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Stars aligning for record winter in Colorado

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COLORADO — Despite all their hope, ambition and real-estate construction, Colorado’s ski areas have been plateaued for nearly a decade when it comes to people on the slopes. The record for skier days of 11.98 million skier days was set in 1997-98.

That was even before Monica Lewinsky was a household name. Michael Jordan was still in his prime.

But forecasters see all the stars lining up for that record to topple. The economy is roaring, destination skiers began returning two years ago, and the dollar remains weak vis a vis the euro.

Now, the state’s largest ski areas have enjoyed extraordinary early-season snows, driving reservations and also encouraging the sometimes picky high plains metro skiers to throng to the ski areas.

All of this had analyst Chuck Goelder, former professor of tourism at the University of Colorado-Boulder, confidently predicting 12.05 million skiers this winter – a figure he tells Denver’s Rocky Mountain News that he now believes could be conservative.

Early snow brings travelers

VAIL, Colo. — How important were the early season storms that dumped on the northern Colorado resorts and those in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana?

Huge, say hotel operators and others in the Vail area. One large reservations agency, the Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Board, reported winter reservations made during November were up 45 per cent this year.

Beaver Creek now 25 years old

BEAVER CREEK, Colo. — Beaver Creek turns 25 this month, and by almost any measure of financial success, it has been among the top resorts in North America during recent years.

Skier days have routinely increased in the double-digits, hitting 815,000 last winter, even as most ski resorts have faltered or bobbed. The real estate market bulges with sales of $6 to $10 million for homes. And the sales taxes collected by merchants would be the envy of most towns.

The resort would now be 30 years old if officials from Vail Associates, the developer of the resort, had had their way. They wanted it to be a premier venue for the 1976 Winter Olympics. However, in 1972 Colorado voters yanked the subsidy for the Games, causing Denver to withdraw as host.

Slow-growth-minded state officials, meanwhile, insisted on a more methodical approach to the development of Beaver Creek. While some protagonists in the dispute remain adamant that they could have done it right, a story in the Rocky Mountain News suggests a better ski area resulted from the greater patience.

The newspaper also notes rumors during recent months of a new bid by Denver and Colorado for the 2018 Winter Olympics. However, U.S. Olympic Committee representatives note that post 9/11 travel restrictions enacted by the U.S. government make any U.S. bid more difficult.

One footnote on Beaver Creek is this: It was the most recent major ski resort built on federal lands in the United States, at least until last year. There were small ski resorts built on private and even federal lands, but no major resorts. Idaho’s Tamarack opened last year with some dimensions of a major resort. It is located on state lands.

More ‘backcountry light’ sought

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. — The Keystone ski area continues to expand what is being called the "backcountry light" ski experience.

Last winter Keystone began ferrying customers by Sno-cat into two bowls, called Erickson and Bergman, that are located above timberline. As a business proposition, it’s paying off for Keystone. Demand is not high, but neither is the cost.

Keystone wants to expand on the concept, adding 276 more acres of above-timberline terrain farther to the south on Bear and Independence mountains. This provides skiing around the top of Jones Gulch.

Chuck Tolton, Keystone’s director of mountain operations, told the Summit Daily News that he does not foresee erecting lifts to service this above-timberline bowl skiing for at least five to seven years. There is, he said, insufficient business to justify the cost.

In this above-timberline expansion, Keystone is inching toward what has been talked about for more than 30 years. Keystone, when it opened in 1972, had hoped to build a major downhill course on Independence Mountain for the Olympics that were to be held in 1976. (Vail Associates, as noted above, had different ideas). In more recent years, Keystone has talked about expanding into Jones Gulch.

However, Jones Gulch is considered a wildlife corridor, potentially of great value to Canada lynx that now frequent the area. While federal wildlife and land officials are still not certain about just how important the corridor is for lynx, Keystone is skirting the issue by staying high, above the trees. "We had very carefully drawn a boundary," Tolton told the Daily News.

Rich Newton, the district ranger for the forest Service told the newspaper that early discussions with biologists suggest no outstanding concern about impacts to lynx.

The newspaper further reports the Forest Service may make a decision that could allow skiing yet this winter.

Aspen pledges action

ASPEN, Colo. — Aspen’s city government has joined the Aspen Skiing Co. – as well as the Ford Motor Co., the city of Chicago and the state of New Mexico, among others – in committing to reducing the greenhouse gases it creates.

The city joined the Chicago Climate Exchange. In doing so, it committed to a 4 per cent reduction in gas emissions in 2006 as compared to the 1998-2001 baseline. Those who exceed 4 per cent reductions can sell their credits to those who have not. And those who have not can purchase credits from those who do.

Fossil poacher fined

FIELD, B.C. — A man caught stealing fossils from Yoho National Park has been fined an unprecedented $2,000.

Previously, fines of $50 to $500 had been assessed, noted Ed Abbott, chief park warden for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay. He told the Rocky Mountain Outlook that the increased fine sent a strong message to fossil poachers.

The fossils came from Burgess shale. The shale formation in the Canadian Rockies is considered the world’s finest repository of trilobites and other Cambrian-era fossils. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.

New sport ‘caching’ on

BANFF, Alberta — Administrators of Banff National Park are trying to decide whether to allow geocaching.

In geocaching, organizers leave a cache – typically a small box or canister containing items such as coins, hockey cards, or other small souvenirs – for others to find. Geocachers then log onto websites such as www.geocaching.com , where they can find coordinators for where caches are hidden. They then do a physical search with hand-held global positioning system devices.

One geocacher, Matte Hoffart, a high school student in Canmore, told the Rocky Mountain Outlook that it’s all, good, clean fun. "It’s a good hike, or a good walk, depending on what you want to do."

Added Hoffart: "It has no impact on the environment except for the walking in and out."

Claire McNeil, ecosystem management specialist for Parks Canada, said that geocaching goes against the agency’s "pack-it-in-pack-it-out and leave-no-trace" policy. Specific concerns include whether geocachers venture off trails, creating new trails and displacing wildlife.

On the other hand, she said, the agency sees benefits to geocaching. "It’s a very family-friendly activity. It seems to be something where people of all ages can, in fact, participate in," she said. "It also does seem to draw people to places they maybe didn’t even necessarily know about and they wouldn’t necessarily have gone to."

Rich expect to spend more

ASPEN, Colo. — A magazine that caters to the über-rich predicts that they will spend more money on their Christmas vacations this year.

Elite Traveler, which claims to cater to people with a net worth of $10 million or more, says a survey of 511 such individuals shows that they will be spending more money this year than last.

The magazine, reports The Aspen Times, predicts the super rich will spend an average $54,600 during the holidays on hotel and resort visits, up 32 per cent, while villa and ski house rentals are expected to climb 27 per cent. And so it goes for everything: alcohol, gifts, and bling-bling (jewelry).

As well, they are expected to increase their charitable contributions, but only by 5 per cent. After all, they’ve been giving heavily to hurricane relief efforts, says the magazine.

Still too warm to freeze beetles

VAIL, Colo. — The only sure way to stop the spread of bark beetles in the forests of Colorado is deep and extended cold. While the cold of early December was certainly the most extreme so far this century, with temperatures dropping to 30 below or less, it might not have been cold enough to kill the beetles.

U.S. Forest Service etymologist Bob Cain told the Vail Daily he thought it was cold enough to kill some beetles, but he wasn’t sure how many. Because the bark insulates the beetles from the cold, temperatures need to be more than 25 below, some studies have shown, he said.

Vail had a mere 15 below zero, although other mountain towns in Colorado shivered through temperatures of 30 below and less – just like the good old days.

Thompson chums writing book

ASPEN, Colo. — Two chums of the late journalist Hunter S. Thompson plans to issue a book of their own containing their reminisces. The two chums, Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis and local artist Michael Cleverly, spent a great deal of time in Thompson’s kitchen, where he met guests.

They had joked about the book over the years, Cleverly told The Aspen Times, but after Thompson committed suicide in February, the two cranked out several sample chapters. They got 19 rejections, but the 20 th publisher, Harper Entertainment/William Morrow, has forwarded what Cleverly called a "niggardly" advance.

"It’s about friendship, as far as I’m concerned," Cleverly said of the book’s premise.

Brokeback premiers in Jackson

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — The film Brokeback Mountain opened in movie theaters in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco last weekend – but it was also shown in Jackson Hole.

The Jackson Hole Institute had worked for a year to get an advance screening. The director, Ang Lee, was expected for the premiere, as was one of the lead actors, Heath Ledger. Both are being prominently mentioned as Academy Award candidates.

Jackson Hole had a good claim for an advance showing. Annie Prouilx, who wrote the story on which the movie was based, had set it in northern Wyoming. She actually lives in southern Wyoming, near the Colorado border, but the movie was filmed in Alberta, in the Canmore area, because filming there is less expensive than in Wyoming and also because Alberta has the infrastructure for movie productions.

Plan now for warmer earth

TRUCKEE, Calif. — With Lake Tahoe 2 degrees warmer than a century ago and 1 degree warmer than only three decades ago, it’s clear that the Sierra Nevada – like most of the world – is growing warmer, notes the Sierra Sun. Whatever the cause of global warming, says the newspaper in an editorial, it behooves local governments, business groups and tourism forces to begin planning now about how to adapt.

Low ski areas at risk

WILLAMETTE PASS, Ore.— Business is looking sketchy at Willamette Pass, a ski area 60 miles southeast of Eugene. Three years ago, the ski area invested $3 million in a high-speed, six-passenger lift to the summit. Owners hoped the investment would push skier days toward 100,000.

Instead, skied days have plodded along well below that, skidding in the drought of last winter to less than 30,000.

While some question the wisdom of spending that much money on a major lift upgrade, Eugene’s Register-Guard suggests that snowfall is becoming an issue. An Oregon State University study of climate change during the 20 th century in the Pacific Northwest last year revealed that average temperatures increased 1.3 degrees. Temperatures are projected to increase another 2.7 degrees in the next 20 years, says the newspaper.

First baby gets standing ovation

FRISCO, Colo. — Probably to nobody’s surprise, the first patients who checked into the new hospital in Summit County were both skiers.

Within a day, however, the first baby was delivered. The baby may never get one again, reports the Summit Daily News, but the dozen staff members assembled for the occasion gave it a standing ovation.

The hospital, called St. Anthony’s Summit Medical Center, has been described as having the ambiance of a Hyatt hotel. Holli Guzzardo, the mother of the newborn, confirmed the four-star experience. Her stay there, she said, was like being on a mini-vacation.

Errors upon errors

MINTURN, Colo. — In September, a woman who was hiking up 14,005-foot Mount of the Holy Cross disappeared when she parted with her climbing companion only a few minutes from the boulder-strewn summit.

Although some 700 searchers, a record for Colorado, later combed the mountain, none found evidence of the woman, a 35-year-old mother of four children. Nor, for that matter, do new police documents obtained by the Vail Daily and the Denver Post shed light on the mystery.

The story now told is of errors compounded: lunch left at the car, too little clothing for hiking that time of year, and of a path mistakenly taken that led them on a much longer, more difficult route up the mountain than she was suited for. For most of the day, the woman trailed her companion by 60 feet. Near the top, she reported she could just go no higher.

Searchers think that she may have wandered off the west side of the mountain, where she could have fallen on cliffs that were hidden from searchers dispatched in helicopters. They report no particular reason to suspect foul play.

Hikers have frequently gotten lost on the mountain, despite the fact that they’re above treeline in full view most of the time of the trail back to the parking lot. Too, the trail is by now exceedingly well marked. However, the landscape is so vast that those unfamiliar with the geography are easily confused.

Mine claims may become cabins

SILVERTON, Colo. — San Juan County has very little flat. It’s a place of vertical. So, even though it remains a place of only 600 year-round residents, most of the flat is already used up or contaminated by mining.

So reports the Silverton Standard in a story about a proposal to build on old mining parcels located in the rugged mountains that surround Silverton.

The newspaper notes that a majority of the private land in San Juan County is contained within the 3,000 mining properties that are scattered across hillsides, steep slopes and sometimes even cliffs.

"Most mining claims are long, narrow 10-acre strips, and each is considered an individual parcel, able to be sold or developed without going through a subdivision process," the newspaper says.

What this could yield is a 3,000-lot subdivision scattered willy-nilly across the landscape, with homes placed in locations not because that’s where it makes sense to have homes, but rather that’s because minerals had once been found.

In the current case, a developer is proposing to combine three parcels into one, still building three cabins but in the process making better use of the land than if the original land parcels were adhered to. The idea is drawing mixed reviews.

Experimental forest designated

TRUCKEE, Calif. — An experimental forest has been designated 10 miles north of Truckee, joining 77 other experiment forests and ranges in the United States and its territories. The experimental forest will be managed and used jointly by researchers from the U.S. Forest Service and the University-of California at Berkeley. Combined with data from a nearby snow research station at Donner Pass, researchers hope to use the experimental forest to help measure changes in the Sierra Nevada.

Snowmobiling stuntmen come to carnivals

WHITEFISH, Mont. — Winter carnivals used to feature ski jouring, the thrill consisting of skiers being drawn by horses. Now, the horses come under a hood. Snowmobiles – at least in the winter carnival at Whitefish – will be the center of attraction.

The Whitefish Pilot says that Red Bull, the drink manufacturer, will pay for the demonstration of death-defying flips and jumps by the snowmobiling stuntman from SCS Enterprises of Bozeman, Mont.