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Ski area bill is all about jobs



WASHINGTON D.C.  In Washington these days, it's all about jobs, jobs, jobs. Just consider the statement that Colorado Sen. Mark Udall made after Congress finally approved his bill, Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act.

"It's a reminder to the American people that we can work together on common sense jobs creation," said Udall of the law, which was passed by unanimous consent by the U.S. Senate after similar broad support in the House. "It's pragmatic, bipartisan, doesn't cost one dime to the American taxpayers, and reduces government regulation, while allowing businesses to create more jobs."

And the bill will produce more jobs for U.S. citizens, at the expense of foreigners, said Udall. By giving them more latitude for use of federal lands, according to ski area operators, they will be able to have more year-round economies, providing more year-round jobs, which will be more attractive to U.S. residents. That, in turn, will allow ski areas to do less recruiting of foreign workers from Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and other countries for seasonal positions.

How different from 2008, when the legislation was first introduced and labor remained at a premium in most of the ski towns.

The fundamental problem identified by the 121 U.S. ski areas that lease land from the federal government was the vagueness of the previous legislation governing that use. Adopted in the 1980s, the law made no mention of snowboarders, only skiers. Not that this has ever caused the U.S. Forest Service any heartburn.

Summer was another matter. Lacking clear authority from Congress, the Forest Service was leery about authorizing zip lines, alpine slides and the sort of mountain biking courses as are found at Whistler, which require significant earth-moving and structures. Ski area operators wanted clear authority.

What will come of this? Probably concerts at some locations, and rock-climbing walls, David Perry, senior vice president of mountain operations for the Aspen Skiing Co., mentioned the possibility of both zip lines and alpine slides in a recent interview with The Aspen Times . Mike Kaplan, the chief executive, has talked about mountain biking.

But with perhaps a few exceptions, U.S. ski areas won't be offering the equivalent of Whistler's mountain biking park, according to Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association. He told Mountain Town News that U.S. liability law exposes operators to greater financial risk than does Canadian law.


Norquay betting on summer

BANFF, Alberta - Mount Norquay, the ski area at Banff, is prepared to give up 44 per cent of its current lease in exchange for authority from Parks Canada to develop summer uses. However, a specific plan has yet to be drawn up and approved for uses such as via feratta, a rock-climbing route fixed with fixed cables and other permanent aides.

But even summer use will have limits, reports the Rocky Mountain Outlook . For example, hiking will be precluded in mid-mountain locations, where activities are considered more impactful to summer. Similarly, summer visitors will have to arrive by public transportation, to limit impacts to a wildlife corridor.

Vacation plans plummet

JACKSON, Wyo. - The line between paradise and Hades can be a thin one indeed, as Marvin Bass can attest when his first vacation in five years was cut short.

A Floridian, he had borrowed a 42-foot motor home from his best friend for a three-week vacation. Travelling across steep Teton Pass into Jackson Hole, the vehicle began struggling. He parked it at a pullout, unhitched the truck that he was towing, and drove down to Jackson Hole to get fluid. Returning, he was trying to hitch the truck to the back of the RV when he mistakenly locked himself out.

That wasn't the end of the world. He figured out how to squeeze into the RV through the driver's window. But as he did, his body unleashed the brake, and the RV began rolling toward the precipice.

Bass got out. But the RV is probably dead after having tumbled 68 metres down the mountainside. "Obviously, I'm not going to Yellowstone in it," he told the Jackson Hole News&Guide.


P.O.s  facing closure

PHIPPSBURG, Colo. - A forwarding address has not been posted yet at the post office in the old railroading town of Phippsburg, but a decision has been made to close it.

The post office, located south of Steamboat Springs, was among 11 identified for imminent closure this year by the U.S. Post Service, which is trying to stanch the red ink in its operations. But another post office, just 6 kilomtres away at Oak Creek, will remain open.

Dozens of small post offices in Colorado, including those in the mountains of Rico, Ophir, Parlin and Red Cliff, were identified as among the post offices subject to closure.


Howelsen subsidies under review

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. - Steamboat Springs city officials will be examining the subsidy of the locally owned ski area, Howelsen Hill, and the adjoining rodeo arena. The subsidy this year was nearly $1 million, and next year it is projected to decline to $800,000.

The city has subsidized operations since 1977, when it took on a joint-use agreement with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. The Steamboat Pilot & Today notes that operations at the ski hill include the jumping complex that has been the training site for many world champions, helping establish Steamboat's claim to fame as the source of more Winter Olympians than any other town.

Some bloggers on the newspaper's website question why the subsidy for this recreational amenity should be challenged, while that of other parks and venues maybe aren't.


Fido banned from events

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. - What's a mountain town without dogs roaming around? Breckenridge is finding out. The town had adopted a law that specifically sets the procedure by which pets can be excluded from events. Signs will have to be posted at the events, reports the Summit Daily News .

Citing a town memo, the Daily News notes that more and more events held in Breckenridge ban animals, usually due to the presence of food or large crowds of people. While most people have been compliant, authorities have recently had people challenging the policy.


Big projects planned

EAGLE, Colo. - Two big projects in the Eagle Valley, one at Vail and the other in Eagle, got key approvals last week.

In Vail, the town council approved an amendment to the community master plan needed for Ever Vail, a $1 billion project at the base of the ski mountain, to move forward. This would become the third or fourth major access point to the ski mountain. That said, Vail has no clear idea of when it will start building. It also needs several more permits.

In Eagle, the local planning commission unanimously recommended approval of a giant retail-shopping complex called Eagle River Station. A similar plan of the same name was rejected by town voters last year, as was another major development plan several years before. The Eagle Valley Enterprise suggests s distinct shift in the town outlook, but also hints that the development could once again became a consuming community issue in town elections in 2012.

Tinkering with energy use

Lake Tahoe, Nevada - Ski towns continue to tinker with ratcheting up renewable energy and energy efficiency, reducing carbon footprints.

In the Lake Tahoe area, Placer County has been trying for years to develop a biomass plant, to generate electricity, using the abundant scraps of trees from the Tahoe Basin as fuel. Neighbors objected in one area, but a spot called Cabin Creek has now been identified, reports the Sierra Sun .

Aspen, the city government, continues to push toward initiatives that will lessen the carbon footprint of the community. It has contracted $172,000 for a 1,000-foot-deep test well, which will explore how much heat lies below the town that can be tapped. In Aspen's silver era, miners talked about some mines being warmer than others. A 2008 feasibility study found that the temperature of underground water ranges from 90 to 140 degrees. Water needs to be at least 100 degrees to heat buildings, and 220 degrees to generate electricity, notes the Aspen Daily News .

Hydroelectric generation is Aspen's second, and more promising project. The town harnessed the power of falling water in Castle and Maroon Creeks from 1893 to 1958, when power from big hydroelectric plants and then coal-generated electricity became cheaper. It wants to do so again. But fierce opposition has developed - and from some perhaps surprising sources: a portion of the local environmental community.

Nonetheless, while modifying plans, the city council has agreed to move forward, seeking a permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which governs hydroelectric installations.

In an essay published in the Aspen Daily News , City Councilman Jack Johnson pictured it as a case of hypocritical NIMBYism. Those living along the creeks shouldn't leave their houses to restore health of the stream - and Aspen shouldn't abandon its water rights, he says.

"What we shouldn't do is expect other communities.... to mine and burn coal to produce our energy so that we can continue to live as if without consequence here. If we aren't willing to do a little here in Aspen with what we have, how do we justify fighting others, elsewhere, over doing harm to the environment."

In the Vail area, the talk at the Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability was how to achieve "green." It's important, said Luke Cartin, senior mountain environmental affairs manager for Vail Resorts, to get employees to embrace environmental initiatives. A local hotel manager agreed, but said that the commitment must start at the top. "Without an owner or manager on board, you can't achieve any of this," said Jason Yeash, general manager of the Holiday Inn.


Broadband crucial

SALIDA, Colo. - Local business leaders have identified the lack of affordable, high-speed Internet access a top economic development priority.

Wendell Pryor, director of the Chaffee County Economic Development Corp. said access to Internet services is vital for retention, expansion and creation of jobs. But businesses also need to understand the benefits of high-speed broadband, including online tools.

Just what is missing in the Salida-Buena Vista area was not identified in the story in the Mountain Mail .

Who benefits?

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. - Who benefits the most from subsidized airline flights? That seems to be the crucial issue in a proposal now being debated that would increase the sales tax in Steamboat Springs to enlarge the kitty for flight revenue guarantees.

Steamboat's direct flight program, one of the oldest in the ski industry, has been hit hard by the recession. A $1 million reserve fund has been depleted as the community has been forced to pay more to cover losses by the airlines. With fewer people flying and airlines wanting more money to cover higher costs of fuel, Steamboat has reduced the number of airline seats by 27 per cent in the last three years.

"Never in the 25-year history of the program have we seen this kind of reduction," writes Chris Diamond, Intrawest's chief executive at the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.

Denver-based Intrawest has pledged to contribute a minimum of $1.1 million annually for the next five years, the term of the proposed tax. That's the average donation it has given to the revenue guarantees in the last three years. A lodging tax collected in recent years also goes to the revenue guarantees, as do scattered other donations.

The proposal would increase the sales tax in Steamboat by one-quarter of one cent. Diamond and other supporters promise restored airline seats and expansion into new markets.

Opinions as expressed in the Steamboat Pilot letters section are divided. Proponents argue that the direct flights bring tourists who spend money in ways that benefit nearly everybody in Steamboat, directly or indirectly, as is the case of increased sales taxes that are used for streets, parks, and so forth. Opponents describe it as a subsidy for the ski area operator and its hedge-fund owner.