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Aspen Skiing Company ups the wind power ante

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ASPEN, Colo. — The Aspen Skiing Co. has upped the ante. Previously it purchased 5 per cent of its electricity in the form of shares from wind. Now, it has committed to getting 100 per cent of its power from wind and other forms of non-carbon energy.

Pat O’Donnell, CEO of the Aspen Skiing Co., claimed it is the largest purchase of renewable energy ever by a U.S. ski area. Colorado’s Vail and California’s Sugar Bowl have also made large purchases of wind power.

It’s unclear precisely where Aspen’s wind power will come from. Following the skyrocketing prices of natural gas and other carbon fuels, electricity from wind is now comparable with electricity produced by burning coal. In some areas of Colorado, electricity from wind is sold out. Aspen is contracting with a Boulder, Colo., based broker of alternative energy to find supplies.

In effect, Aspen will pay a bit more for its electricity, which is expected to help expand the infrastructure of alternative energy. Aspen declined to divulge the extra cost it will be paying, or its total cost.

Meanwhile, down-valley 45 miles in Glenwood Springs, city officials have also increased their investment in wind power. Currently, the city gets 4 per cent of its power from wind turbines, the third highest percentage among some 2,000 municipal electric systems in the nation. The cit of about 9,000 people is going to double its share of wind energy, to 8 per cent.

The town had hoped to delay its commitment, pending a study of electrical rates for consumers. However, the supplies of wholesale wind power are being tapped so rapidly that city manager Jeff Heckel urged immediate action. He feared the city might not be able to acquire more wind power if it didn’t act fast, reports the Glenwood Post Independent.

Still, wind remains more expensive than carbon-produced electricity. This move is expected to increase the city’s wholesale power cost by about 1 per cent, or $45,000. But city officials believe that ultimately the wind power may be cheaper. "It will give us a hedge against some of the wildly fluctuating fossil fuel costs that we’ve been experiencing in the last year or two," said Glenwood Mayor Bruce Christiansen.

Steamboat keeps Soul

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — An otherwise drab, conventional bridge across the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs will officially remain the James Brown Soul Center of the Universe Bridge, as it has been since 1993. That’s the year Steamboat Springs residents, in a dubious straw vote, chose the name to honor the famous singer and dancer.

That decision had been hotly contested, with an almost equal number of people favoring the simpler and more local name of Stockbridge, honoring its historical use for moving cattle and other livestock. The Steamboat Pilot recalls that some 26,300 ballots were cast in a town that then had only 10,000 people some years later.

In 2004, after Brown was arrested on charges of domestic violence, the name was revisited, and more recently a group favoring the Stockbridge name had petitioned the city for a change, but rather than provoke division within the community had fallen back to a call for a park near the bridge that would reflect Steamboat’s ranching heritage.

More air links for Aspen

ASPEN, Colo. — The smaller, regional jets had been predicted to begin making their way into the resort markets of the West. It’s now happening. Delta is adding a daily non-stop flight between Telluride and Salt Lake City on a 70-seat twin-engine jet. The trip takes about an hour.

Bill Tomcich, Aspen’s leading expert on airline issues, said the key benefit to local air travelers will be that it will add competition to a market long dominated by United Express. However, for travelers from the West, it will also cut about an hour of travel time by avoiding going through Denver. Altogether, four airlines will be flying into Aspen this summer.

Another hospital planned EAGLE, Colo. — Big-box retailers are not the only thing popping up along the fast-growing I-70 corridor. On the heels of a new hospital and medical clinic opening in Frisco, something similar is planned to the west in Eagle.

The Vail Daily, located midway between Frisco and Eagle, reports that the new hospital will have 20 beds, with 5 of them dedicated to childbirth. Construction could begin within a year. The project is a partnership of the existing hospitals in Vail and Glenwood Springs.

Rummy skis with amputees

VAIL, Colo. — The face was familiar, but it didn’t seem to match the clothing. There on the ski slopes of Vail was Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, outfitted in colorful ski garb, not his typical suit and tie. The Vail Daily reports Rumsfeld was at Vail to ski with soldiers who had lost limbs in the Iraq War. As for his own skiing prowess, he described himself as OK. "I like to go fast as opposed to looking good," he said.

SW Colorado snow worrisome

DURANGO, Colo. — As winter continues, Colorado, more than ever, is a study in contrast. While people in small mountain towns like Red Cliff, which is located in the Vail neighborhood, are scrambling to get flood insurance, dust fills the skies 150 miles to the south in the San Luis Valley, where the Great Sand Dunes National Park is located.

To the west, in the San Juan Mountains, the snowpack is so sketchy that the specter of 2002 – the worst drought year in about 300 years – is being cited. The Durango Herald reports that the San Juan, Animas and Dolores river basins have a snowpack that is only 41 per cent of the historical average. What made 2002 so devastating, however, was a snow-less March and a hot, dry, and windy April that caused a rapid spring runoff.

Copper getting first flagship

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. — The name of the game at destination resorts is "flagship hotels." Although Copper Mountain has been open since 1973, it has never had a nationally recognized hotel brand, aside possibly from Club Med. It soon will, if Hard Rock means anything. Intrawest, owner of Copper Mountain, is partnering with a four-star (on a scale of five stars) Hard Rock, with construction to begin next year. This will be the first Hard Rock hotel in a mountain setting. As with virtually every hotel being planned at a mountain resort, the 320 units will be condominiums that will look and feel and operate much like hotel rooms.

Avian flu inspires urge for preparedness

KETCHUM, Idaho — "Think global but act local" is one of the mantras of environmentalism. That’s something of the same strategy of an emergency planning group in Blaine County, which is where Sun Valley and Ketchum are located. The committee was appointed to address the potential for a pandemic, such as the avian flu that many fear could cause millions of deaths similar to what happened in 1918.

Writing in the Idaho Mountain Express, Diane Barker says the committee is warning people that pandemics are different from other disasters, because so many communities will be affected. "Little if any help will come from the outside," she says. "You have to help yourself, and the only way to do that is to prepare in advance." That process, she adds, begins with education.

JonBenet sleuth returns home

TELLURIDE, Colo. — The university town of Boulder has been called a half-way house for people from Aspen, Vail, and other ski towns of Colorado who are returning to the so-called "real" world. But that’s not exactly true for a former Telluride police chief who left to become the lead investigator on the JonBenet Ramsey murder case. Jim Kolar left Telluride in 2004, but each time he returned to Telluride, where he kept a house, made him realize how much he missed the place. When his replacement in Telluride quit, he said he was back to small town policing, leaving the still-unsolved answer as to who killed JonBenet to somebody else to figure out.

Boy barely survives roof slide

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — A danger in big-snow country, especially during the warming days of late winter, is walking near a building’s overhang. That danger nearly took the life of a 3-year-old boy at Steamboat Springs in late February.

The weather had warmed to 50 degrees by noon that day, reports The Steamboat Pilot, and the boy had paused momentarily to play in a snow pile. He was just steps behind his parents. The snow from the roof slipped, and although not hitting him from above, it hit the ground and then came at him like a wave, inundating him.

The boy was buried under three feet of snow in a pile that was 20 feet wide. A sheriff’s investigator reported that the boy was under the snow for "a minimum of four, a maximum of eight" minutes. The investigator described the snow as being "like heavy, wet cement." What may have saved the boy’s life was that some was in blocks, with just enough space between the blocks to allow air.

Although a curiosity, snow slides from roofs are often deadly. Within the last decade, a woman from Vail died as the result of an avalanche of snow off her roof. A man from Eagle was knocked unconscious while removing snow from the roof of his cabin.

Further testament to the rotten snow conditions provoked by the early spring thaw was an unusual snowslide on Howelsen Hill, the small ski area within Steamboat Springs. The Pilot reports that rain had changed to heavy snow overnight before the avalanche the next afternoon. It was described as a wet-slab avalanche that slid 60 feet. The slope approached 35 degrees.

Neither of the two snowboarders who provoked the slide was hurt. It was also a second avalanche for both. John St. John once was covered up to his knees in an avalanche in Jackson Hole, and Eugene Buchanan was buried in a slide while cross-country skiing with friends near Telluride in 1987.

Molybdenum mining heat up

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — Decades-old plans for mining molybdenum near Crested Butte are heating up once again. Prodding the renewed interest is the increased price for molybdenum, the mineral used as an alloy in steel and other industrial purposes. Prices sank for much of the 1980s and 1990s, hitting $2 a pound in 2000. But last year prices soared to $40, although they have since settled to $25 a pound.

Phelps-Dodge, the giant mining company, let its ownership of the property on Mt. Emmons lapse in 2001, allowing acquisition by U.S. Energy. U.S. Energy officials met with representatives from Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte in late February to announce their plans to proceed with mining operations.

The extent of operations can only be guessed. The Crested Butte News reports that a former spokesperson for U.S. Energy had predicted a smaller mining operation than had been proposed in the 1970s. However, the Mt. Emmons ore deposit is believed to be one of the largest in the world.

Mayors of both Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte told U.S. Energy that a mine would be unacceptable.

Streetlights blot out the jewels

SILVERTON, Colo. — In some places, it’s called progress, although not in Silverton. There, the local electrical cooperative has installed new streetlights around town. The Silverton Standard reports that the new, brighter lights don’t set well with the local planning commissioners, who hope to preserve the sort of dark skies that few in North America can know. Located at an elevation of 9,300 feet with a year-round population of only 500 people, the stars glitter like jewels. The planning commission is asking the electrical cooperative to postpone further "improvements" to streetlights "until we seek comments from the oppressed," reports the Standard.

Hole embraces Earth Charter

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — The Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce had endorsed the Earth Charter, which is a set of principles for sustainable development. Although many resort towns embrace, at least in theory, the principles of low-impact and so-called "green" living, none have endorsed the Earth Charter.

Steve Duerr, who heads the chamber, told the Jackson Hole News & Guide that the key to what he calls cooperative conservation is to "balance commerce and conservation so we have quality growth, short- and long-term growth that preserves the distinctiveness of Jackson Hole so that it doesn’t become Anytown, USA."

Builder takes couple to cleaners

WHITEFISH, Mont. — The Whitefish Pilot reports what sounds like a nightmare for a Colorado couple who thought to build their dream home on Big Mountain, near the ski area of the same name. A building contractor heard of their plans, availed himself, and promised to deliver a 7,500 square foot home for only $750,000.

That looked low by their reckoning, but they took him upon on it. By the time the price had hit $4 million, they knew something was seriously wrong. In fact, he had been skimming money, buying a Hummer and 17 other vehicles, real estate, and expensive bling. While the couple got a $3.1 million judgment again him in court, the Pilot notes that it’s quite another matter to collect the money. The contractor, meanwhile, has fled the Flathead Valley, where Whitefish is located.

Intrawest watching Chinese interest in skiing

VANCOUVER, B.C. — Intrawest is looking to add up to five ski resorts in China to its portfolio by autumn in anticipation of the Chinese boom in skiing. China recorded only 200,000 skier days at the century’s turn, but last year that number had grown to nearly four million, 20-fold increase. The country’s’ first gold medal win in the Olympics, in men’s aerials, is also expected to boost interest in the resort.

The Vancouver Sun reports that Intrawest has studied 35 ski resorts in China and concluded that the market in China is ripe for expansion. Graham Kwan, vice president of Intrawest China, told the newspaper that Intrawest has developed "extremely good" relations with local governments and businesses in the Chinese provinces of Jilin and Heilongjiang.

Altogether, China has 200 ski areas, although some are merely single lifts located on the side of a road, Kwan said. Because Chinese skiers are mostly beginners and intermediates, the ski areas lack difficult terrain. He said Intrawest hopes to manage day ski areas in China that are smaller than the ski areas it operates in North America. "We could pull the trigger on three to five (resorts) in the next six months," he added.

Developer wins case against landowner

SILVERTON, Colo. — It’s one strike again Jim Jackson in his battle with Aron Brill, the developer of the Silverton Mountain Ski Area.

Jackson had claimed that Brill’s skiers had trespassed on his mining claims. As well, Jackson had claimed trespass by the avalanches set off by Brill to make skiing safer at Silverton Mountain – and to make the road leading to his ski area safer.

A judge in Durango, Gregory Lyman, agreed with Jackson, but the faint praise was damning. He ordered that Brill pay a paltry $1. The Silverton Standard explained that while the judge agreed that trespassing had occurred, both by employees of Silverton Mountain and by customers, he said it would be almost impossible to discern whether ski tracks found on Jackson’s property had been made by avalanche control workers or recreation skiers. And if it is for avalanche control workers, their work is that of "protecting the traveling public" on the county roads. Brill is paid by the county to control the avalanche threat to the traveling public. The traveling public consists largely of, but is not limited to, his paying customers.

Jackson’s next day in court arrives in April. The San Juan County commissioners, attempting the first condemnation ever in San Juan County, are condemning Jackson’s property that is located within the federal lands used by the ski areas. Brill is paying for the cost of the condemnation – raising questions about a too-cozy relationship between ski area developer and county government.

Jackson owns 1,600 acres within the federal lands permitted to Silverton Mountain for skiing.

In interviews with papers in Durango and Aspen, Jackson – who lives in Aspen – lashed out at Brill. Jackson has the longer-term interest in San Juan County, as he staged speed skiing championships near where Silverton Mountain is now located in 1980 and 1981, and he had talked about developing a ski area. However, while not arriving until 1999, Brill rapidly got the job done and now has the permit to use the federal land.

"Brill has me portrayed as being uncooperative," Jackson told the Durango Herald. "He preyed on the emotional and financial vulnerabilities of that community." He also complained that, contrary to the judge’s ruling, the avalanches did damage his property. "I saw a lot of my trees down in the valley floor," he said. "It’s an aggressive avalanche-control program."