Mountain Town News: Resort town struggles over Internet rentals |

Mountain Town News: Resort town struggles over Internet rentals

Photographer Richard Seeley encountered a buck and five does as they jumped a fence near Ute Pass Road.
Richard Seeley / Special to the daily | D:\Images\Image Library 2016\01-

SANTA FE, N.M. – Santa Fe, the capital city of New Mexico and cultural trend setter, has been struggling with the surge of short-term rentals through the Internet.

The city of 70,000 people capped the number of short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods at 400 and each unit can be rented no more than 17 times a year.

But as in other towns and cities, the restrictions have been widely ignored. One analysis indicated at least 1,000 additional units were being rented through Airbnb, HomeAway, Craigslist, and other popular Internet sites, reports the Santa Fe New Mexican. They do not pay taxes, part of which are used to pay off debt on the city’s convention center and to promote tourism. Nor do they undergo annual inspections by city staff.

With the genie out of the bottle, the city planning staff thinks it’s unreasonable to try to completely clamp down now. The staff proposes instead to allow another 600 units in residential areas — but step up enforcement.

The New Mexican reports opinions all over the map, including people who don’t want to see their neighbors becoming de facto motel operators.

In British Columbia, meanwhile, the Whistler Housing Authority has announced it has fined a resident of a deed-restricted affordable housing unit that had put his unit on Airbnb. The tenant agreed to return $2,500 in rental revenues. An agency administrator told Pique Newsmagazine that the take-away message is that the rules will be enforced.

Very strange case of breaking & entering

HAILEY, Idaho – Just after midnight, on New Year’s Eve, a family near Hailey — about 10 miles from the Sun Valley ski area — awoke to a clatter in the basement of the ranch-style house.

It was an elk, announced the father after investigation. The children, ages 4 and 6, were put into a room, and the wildlife officers and sheriff’s deputies who soon arrived devised a strategy. The only way for the elk to get out was to go up the stairs, through the house and out the door. Appropriating mattresses, they created a corridor, both to protect themselves and to guide the elk.

The frightened elk didn’t take the hint very well. Five times they tried and the elk, scared out of its wits, did nothing. Shoot the thing and drag it out?

Finally, the elk bolted up the stairs and out the door. Authorities tell the Idaho Mountain Express that the elk destroyed rugs and furniture, mostly because of glass shards and urine.

So far, it’s the snowiest winter in five years in the Sun Valley area, and elk have been descending to the valley bottom. Some 13 elk have died from eating poisonous yew plants in the Hailey Cemetery and other locations.

Enough grizzlies to start hunting them?

BOZEMAN, Mont. – Strictly by the numbers, grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have been doing well. Good enough to remove protections from the Endangered Species Act? Well, that’s a point to be discussed, explains the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

In 1975, when the species was listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, there were just 150 grizzlies in Yellowstone National Park and adjacent areas. At last count, there were 717. Another large population can be found along the Continental Divide in northern Montana, plus smaller populations at several other locations in Idaho, Montana and Washington state.

At least in Yellowstone, the government considers the recovery a success and has proposed to delist the species from protection.

Environmental groups, however, see a less certain future for grizzlies. The grizzly are what is called “opportunistic omnivores,” meaning they eat whatever they can find, some 250 types of food from moths to pine cones to elk calves, depending upon the time of year and the food availability.

Whitebark pine trees can be found in cold, high-elevation places in western North America, their seeds providing high-calorie meals for grizzly bears putting on weight to survive hibernation.

The species of tree, however, also became a candidate for endangered species listing in 2011, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the whitebark pine is in “an overall long-term pattern of decline across the range.” Warming temperatures have been implicated.

The upshot? Researchers, explains the Daily Chronicle, have been shifting their diet from whitebark pine to what Frank van Manen, leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, calls “animal matter.”

Bonnie Rice, of the Sierra Club, says more meat-eating by grizzly will cause them to kill more livestock or elk, a big-game hunting species. That puts the grizzly in conflict with the numero-uno predator of the food chain: Humans.

Wildlife managers in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana are more eager than anyone to see a delisting proposal. “States and communities have little incentive to support species recovery if success does not end ESA constraints and return species to state management,” said a letter sent by the three states to the federal wildlife agency last August.

Ken McDonald, of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, says that delisting would give states more management flexibility — including the ability to hunt. McDonald told the Daily Chronicle that wildlife managers hope hunting would teach the bears to stay away from high-conflict areas.

Crested Butte and the future of coal mining

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – A coal mining town for most of its first century, Crested Butte now wants to restrict the expansion of coal mining.

The town council agreed last week to send a letter to the U.S. Forest Service arguing against permitting of an additional 170 million tons of coal mining at Somerset, located 40 miles away across Kebler Pass but within the same county. The current body of coal can be mined for another 10 years.

The issue is complex, involving a roadless area and a host of other issues. But the High Country Citizens Alliance defines the issue as the need to scrap coal as an energy resource. The Crested Butte-based environmental group argues that mining the coal endangers “our precious snowpack, rushing rivers, and lush pastures,” because of the carbon dioxide and methane that would be released into the atmosphere as a result of the mining.

Will the coal actually get mined even if the permit is given? That seemed to be the question on Tuesday, after it was announced that Arch Coal, the owner of the West Elk Mine at Somerset, had filed for bankruptcy. Arch, one of the largest operators in the United States, also operates the Black Thunder and Coal Creek mines in Wyoming’s Thunder River Basin.

The Wall Street Journal was of two minds about what this latest bankruptcy by a coal company represents. In an oblique way, the newspaper’s editorial page seemed to agree with environmentalists. “It’s hard to keep track of all the new rules billowing out of Washington and overwhelming coal producers and their customers,” the newspaper said, although it did concede that part of the problem from coal was the competition from low-priced natural gas and slowing global demand.

In its news report, the Journal saw something less than a calamity for coal producers. “Bankruptcies only spell death for current corporate structures, not necessarily the mines they operate,” said the news story. It pointed out that coal still provides 34 percent of electricity in the United States, a figure that the Energy Information Administration expects to drop only slightly in the next 15 years.

In Crested Butte, the local environmental group said that Crested Butte has moved beyond coal-mining, but town council members seemed to be mindful that a preponderance of the town’s electricity still comes from coal-fired generators.

“At some point we will have to walk the talk as a community as we go forward with this issue,” said Mayor Glenn Michel.

In a follow-up interview with Mountain Town News, Michel pointed to Crested Butte’s laws that are intended to reduce, or offset energy use. For example, if restaurateurs want to have propane flame burners outside, as has become fashionable across the country, then they have to pay a fee or provide renewable energy in lieu of the carbon dioxide emitted in the atmosphere. One such business has chosen to do so, erecting panels of solar hot-water heaters on the business’s roof.

Michel says he wants Crested Butte to step up execution of its energy action plan, which was created five or six years ago.

Land exchange makes Wilson an easier climb

TELLURIDE, Colo. – Bagging 14,017-foot Wilson Peak in southwestern Colorado will become just a little easier this summer. A land exchange has given the U.S. Forest title to the most common path that was used by climbers until 2004.

That year, the owner of the mining parcel at the head of Silver Pick Basin announced it was closed to the public. An alternative, more difficult route was created around the private parcel.

The Trust for Public Lands acquired 25 privately owned mining claims covering about 200 acres, including the summit of the mountain. In exchange, the Forest Service will transfer 300 acres as non-federal land to the private parties. The agency will also get about 450 acres away from Mount Wilson.

A Superfund site, yes, but not at Silverton

SILVERTON, Colo. – What to call it? That’s the question about the Superfund site that Silverton and San Juan County have mostly agreed will be necessary to clean up messes from past gold, silver and other hard-rock mining. The designation would deliver federal aid for the work.

The Durango Herald reports that the EPA has agreed it won’t be called the Silverton Superfund Site. That would be accurate, as there is no mining in the town of 600 people, which constitutes nearly all the population of San Juan County.

The greatest amount of water-tainting pollution comes from four mines located at the head of Cement Creek, about 10 miles upstream, near the Silverton Mountain Ski Area.

In August, one of those mines, the Gold King, gushed orangish water, with elevated levels of heavy metals cascading down the creek and toward Durango. A contractor working for the EPA caused the spill, although there was evidence it might have happened eventually without provocation.

But that recent history explains another suggestion: “The EPA Self-Inflicted Wound Superfund Site.”

How about the Durango Superfund Site, suggested Mark Esper, editor of the Silverton Standard & the Miner.

It’s kind of an inside joke. Durango, located downstream on the Animas River, has been impatient for the upstream mining messes to be cleaned for years.

If San Juan County officials can get the answers they need in the next few weeks, an application can be made for a March deadline. The next window arrives in September.

Lots of retirees muddle Durango demographics

DURANGO, Colo. – At first glance, the trends in Durango don’t make sense. The unemployment rate is low, the real estate market is doing well, and tourism has reached pre-recession levels.

Then why are the income levels stagnant? The answer seems to be the influx of retirees into Durango. “We’re having inflows of non-working population,” explains Richard “Tino” Sonora, director of the Office of Business and Economic Research at Fort Lewis College.

Electrical co-op defends move into broadband

TAOS, N.M. – There’s controversy in Taos, where electrical provider Kit Carson Electric — a member of a family of rural electrical cooperatives in Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming — has strained finances.

Kit Carson is asking for a rate increase, but critics think the cooperative has lost sight of its core mission. In addition to distributing electricity, in years past it got into the business of selling propane. More recently, it has been installing broadband cable.

Luis Reyes, chief executive of the co-op, tells the Taos News that electric ratepayers have put $2.6 million into the fiber-optic network so far, and it could take $7 or $8 million more to finish. He insists that the rate increase is in no way related to the broadband initiative.

The federal government awarded Kit Carson a $4 million grant and a $19 million loan in 2010, as part of the recovery stimulus, to build the fiber-optic network across its service area, which includes several ski areas: Taos Ski Valley, Red River and Angel Fire.

Reyes is bullish on the broadband, which he describes as a major economic driver for the region. He argues that the co-op is the only entity making real progress in economic development. And with most of the project subsidized by the federal government, he says the network is a can’t-miss investment that could revolutionize the local economy. He expects it to be in the black by mid-2017.

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