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Eagle mulling summer flights to Chicago

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EAGLE COUNTY, Colo. — Several resort valleys of the West have been subsidizing direct flights during summer months in an attempt to broaden their economies to make them less reliant on winter. Crested Butte, Telluride, Steamboat Springs, and Sun Valley/Ketchum have all added flights.

In Eagle County, which is anchored by Vail, county commissioners partnered with merchants and real estate developers two years ago to post $475,000 to ensure profits on direct flights from Dallas. The flights had so many passengers that the airline needed only $20,000.

Last summer, the program was expanded to include a flight from Denver, and there were enough passengers that the consortium of locals had to pay nothing.

This year, reports the Vail Daily, the business community wants to add direct flights from Chicago, the third largest tourism market for Eagle County during summer. For their part, merchants, hoteliers, and developers are willing to post $350,000, leaving county government with a $200,000 liability. However, the county commissioners have been hesitant, as they fear the Chicago flights would hurt the Denver flights.

A good Christmas

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. — Helped by badly needed snow storms, the financial news from the biggest business week of the year ranged between good and great in many ski towns of the West.

The Breckenridge Resort Chamber reported 95 to 100 per cent occupancies in the town during the New Year’s weekend. "We’re having the best month ever in our company’s history, a representative from one 13-year-old property management firm told the Summit Daily News.

In California’s Mammoth Lake, the town’s visitors’ bureau reported that 99.9 per cent of lodging rooms were projected to be booked during Christmas week.

In Aspen, buses were full, streets crowded, and the line for the gondola was the longest in recent memory after 11 inches of fresh snow. "At 10 a.m.., the line was the longest I’ve seen since the mid-80s," local skier Phil Pitzer told The Aspen Times.

Telluride reported its busiest day on record on the Thursday before the New Year, with 7,763 skiers. And Durango Mountain Resort had its busiest day in 10 years.

Newspapers in several ski towns reported crushes of holiday shoppers. "There are just lots of people here that seem to be spending quite a bit of money," merchant Leon Rinck told The Steamboat Pilot.

Stores in Vail and its suburbs were likewise crushed with customers this year. While tourists were undoubtedly part of the story, the Vail Daily connects the boom to the real estate boom of the last 17 months. Buyers of vacation homes have been retrofitting their new properties, serving as Santa Claus for some months now.

Rain falls on Colo. resorts

VAIL, Colo. — Again this winter it has rained during mid-winter in the ski towns of the Colorado Rockies. Rain was reported in Aspen, Steamboat Springs, and Vail in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, if only briefly – and then followed by delightful powder.

While mid-winter rain was not previously unknown, it was rare. But during the last several winters it has rained several times during winter in the Colorado resorts.

While this is not proof that man-caused global warming is occurring, it does fall in line with what has been predicted. Scientists say that winters will warm more than summers, and nights more than days. Snow season will become shorter, and the snow line will climb, with resorts in lower-lying elevations having increasingly less reliable snow.

As is often the case, there was a silver lining in the news. In Steamboat, merchants reported the rain caused local shoppers to flood into local stores.

Windfall profit expected

DURANGO, Colo. — Eyebrows in Durango are being raised after a homeowner who had purchased a duplex unit three years ago for $126,520, partly through help from a non-profit housing organization, put it up for sale at $246,000.

To avoid similar windfall profits in the future, the organization, Colorado Housing, which serves several counties in Southwestern Colorado, will soon place deed restrictions on homes purchased or built with its aid. Home appreciation would be capped at 5 per cent a year. The goal of housing programs, explained the director of another non-profit, called Housing Solutions, is to provide lower-income people "a nest, not a nest egg."

In the ski towns where affordable housing has been at issue for years, deed restrictions are the normal state of affairs, although there are exceptions. Only seven years ago a housing complex in the Eagle Valley, about 10 miles west of Vail, was approved with higher density because of the stated aim of giving the valley’s middle managers a piece of the rock, so to speak. And it did serve that purpose – but for some, only briefly. In several cases, the new buyers flipped the units after only a few months, skimming off $40,000 in easy profit, and moving on.

Grandi gets hero’s welcome

CANMORE, Alberta — Thomas Grandi, a 12-year veteran of alpine skiing’s World Cup circuit, got a hero’s welcome in his adopted hometown of Canmore shortly before Christmas. Some 1,000 people turned out. More yet turned out at the up-valley town of Banff, where Grandi was reared, to celebrate his 32 nd birthday.

Despite all the celebration about his two World Cup wins in back-to-back giant slaloms in December, Grandi said he’s merely working to get on the podium at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy.

Fewer people for jury duty

TAHOE CITY, Calif. — As housing prices rise and more units are converted into vacation homes in the North Tahoe area, courtroom workers report the pool of residents eligible for jury duty has shrunk by 20 per cent during the last two years.

Tahoe City courtroom clerk Kim Hunter says the situation isn’t a crisis, as most criminal cases are settled out of court or a plea is entered. However, with younger lower-income families leaving the area, the remaining older, more affluent residents mean more conservative juries, notes the Tahoe World.

"Statistically, established older folks with a lot of money are more likely to favour the prosecution than the defendant," said Jim Porter of Porter/Simon law firm in Truckee. "In criminal cases, this works to the benefit of the prosecutor."

Wells running dry

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. — One family in rural Summit County ate their Christmas dinner on paper plates. The reason? Dropping water levels in the well serving the family’s home.

Such stories are becoming more common owing in part to continuing sub-average precipitation. As well, experts tell the Summit Daily News, new wells drilled for new homes in the rural neighbourhoods are tapping a finite resource. Some homes are now connecting to central sewer districts, meaning that septic fields are no longer being used and resulting in less precipitation finding its way into groundwater.

Airport plans grounded

MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. — A plan to create a major new transportation portal into Mammoth Lakes is running into more trouble. The latest news about the proposed airport expansion is that a California appeals court, instead of issuing a decision, as had been expected, wants more answers.

Specifically the court wants to know more about the cumulative environmental impacts. And the court also wants to know why the town, in conducting its environmental review, did not compare the projected changes to what exists now.

Unlike ski area expansions on federal lands, which have often provoked sharp questions about environmental impacts, airport expansions in ski resorts of the West have received little scrutiny, despite their broader economic impact. At Mammoth, commercial flights are considered crucial in expanding the economy to that of a destination resort. As is, most people arrive by car, having driven five hours from Los Angeles and other cities of Southern California.

This court case is the result of a challenge by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Parks Association, and the Sierra Club, who argue that the town improperly conducted its environmental review as required by California law. Those same groups also won a parallel federal case that has caused the Federal Aviation Administration, which would pay for the bulk of the work, to do a more extensive environmental review.

The FAA has also threatened the town with withdrawing funding for the project because of commercial development allowed at the airport, making the airport potentially unsafe for 757s.

Jackson Hole P.O’d

JACKSON, Wyo. — Like many ski towns in the American West, the only way to get mail to Jackson is at a post office box, even if some in the outside world think post office boxes are the sign of some suspicious if not sleezy activity.

That’s just the way it was done in small towns. People in the country got rural-free delivery, and those in bigger cities got street delivery. But in small towns, you had to rent a box.

In Jackson, however, there is now a call for delivery to neighbourhoods. It seems that some merchants such as L.L. Bean and Amazon.com send packages to post offices for pickup by customers, to avoid the higher shipment costs to individual doors. But when customers don’t have a post office box rented, the Postal Service returns the packages. During the Christmas rush, the Jackson Post Office returned 50 to 100 parcels a day due to insufficient addresses.

This left plenty of people P.O.’d, reports the Jackson Hole News & Guide. However, Postal Service representatives say delivery to homes clearly won’t happen. The Postal Service ceased to take on door-to-door delivery several decades go.

The quasi-pubic agency will deliver to cluster boxes, but in most ski towns people have been unwilling to have cluster boxes. In some cases, people think the boxes clutter the street, plus there’s always the matter of keeping them clear of snow.

Lynx produce kittens

CREEDE, Colo. — Wildlife researchers have documented the birth of 36 Canada lynx in Colorado this year, spurring hopes that the species will become established. At least 85 of the 166 cats released in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado five years ago are known to be alive.

Most encouraging to wildlife biologists is that several lynx that had kittens last year had more this year. "Putting a litter out every year shows they’re in good habitat," Tanya Shenk, the program’s lead researchers, told The Associated Press.

While all the mothers are lynx that were transplanted from Canada or Alaska, the next major goal is reproduction by lynx born in Colorado.

Townhomes booming

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — Townhomes are coming into their own in Steamboat Springs. In November, a unit was sold for $2.28 million, a record price. Located under the ski area gondola, it is in a complex of 4,200-square-foot townhomes.

Townhomes comprised 16 per cent of total sales during 2004, The Steamboat Pilot reports. One theory is that they can offer the size and quality of a single-family home, but without requiring as much land, which is becoming more of a premium in Steamboat’s base area. Townhomes that previously were selling for $100,000 to $200,000 are now going for $200,000 to $300,000.

Uphillers, groomers butt heads

ASPEN, Colo. — As they have elsewhere, ski groomers and "uphillers" have been butting heads recently at Buttermilk, a small ski area near Aspen. The full moon particularly turns out the uphillers, who skin up or hike up the ski trails to get a good cardiovascular workout. It takes those who are reasonably fit about an hour to go up Buttermilk.

But snow groomers recently lectured several hikers who left footprints in the fresh corduroy of the terrain park, causing bruised feelings. "I’ve been doing this for 20 years," one hiker told The Aspen Times incredulously.

"We know they’ve been doing it for years, and we’ve not been happy with it for years," responded Hans Hol, who manages mountain operations and the ski school at Buttermilk. "Our cat operators take great pride in the work they do," he added. "On a full-moon might, the whole mountain is covered with footprints."

Ski area operators could close the access to the uphillers. Not only does the Aspen Skiing Co. own the lower portion of the mountain, but the permit from the U.S. Forest Service on the upper portion allows the ski area operator to exclude non-paying customers. They have chosen not to do so.

But the ski area managers say that especially those tracks left in the new corduroy during evening, when the snow is still soft, detracts from the experience of paying customers the next morning. Ski area managers also fear accidents, especially with the winch cats used to groom terrain parks and steep places.

"Those cables do break – they let go," Hol said. "That cable will snap around like you wouldn’t believe. The cat operator is protected behind a double windshield in the cab, but the cable can slice a person in its path in half."

Similar antagonisms have been voiced in Breckenridge, where mountain managers have appealed to community members to show more discretion, especially when taking dogs.

Silverton coming alive

SILVERTON, Colo. — Only a few years ago Silverton seemed to be spiralling uncontrollably into becoming a one-season town – a happening place in summer but dormant in winter, observes Silverton Standard publisher Jonathon Thomson.

But as the community gathered on a cold winter night before Christmas, Silverton was clearly not only alive, but also vibrant, he says. "The place was packed. More importantly, it was full of a very diverse group of people from all different lifestyles and age groups. Newcomers and old-timers alike mingled over good food, drank together, and danced together.

"Things are looking good here in the heart of the San Juans," he added.

What happened?

The signal event was the 1990 closing of the last big mine. Studying Telluride, Ouray, Lake City and other towns in the San Juan Mountains, Thompson found that it took most about a decade to bounce back after their last mines had closed. That’s what seems to be happening in Silverton.

The biggest single news in this resurgence has been the opening of the Silverton Mountain Ski Area. Although delivering only 80 skiers a day on average, that has been enough to keep several restaurants open through winter.

Too, with nearby Telluride and Durango getting gussied up and more expensive, people looking for a "real" rustic mountain town are selecting Silverton, even if they have to drive a long ways to work. Too, for possibly the same reasons, several smaller entrepreneurs have chosen Silverton. Ski and sled manufacturers have opened, as have others – none very big, but adding to the mix, he says.

There’s also a new non-profit, the Mountain Studies Institute, which adds four educated people to the community, as well as the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies.

Most surprising, perhaps, is the addition of a firm that designs everything from light-switch plates to coat hangers for Liberty Hardware. The products are then manufactured in China and sold to The Home Depot, Lowes, and Target, among others. As a subsidiary of a large corporation, the 12 or so employees make corporate wages and benefits while living in low-cost Silverton.

On top of all these small economic engines are two trends, reports Thompson. One is the waxing fad of "extreme" sports. "Whether they are snowmobilers or telemarkers, Silverton is a major destination. Unlike tourists of the past, who were afraid to traverse the mountain passes in the winter, these folks cruise under avalanche paths in their SUVs like they were going to the supermarket," he writes.

And, finally, baby boomers are making Silverton a destination – often a second home, but sometimes year-round. And that means a lot of building, which gives gainful employment to the skiers of extreme backcountry terrain.

Spinning yarns profitable

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — Looking for a business niche in a ski town? Two new businesses in Steamboat Springs are catering to knitters, which is currently enjoying a nation-wide boom.

Cynthia Zitell, who has a Steamboat-based wholesale needlework business called The Drawn Thread, knew that Steamboat was too small to support a retail store catering to needlework. But knitting is much easier than needlework, and so in mid-December she opened a store at the ski area’s base village. It nearly sold out in the first week.

The Steamboat Pilot reports that her premise in choosing the base area was that the ski area had almost exclusively ski shops, real estate offices, or restaurants. She figured people would like an alternative to skiing and eating. One customer, a lawyer from New York, bore her out. "Best vacation I ever had," said the lawyer.

In the older part of Steamboat, Jodee Anderson has opened a fiber arts studio in what was formerly an automotive garage. She is hoping to use an upstairs loft for classes in fiber arts, attracting visitors from elsewhere. In a world of destination skiers, could these be called destination students?

Pikas continue to disappear

RENO, Nev. — Further evidence of the decline of the American pika has been delivered, possibly due to increasing temperatures.

Erik Beever, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, surveyed mountains in the Great Basin, which is located between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. In his first survey, conducted during the late 1990s, he found seven of the 25 sites no longer had pikas. A follow-up survey of several sites found that two more now lack pikas.

The hamster-like animals are found in rocky areas above treeline. Previous research suggests American pikas are vulnerable to global warming because they live in areas with cool, relatively moist climates. They’ve been shown to be unable to survive just six hours when temperatures rise to 77 degrees. Temperatures are rising across most of the world, but particularly in some alpine areas.

Beever’s previous research suggested climate change might be interacting with other facts, such as increased road building and smaller habitat areas, to increase risks of extirpation.

More blues at Crested Butte

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — A new plan for an ancillary ski area at Crested Butte has been submitted to the U.S. Forest Service. Called Snodgrass Lite, it is a down-scaled version of a plan originally formulated in 1978.

The new ski area would be located opposite the existing ski area, with a municipality called Mt. Crested Butte in the middle. Its principal feature would be intermediate terrain, which the ski area operators believe is essential if Crested Butte is to attract more destination skiers. While averaging 300,000 to 400,000 skier days annually, Crested Butte hopes to get to 600,000.

The Forest Service approved the previous plan in 1982, but the ski area operators lacked the money to implement it. During the mid-1990s, community opposition drove the plan into retreat.

Now, however, the ski area and the local community are largely seeing eye to eye. Part of the reason is that the ski area has backed off from its greatest ambitions. Instead of 11 chairlifts, the new plan anticipates three, none violating wetlands. Difficult terrain located near the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory is not to be invaded. And the trails, following new industry standards, will be braided, with islands of greenery left to maintain as much tree cover as possible.

Another reason for softening community opposition has been several years of a steadily worsening economy during a time when destination skiers have become more difficult to snare among the competitive resorts of the West.

Crested Butte’s operators predict a two-year Forest Service review, with no groundbreaking before 2008. Cost is estimated at $25 million.

Concurrent with this planning is that of town centre, a base village that is part redevelopment of existing shops but also a major expansion of the bed base. John Norton, Crested Butte’s key consultant, insists that the real estate venture needs to support the ski experience, not the other way around.

Colorado Wild, one of several environmental groups in the West that has issued a Ski Area Report Card during recent years, has consistently given Crested Butte an F because of the expansion and base area development plans. Also consistently getting Fs have been the Vail Resorts ski areas with similar expansion and real estate development.

Truckee likely to get roundabouts

TRUCKEE, Calif. — Truckee is expecting to get a pair of traffic roundabouts at Interstate 80, the first such roundabouts in California at an interstate off and on ramp. In doing so, they will follow Vail by about a decade. Cost is estimated at $3.5 million.

Beacon fails to save man in avalanche

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — Can an avalanche beacon save your life? You bet, but it’s not a sure bet, as was evident in a case north of Steamboat Springs on Monday.

A 26-year-old man was skiing with friends, using snowmobiles to ferry themselves back up a hill near Buffalo Pass, when an avalanche occurred. Although his friends had dug him out within 10 minutes, it was to no avail. It was the first avalanche fatality of the year in Colorado, although the ninth in the United States so far this season.