Mountain Town News: Astro-tourism boosted by dark skies designation |

Mountain Town News: Astro-tourism boosted by dark skies designation

Allen Best
Mountain Town News

KETCHUM, Idaho – Ketchum last week was awarded a still-rare designation by the International Dark Sky Association. The question is whether that designation, as a dark sky community, can be monetized through what is called astro-tourism.

The premise of astro-tourism is that people really do want to see Aquarius, Orion and other constellations that were readily visible to Biblical shepherds.

Before Ketchum, the International Dark Sky Association has made 15 other such community designations in the world, 11 of them in North America. They include Sedona and Flagstaff in Arizona and Westcliffe and Silver Cliff in Colorado.

The organization has also designated several dozen dark sky parks around the world, including Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho, Canyonlands National Park in Utah and Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico.

To be eligible for the designation, communities must adopt regulations that strongly discourage light pollution. Ketchum did that in 1999 with an ordinance that requires shielding of outdoor lighting fixtures and minimizes light output.

The city council in the last year adopted further regulations. Micah Austin, the director of community planning, says the new ordinance establishes a maximum of 2700 Kelvin or less in color temperature for all outdoor lighting. The new law also establishes a light-trespass matrix of light infiltrating across property lines. He says the new law also requires downlit and fully shielded lighting, removing some flexibility in the older law.

For the city to maintain its status, it must continue to protect the night sky through public outreach, including dark sky events.

Nearly 80 percent of people in North America are unable to see the Milky Way galaxy from where they live, the result of light pollution, most of it created in the latter half of the 20th century, according to the “New World Atlas of Artificial Sky Brightness,” by Fabio Falchi and others.

In Ketchum, the push toward slowing the encroachment of artificial lights was driven by Dr. Stephen Pauley. Now 77, he was an eye, nose and throat specialist who moved to Ketchum and Sun Valley in 1991. Friends call him Dr. Dark.

Speaking with a New York Times reporter in 2003, he described dark sky preservation as a matter primarily of education. “It does not mean living in darkness,” said Pauley. “It means shining light where it belongs, on the ground or pavement, not in someone’s eyes, window or up into a space where it is wasted.”

This year, talking with the Idaho Mountain Express, he compared the loss of the night sky to that of coral reefs in the ocean or ice in the Arctic.

He said he hopes Ketchum becomes a model for other cities in the West. “There has to be an understanding of the dark.”

Ketchum Mayor Nina Jonas said Pauley “has reminded us all about the wonders of the cosmos for more than two decades.”

An even more important designation may be forthcoming, possibly before the end of 2017. The town is at the core of a proposed International Dark Sky Reserve for central Idaho. It would be a first in the United States.

In Colorado, Westcliffe and Silver Cliff also hope to achieve that distinction, but the effort to adopt regulations was slowed by an effort to recall Custer County commissioners. The proposed restrictions are part of the disagreement.

John Barentine, program manager for the International Dark Sky Association, says that Ketchum’s application was more explicitly about driving tourism than other community applications.

“Like the others, it was partly about quality of life and preserving community character, but I think pretty clearly they hope to capitalize on people who will be coming to see the night sky from the to-be-established Reserve,” he tells Mountain Town News.

“‘Astrotourism’ is a bona fide motivator, particularly in the American West, driving establishment of not only protected areas like International Dark Sky Parks, but also so-called ‘Amenity West’ communities like Ketchum,” says Barentine.

Banff gives no shelter to elk from cougars, wolves

BANFF, Alberta – Four bull elk have taken the bullet within the townsite of Banff, in Banff National Park. Two had been aggressive around people, but two others had become what is known in Banff as “townies.”

Townies are those elk that stay in the town, because it’s safer than being out in the national park, where they’re more vulnerable to attacks by wolves and cougars. The problem, explained Bill Hunt, resource conservation manager for Banff National Park, is that bulls and then cows lingering in town result in harems, then even more elk. They then draw wolves and cougars, too.

Parks Canada is authorized to kill up to 20 elk in the town a year. In practice, it sometimes kills none and has never killed more than 14. The need for culling was much larger in the 1990s, when there were up to five elk attacks a year on people, including one on a toddler.

Whistler continues to ponder whether it’s just too successful

WHISTLER, B.C. – As Whistler continues to wonder whether it has been having too much success, Pique Newsmagazine reached out to an individual with impeccable qualifications: Al Raine.

Raine, who might be called British Columbia’s “godfather of skiing,” was among the first elected officials in Whistler. That was in the 1970s. He also was involved in the development of Blackcomb Mountain and Whistler Village.

Now mayor of Sun Peaks, the resort elsewhere in British Columbia, Raine thinks Whistler has become much larger even than the international ski destination that he envisioned. Even so, he is surprised by the province’s popularity.

“I sometimes look at the numbers from Whistler and some of the other resorts, and I have to pinch myself. It is beyond even my expectations.”

He thinks Whistler has outgrown its capacity. It was designed to need 36,000 bed units and an on-mountain capacity of 24,000 to 25,000 people.

“The resort has gone way beyond that now. They changed the formula used to count beds, If you used the formula that we used, Whistler would probably be over 70,000 pillows.

Raine says Whistler will face increased pressure as the Lower Mainland — Vancouver and adjoining areas — continues to grow. The population there is predicted to reach 3 million people by 2020. Tourism in British Columbia has increased by 5 percent a year.

“Ideally, had the world been perfect for British Columbia, we would have had one or two more resorts developed close to the Vancouver market so that Whistler wasn’t carrying the full load,” Raine told Pique.

But how do you decide what’s too much? In this, Raine answered as did several others contacted by Pique: “If a resort is not looking after its employees, the guest is going to feel that eventually and it’ll drive your business down,” he said. “You will never be a world-class destination if you are not a world-class community.”

In worrying about what constitutes too much, Whistler is far from alone. A phrase has been invented of late that captures the anxiety: overtourism.

Europe had many examples of backlashes against too many tourists this year: Tour buses were attacked and vandalized by groups of irate Barcelonans. Thousands of angry protestors lined the usually peaceful, romantic canals of Venice. And the Croatian seaside city of Dubrovnik started limiting the number of visitors entering its historic Old Town.

Utah examining whether to bid for 2026 Olympics

PARK CITY, Utah – Utah has started talking about whether it wants to host the Winter Olympics in 2026. The International Olympic Committee won’t make a decision until 2019, but an Olympic Exploratory Committee was seated in Utah recently, and it has a representative from the Park City Council. Salt Lake City hosted the Olympics in 2002, when about half the events were at Park City and its ski areas.

Can you get traffic to slow down for deer and moose?

JACKSON, Wyo. – The last year was the second worst on the record books for roadkill on roads in Teton County, an area also called Jackson Hole.

Dead in the 12-month period ending in April were at least 248 mule deer, 48 elk and 18 moose. Inside Teton National Park, there was more carnage, including 15 pronghorn and three grizzly bears.

If people drove slower, would there be fewer collisions with wildlife? Quite possibly, but getting traffic to slow down is not a matter as easy as posting new signs.

“The only thing I could say at this point is that when you post a new speed limit there’s no guarantee that you’ll change speeds, said Keith Compton, district engineer for the Wyoming Department of Transportation.

He told the Jackson Hole News& Guide that changing a speed limit can create other problems. “There’s some folks that will comply, and there’s some that will not, so you end up with speed disparities at times that can cause issues. And then enforcement in general is always a concern.”

One speed reduction from 45 to 35 mph beginning in 2012, resulted in no difference in the speeds that people drove. However, another speed reduction on the approach to Teton Village, at the base of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, coincided with and perhaps caused a significant reduction in collisions with moose.

The discussion was sparked by proposals by the Wildlife Foundation. The group sees a need for other solutions, such as overpasses and underpasses. However, the lowered speed limits may be the easiest to achieve.

Lots of suicides, but is social media to blame?

VAIL, Colo. – Eagle County has had 12 suicides so far this year, five times the national average. The majority have been women.

The county of 53,600 people includes Vail and the Eagle Valley but also a portion of the outlying communities from Aspen.

The suicide rate is 23 per 100,000, which compares to Colorado’s average rate of 23.3 in 2016 and the national rate of 13.3 in 2015, the Vail Daily reports.

The story did not describe whether suicide rates in Eagle County and elsewhere are increasing, but the comments of Chris Lindley, the Eagle County public health director, suggests that social media may be a factor, by isolating people instead of connecting them.

“As technology improves, it’s actually hurting us,” Lindley said. “It’s not helping us. Talking to someone via text message, there’s no real social connectiveness between two people. You can’t read their body language or anything like that.”

As temperatures rise, new attention to snowmaking

VAIL, Colo. – Another federal climate change study was released last week, and the news on the East Coast was that it was released at all, given the hostility of the Trump administration to climate science.

The New York Times says the report by 13 federal agencies broke little new ground but did find that more and more of the predicted impacts of global warming are now becoming a reality. Flooding in coastal cities is becoming more common, and wildfire seasons in the West continue to lengthen.

“The smoke from fires affects not only health,” the report says, “but visibility.”

In Colorado, climate scientist David Yates from the National Center for Atmospheric Research spoke recently at the Western Power Summit, an energy conference, about the difficulty of predicting climate change in rugged topography. Despite more powerful computers in Wyoming and elsewhere used to run computer models, the best models still only coarsely reflect the rugged, mountainous topography where ski resorts are located. As such, they cannot capture well mountain microclimates.

But, if summers get much hotter, winter days will still be short and without the energy that melts snow, he said. Yates predicted continued skiing in Colorado’s high, colder mountains, provided precipitation continues.

“I’d invest in Vail Resorts,” he joked, a nod to Colorado’s dominant skiing company. He also happened to be speaking in a hotel located adjacent to the corporate headquarters of Vail Resorts.

In Vail itself, 15-year-old Josephine Trueblood wrote to the Vail Daily to confide that as a sophomore at Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy, she skis a lot. She’s also concerned about the snowmaking operations on the Golden Peak race course on Vail Mountain

“With global warming happening, we will need to make more and more snow to keep up with the hotter temperature and (higher) snow levels,” she wrote. She said her research had found that Vail Resorts needed to invest in more energy-efficient snowmaking technology or switch to a renewable energy source.

Brian Rodine, environmental sustainability and compliance manager for Vail Resorts at Vail Mountain, responded that a “very efficient automated snowmaking system” has been put into place at Gold Peak. “The fan guns can measure the air temperature and only turn on when it is cold enough to make snow,” he wrote. This is coupled with a $500,000 high-efficiency air compressor.

Vail Resorts, as part of its Epic Promise program, he said, will invest $25 million in innovative energy-saving projects, such as low-energy snowmaking equipment.

The company also vowed to seek out 100 percent renewable energy by working with local electrical suppliers at its resorts.

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