Mountain Town News: A river still free-flowing but not without changes |

Mountain Town News: A river still free-flowing but not without changes

Allen Best
Mountain Town News
Welcome to Broncos Country. Dustin Schaefer shows his support for the team from high atop Loveland Ski Area.
Steve Rokks / special to the daily |

DENVER, Colo. – In 2013, Colorado landscape photographer John Fielder took a raft trip down the Yampa River, starting at Steamboat Springs, in preparation for his latest coffee-table book.

An accountant by training, Fielder is that rare individual who has figured out a way to actually earn a living from his love of being in wilder places. When working at a department store chain in metropolitan Denver, he started heading out to the mountains on weekends, lugging around a large-format camera, then began producing books of his photographs, 32 altogether now, along with wall and engagement calendars, notecards, and other merchandise.

He keeps hours that most would consider eccentric. He’s usually out before dawn, to get the special effects of first light, and just as often will return to camp after dark, again in an effort to capture the loveliness of evening light.

For this latest book, Fielder and Patrick Tierney, a former river guide on the Yampa who wrote a 50,000-word text, gamboled on the Flat Tops, a volcanic range between Steamboat Springs and Glenwood Springs, where the Yampa River originates under the name of Bear River.

Four dams block the river in the first 50-mile segment of bucolic hay meadows before it reaches Steamboat. From there, however, it flows without interruption for 200 miles to Dinosaur National Park, where it joins the Green, which itself is swallowed by the Colorado River near Moab, Utah. It’s this latter segment of the Yampa that is referenced when people say it’s the last undammed river in the Colorado River system.

In the 1950s, that was in question. The Bureau of Reclamation wanted to erect a dam in Dinosaur, to hold back the waters. David Brower of the Sierra Club, the writer Wallace Stegner, and others snorted loudly with indignation and the plan was eventually quashed — although, as a tradeoff, they did begrudgingly accede to the drowning of Glen Canyon, downstream in Utah, creating what is now called Lake Powell.

Showing his photographs to a sold-out crowd at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science last week, Fielder conceded that the Yampa was not entirely the story of unblemished nature that his photographs generally showcase. The river passes two major coal-fired power plants.

But even Steamboat Springs has altered natural flows of the river, said Bill Atkinson, an aquatic biologist who works for the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife. He said the river is best understood as a canyon in Steamboat, because of adjoining railroad tracks and roads and other intrusions. They together create channel-forming flows, delivering sediments, and altering the biology of the river downstream.

Even so, said Atkinson, the Yampa ranks as No. 1 among the 13 major tributaries to the Colorado in terms of ecosystem function.

Will it stay so relatively pristine? Probably not, if for no other reason than local population growth. But there’s always the Front Range of Colorado. Since at least the 1950s, entrepreneurs have considered what it would take to get some of that water several hundred miles to cities from Fort Collins to the Boulder-Denver metropolitan area. In 2006, that vision was articulated with a conceptual plan — not quite a proposal — to divert water from near Dinosaur National Park, requiring about 300 miles of pipeline.

Colorado’s Dan Birch, deputy general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, cautioned against assuming much water exists available for appropriation. Downstream the water levels in Lakes Mead and Powell continue to drop, he said, even after some good water years.

For now, though, the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas continues its oohs-and-aahs inspiring fountain shows, and the lettuce and broccoli fields of California’s Imperial Valley continue their steady succession of planting and harvesting, some of the water coming from the Yampa.

With more snow, is Sierra drought over?

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Precipitation has been coming off the Pacific Ocean to drench California. The Sierra Nevada snowpack was at 107 percent of its historic average approaching mid-January, with more storms barreling inland and meteorologists confident that El Niño will continue at least through March and maybe May.

But how will you know when the drought is over, asked the Los Angeles Times.

Mike Anderson, the California state climatologist, says that if California receives 150 percent of snowpack by April, that should be enough to fill the biggest reservoirs and probably end the drought.

After three years of eye-popping drought, water officials have been ecstatic. “It’s glorious. I went up to the Sierra last week and I wanted to kiss each snowflake,” said Felicia Marcus, director of the State Water Resources Control Board.

But this glass if far from half full. While rains since December have boosted Shasta Lake, the state’s largest reservoir, by 12 feet, this only increased Shasta’s storage by 4 percent. It’s now 33 percent full, the Times noted.

Students growing their own spinach

WHISTLER, B.C. – Spinach on pizza? Yuck, students at Whistler Secondary School used to say. But now that the students are growing their own vegetables even in the dark days of winter, spinach has lost its yuck factor. The students have been growing cucumbers, peppers, and other plants.

Pique Newsmagazine explains that the school spent $3,600 for three tower gardens. Fluorescent grow-lights shine for 11 hours a day, and a low-wattage submersible pump distributes a nutrient solution to the plants in lieu of soil.

The decision to purchase the towers came out of a discussion about the carbon footprint of food. With no reason to ship the vegetables, growing locally has a lower carbon output, explained student Sophie St. Jacques.

Uber elbowing its way into Sundance festival

PARK CITY, Utah – Uber, the car-sharing business, has been disrupting the commercial and physical landscape in Park City, as will likely be evident during the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 21-31.

The busiest time of year for Park City, Sundance used to be a profitable couple of weeks for taxis. But last year, an estimated 150 to 200 Uber drivers shoehorned their way into the marketplace. And the local taxi drivers were upset — rightfully so, says The Park Record.

Local taxi companies pay taxes and contribute to local nonprofits. As for the Uber riders, they don’t, and apparently escape local regulation. Salting this wound, Uber has gotten the right to a prime spot to do business at this year’s festival.

The newspaper reports an effort to create taxi stands, but also advises taxi companies that they’ll need to adjust their business models to compete with Uber by lowering rates and adopting mobile apps.

Can autonomous cars operate safely in snow?

DETROIT, Mich. – OK, it’s one thing of have a self-driving car in the Silicon Valley of California or in Las Vegas. But how about snow country? How well will they do there?

The Colorado Department of Transportation has started betting on autonomous-driving vehicles by putting together an information network on Interstate 70 between Denver and Summit County.

But another piece of this puzzle comes out of Detroit, where Ford has plans for what it calls the industry’s first self-driving car tests in winter weather, according to the website re/

“It’s one thing for a car to drive itself in perfect weather,” said Jim McBride, Ford’s technical lead for self-driving cars. “It’s quite another to do so when the car’s sensors can’t see the road because it’s covered in snow.”

Re/code says that wintry weather is cited as the primary technical hurdle for self-driving cars getting on the road nationally. In particular, snow hides other vehicles, lane markings, and signals from the car sensors.

Ford hopes to leap the hurdle by using Lidar sensors combined with its own 3-D maps that, according to Ford, reads things like signs, landmarks, and topography.

Google reported in December that it has begun to test its self-driving cars in rainy and snowy conditions, including wintry roads at Lake Tahoe.

Stein Eriksen’s fluid style of skiing and life

PARK CITY, Utah – Former Olympians living in Park City were in the news around Christmas, foremost with the passing of Stein Eriksen, who died at the age of 88.

A Norwegian by birth, he took gold and silver in the 1952 Olympics in Oslo, then three gold at the 1954 World Alpine Ski Championships, a feat not repeated for another 45 years.

Soon after, he emigrated to the United States, influencing at least a generation of skiers with his fluid style and his legendary flip. He had postings in Michigan, Colorado, and California, but credited Averill Harriman, founder of Sun Valley Resort, with instigating his move to where? In Park City, though, he sank deep roots. He got there in 1969 and then became a fixture on the slopes of Deer Valley after it opened in 1981.

Accolades rolled in. “Stein Eriksen may have been born a Norwegian, but his charisma and passion for the sport touched every skiing nation,” said Tom Kelly, a columnist for The Park Record.

Aspen wanted to claim him as its own. “Though Eriksen became synonymous with Deer Valley Resort as its 35-year director of skiing and personality behind the mid-mountain lodge that bears his name, his heart remained in Aspen and Snowmass. Here, he left a legacy that shaped and continues to impact the Snowmass ski school,” wrote Madeleine Osberger in The Aspen Daily News.

Also, writing in the Aspen Daily News, Lorenzo Semple told of the profound effect Eriksen had on his skiing.

“Stein Eriksen’s tell-tale technique brought two elements to the sport of skiing sorely lacking today — elegance and grace. Yesteryears’ instructor strikes me as a handsome, chiseled renaissance-type man who could teach you to ski during the day, drink with you after skiing, cook for you, entertain you with song, dance, and maybe even serenade you with an accordion. Stein Eriksen embodied that stereotype for me,” he wrote.

“When you put on a ski school uniform in Aspen, there’s a lot of history behind it. Stein Eriksen’s legacy here is a huge part of that. Whenever I pass the picture of him doing a front flip at the (Aspen) Highlands (ski area), I try to stop and look at it for a second. He is credited with pioneering aerials on skis, which is right up there with inventing the Internet if you ask me.”

The other ex-Olympian in the news at Park City was Picabo Street, who faces three misdemeanor charges stemming from domestic violence involving her 76-year-old father just before Christmas. She lives part-time in Park City, said the Idaho Mountain Express, after growing up at Triumph, near Ketchum.

Cheap coffee no more as McDonald’s leaves Aspen

ASPEN, Colo. – When McDonald’s arrived in Aspen 31 years, there were arched eyebrows of disapproval. Now that the fast-food restaurant is gone, there are regrets.

If the walk-in restaurant seemed to keep busy, it was financially underperforming, owners told the Aspen Daily News. But customers were distressed by the exit of the only place available for a cheap cup of coffee and quick calories.

Mayor Steve Skadron said that when he first arrived in Aspen, working at a nearby sports shop, it was the go-to spot for himself and fellow employees. “It’s the lowest price going (and) I’m sad we’re losing that price point in town. It leaves a hole in our market.”

Aspen now has just one other fast-food national franchise, a Domino’s Pizza outlet.

Packed Christmas, but now the lull in January

ASPEN, Colo. – What a busy Christmas it was in Aspen. But what a lull for January, with the distinct absence of Australians and their week-long visits.

Reporting on Christmas, Bill Tomcich, director of Stay Aspen Snowmass, a central reservations agency, reports eight consecutive nights in Aspen with occupancies of 90 percent or greater. That included four nights in excess of 97 percent. Nearby Snowmass was packed too, but not quite so much, with just five nights in excess of 90 percent occupancy.

The normal January lull in bookings this year is longer but also noticeably deeper, in part because of the drop in business from Australia.

The Aspen Times fingers the strength of the American dollar, which makes a trip by Aussies to the U.S. 40 to 50 percent more expensive as compared to two years ago.

That figure comes from David Withers, managing director of Travelplan Australia, a major ski tour operator. He said the company’s business fell 30 percent in trips to Colorado this winter.

Australia is the top international market for Aspen-Snowmass, which gets up to about 20 percent of its business from the international market. International business is especially important in mid-winter.

With the economy pounding on all cylinders and storms delivering good snowfall, Aspen reported a 12.9 percent increase in skier visits during the first third of the year. Colorado Ski Country USA also reported major gains in visits in the early season.

But there is evidence of a slowdown. Ralf Garrison, of DestiMetrics, a research firm that tracks occupancy and booking trends at mountain resorts, said there has been very small growth in overall bookings rates during the last four or five months. This comes after double-digit gains in years past.

Colorado’s glaciers likely to vanish soon

WARD, Colo. – Colorado has few glaciers, and they’re small. Soon, they will likely vanish, report researchers after observing the decline of ice in Arikaree Glacier.

The glacier covers 22 acres and is located in a cirque along the Continental Divide between Boulder and Granby. Most of Colorado’s glaciers are located in the same area in and near Rocky Mountain National Park.

“Things don’t look good up there,” says Mark Williams, an ecologist with the University of Colorado Boulder Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. “While there was no significant change in the volume of the Arikaree Glacier from 1955 to 2000, severe drought in Colorado beginning in 2000 caused it to thin considerably. Even after heavy snows in 2011 and again in 2015, we believe the glacier is on course to disappear in about 20 years.”

Arapahoe Glacier, four to five times larger, will also likely disappear about the same time, he said.

In addition to the changes occurring on Arikaree Glacier, scientists have seen decreases in ice in three rock glaciers (large mounds of ice, dirt and rock) as well as in subsurface areas of permafrost, frozen soil containing ice crystals.

Williams and other researchers also discovered increases in discharges of water from the valley below the glacier in late summer and fall. The increases appear to be due to higher summer temperatures melting “fossil” ice present for centuries or millennia in glaciers, rock glaciers, permafrost, and subsurface ice.

“We are taking the capital out of our hydrological bank account and melting that stored ice,” Williams said. “While some may think that the late summer water discharge is the new normal, it is really a limited resource that will eventually disappear.”

Scientists have been gathering information at Niwot Ridge, near where the Arikaree Glacier, is located, since the 1940s.

They also discovered that at one site, at about 11,600 feet, once-magnificent wildflowers are being replaced by shrubs, particularly willows.

He said the transition has been hastened by a positive feedback. The patches of shrubs now act as snow fences, causing the accumulation of more water and nutrients and the growth of more shrubs Additional nitrogen, from vehicle emissions and agricultural and industrial operations on the Front Range and elsewhere in the West, is being deposited in the tundra, altering the vegetative mix.

Williams said the changes along the Continental Divide are probably influenced by global change. “The mountains are sentinels of climate change. We see things there before we see them” on the Great Plains, where Denver and other Front Range cities are located.

He said the changes documented at the site are probably happening elsewhere in Colorado’s higher country. “We’ve made a case many times that the research … is representative of the Colorado Front Range, (and) in many cases of larger alpine areas in Colorado,” he told one reporter.

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