, putting it at 10 major resorts and three urban ski areas.

David Perry, the No. 2 at Alterra, downplayed the competition with Vail Resorts in an interview early in 2018. There was plenty of money for both companies to make, he suggested. But if that suggests friendly oligopolies, others see a fierce competition shaping up.

What's interesting is that skiing is not really a growing sport. Participation levels have grown little since the 1980s. Yet the rise in the stock price of Vail Resorts testifies there's money to be made.

Stock prices started out at $16 per share at the initial public offering in 1997. Even in 2014, it stood at US$77 a share. But by September, it had leaped to US$294 a share—before tumbling at year's end to US$210 per share. Perhaps a reflection of the new competition from Alterra?

The two ski and mountain resort giants have headquarters in Colorado, Alterra in Lower Downtown Denver and Vail Resorts 25 minutes away in a suburb of Boulder. The National Ski Areas Association is about 25 minutes from each.

thinking about wildfires

The 416 Fire between Durango and Silverton flared on June 1, producing lots of smoke and crippling the summer tourism economies of the two mountain towns in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.

It was the second big fire near Durango after many decades of almost no fires.

Wildfire was a big story again in 2018 in most ski towns. Some had smoky skies, others had fires nearby, and almost every mountain resort town from Whistler to Ketchum to Aspen was thinking about how to make itself less vulnerable.

Then came the Camp Fire inferno that killed 85 people in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada during November, the most destructive fire in California history.

Experts predict many more will come in decades ahead, as aging forests become more susceptible to wildfire. Too, ill-advised fire suppression has only delayed the inevitable.

And again, climate change figures into the story. Scientists predict much larger fires for the next several decades, the result of drought but also more directly because of warming temperatures.

The fire north of Durango may have been started by embers from a coal-powered narrow-gauge chugging up the Animas River Canyon. But drought made the vegetation more combustible. The moisture content of lumber sold in Durango was higher than that of many standing trees. National drought maps even into 2019 show the Four Corners region bathed in deep burgundy, the most intense drought in the United States.

Then on July 3, smoke engulfed Colorado's Roaring Fork Valley, even threatening the power supply to Aspen.

In Colorado's Summit County, fire also flared near Silverthorne, at the foot of the Gore Range. It produced a scare, forcing hundreds of residents to evacuate homes. Thanks to efforts to create fire buffers between homes and forest, damages were relatively light.

Will it be enough for the next year? Maybe. But what may matter most is that nearly all the houses and other buildings in Summit County are located within what has been called the wildland-urban interface. Having wilderness out your backyard can be wonderful, but there can be consequences.

This is a story that will only get bigger in decades ahead in places like Ketchum and Park City, Steamboat Springs and Whistler.