Mountain Town News: Can people in Banff area make room for wildlife? |

Mountain Town News: Can people in Banff area make room for wildlife?

Allen Best
Mountain Town News

CANMORE, Alberta – Bear 148 made quite a name for herself this year. Born in 2011, the grizzly had learned to use the crossings over the Trans-Canada Highway in Banff National Park, how to skirt the edges of the local towns, Banff and Canmore, and how to use wildlife corridors to stay away from places where people congregate.

If people approached as she was grazing, she did as she had seen her mother do, huff then go back to feeding. It was a signal to stay away.

This summer, 148 strayed onto a high school rugby field, charged a person walking with a stroller, and chased dogs out for a walk with their owners, reported CBC News in July. It was time, wildlife officials decided, that the bear had to be moved entirely away from the Banff-Canmore area, to a more remote spot in northern Alberta.

That relocation along with other, similar issues has motivated Canmore Mayor John Borrowman to convene a community conversation. “We need a complete overhaul of how we deal with bears and how this community deals with its own residents and visitors when bears are present,” he said.

Wildlife has always been a big issue in the Banff area. The only comparable situation among mountain resorts is at Jackson Hole. But there are two problems identified by the Rocky Mountain Outlook.

One is the continued residential development of private lands in the Canmore area. Banff, the town, is severely limited in its expansion. Canmore, however, can double in size.

The other is a matter of the culture of outdoor recreation. Very simply, mountain bikers, hikers and others don’t necessarily think that the rules restricting access apply to them.

A recent camera study of a designated wildlife corridor in Canmore found that 94 percent of the use came from humans, not wildlife, and an “alarming number of those people had off-leash dogs with them,” the Outlook reported.

“I think what (this summer) has illustrated is there is a real appetite in the public to be good stewards of the environment and a desire for more information around wildlife management and human-wildlife conflict,“ Borrowman said.

The Outlook, in an editorial, was skeptical the study would accomplish anything. It sees a need for a cultural shift. It described a “growing, rather than diminishing, sense of entitlement to pursue personal priorities, rather than taking steps to live with wildlife.”

The answer the newspaper sees is stepped-up enforcement of existing laws designed to give wildlife space apart from mountain bikers and dog-walkers. That enforcement of laws will meet resistance, the newspaper conceded, “as they believe it interferes with personal freedom. But somehow, in some way, we all need to accept the need for living with, rather than despite, our wildlife in this valley.”

Town gets crabby about fruit dangling from trees

CANMORE, Alberta – Town officials in Canmore have been reminding residents that it’s against the law to leave crabapples and other fruit on trees. Nobody has anything against the fruit. Rather, it’s the fact that bears are drawn to pluck the calorie-rich apples.

This causes bears to be relocated and sometimes put to death. Last year for example, a large male bear camped out in a neighborhood day and night, bedding down below a backyard deck.

That bear was transplanted, notes the Rocky Mountain Outlook. Up to 19 bears have been relocated each year during recent decades.

Is Aspen’s luxury real estate market getting overbuilt?

ASPEN, Colo. – Time for a correction in the luxury real estate market? A couple of real estate professionals at a forum in Aspen speculated 18 months to two years ago that a correction was 18 months to two years away.

It’s still not there, but William Small suggests it bears attention. He’s chief executive of Aspen-based Zenith Realty Advisors. This is the eighth year of an economic expansion, one of the longest on record.

Following the dot-com crash at the turn of the century, there were seven years of economic growth. Then came the Great Recession, which bottomed out in March 2009. Luxury real estate sales since then have shattered all records.

It all comes down to supply and demand. The Aspen market currently has 122 homes — 29of them new spec homes — priced at $10 million or more. It would take three or four years for all those new spec homes to be sold and more than four years for all homes worth $10 million or more. This assumes no additional spec homes are delivered to the market.

Small reports no obvious warning signs, such as preceded the tumbling prices of 2008 and 2009.

“However, the first signs of a sea change will likely be a correction in the stock market or a slowing of the national economy,” he concludes. “If we start to witness either or both of these events unfolding, it could be a warning sign that a decline in sales volume and number of transactions will follow.”

Taming emissions from Colorado’s coal mines

SOMERSET, Colo. – Colorado’s single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions is not at a power plant or in the stinking traffic of Denver, but at a coal mine located an hour or two from both Crested Butte and Aspen.

There, invisibly, methane wafts into the atmosphere, trapping heat. That methane has now become a major issue as Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper tries to balance economic and environmental goals.

He did so last week with a Solomon-like gesture. He endorsed a proposal to approve a royalty rate reduction at the West Elk Mine from 8 to 5 percent for operations in a new coal seam that Arch Coal, the operator, says will be economically challenging.

But in return for that royalty reduction, Hickenlooper wants to see a “good-faith commitment to dedicating significant time and resources” to an effort to capture methane vented from the mine and possibly put it to beneficial use.

Arch plans to bore holes from the surface into the mine to release methane gas. Without venting, miners would be endangered.

A precedent exists for methane capture. In a complicated financing deal, the methane coming from the nearby Elk Creek mine was captured several years ago and is being burned to generate electricity. It still produces carbon dioxide, but methane as measured over the course of a century has 23 times the heat-trapping capacity of carbon dioxide.

The West Elk alone is responsible for 0.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado, according to the calculations of Ted Zukoski, an attorney for Earthjustice, which represents various groups that oppose the mine expansion. The North Fork mines are said to be among the gassiest in the world.

This royalty reduction will cost the state, but just how much will depend upon how much coal ends up being mined. Hickenlooper estimated $4 million over a five-year period. Environmentalists, however, calculated lost royalties of up to $12 million.

The Crested Butte-based High Country Conservation Advocates expressed frustration with Hickenlooper’s stance. Matt Reed, the public lands director for the HCCA, said the governor’s office holds that it has little power to limit methane pollution from the mine in cases such as this one, where the federal government is the ultimate decision-maker.

Reed says his group disagrees. The state has power under current law to require permits for coal mine emissions because of its authority to regulate emissions of both volatile organic compounds, which are ozone (smog) precursors, and hazardous air pollutants. They are emitted along with methane. As recently as January, state health regulators said they reserved the right to undertake enforcement action.

The Crested Butte group also points to state law that it says authorizes rules “be created to control for emissions of hydrocarbons … and any other chemical substance.”

But Gunnison County Commissioner John Messner sees the Hickenlooper letter sending a “strong message that the analysis, development and implementation of a methane capture and utilization plan is to be expected in the North Fork of Gunnison County and the key word here is that it is to be implemented.”

For the coal mine expansion to go forward, Arch Coal will need a permit from the U.S. Forest Service to build temporary roads into what is now a designated roadless area.

In an editorial a week before the governor’s letter was released, the Grand Junction Sentinel said the “coal industry has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.” It urged him to take exactly the position that he took.

But the newspaper — located in a fossil-fuel-happy-town — went on to urge Hickenlooper to “use the mine as an example of why Colorado needs a carbon credit cap-and-trade market to monetize waste methane.”

Ironically, California’s cap-and-trade is partly the reason why electricity is now being generated from the Elk Creek Mine. Tom Vessels, who put the generating system together, secured money from California, because he is reducing a greenhouse gas. But Holy Cross Energy — which serves Aspen and Vail areas — also is paying a premium for the electricity, and Aspen Skiing provided money to ensure that deal happened.

Drones used to attack flames in Banff blaze

BANFF, Alberta – While skies across the North American West remained smoky over the weekend, firefighters in Banff National Park were proclaiming success in the use of drones.

At the Verdant Creek wildfire, crews from Parks Canada were using drones that provide images from infrared cameras at night. The software offered by a company called Hummingbird Drones, from Kamloops, B.C., accurately detects hotspots that, coupled with GPS technology, allows firefighters to sometimes find the exact location with their smartphones.

Jed Cochrane, incident commander on the fire, told the Rocky Mountain Outlook that that the drones are cheaper to operate than helicopters and they can get closer to the fire, too.

Firefighting this summer has been challenging across the West. Banff has been hot and dry, abnormally so.

Wildfire destroys lodge in Glacier National Park

WEST GLACIER, Mont. – If cars and planes are how we all get around now to see the scenic sights of the North American West, railroads once were the big story. That’s how Sun Valley came to be, the creation of Union Pacific railroad tycoon Averell Harriman.

Railroads also play into the resort-era founding stories of Aspen, Steamboat Springs, and Winter Park.

The late, great Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park was also a production of the railroad era, explains the Flathead Beacon in reporting the loss of the backcountry lodge last week.

“It took more than a year to build. It took less than an hour to destroy,” the newspaper said. A lightning-caused wildfire was blamed.

“Immediately after Glacier National Park’s creation in 1910, the Great Northern Railway began to build a series of lodges and wilderness chalets to entice people to ride their trains to America’s newest park,” the Beacon explains. “The railroad even launched an ad campaign urging wealthy easterners to visit the ‘American Alps’ before venturing overseas for holiday.”

Visitors would often stay at the Sperry Chalet as part of week-long horseback tours of the park. But then came mass ownership of automobiles and the Going-to-the-Sun Road across Logan Pass. By the 1950s, only Sperry and one other chalet survived, and in 1953 the Great Northern stopped serving food.

Great Northern also built the Many Glaciers Hotel. It remains in operation, but it might better today be called Receding Glaciers Hotel. At the current rate of melting, all the glaciers of Glacier National Park may well be gone by 2030.

More pushes for 100 percent renewables in ski towns

DURANGO, Colo. – The Sierra Club has been pushing Durango to commit to 100 percent locally produced and renewable electricity by 2050.

The argument of petitioners, reports the Durango Herald, is that in addition to cutting carbon emissions, the local, renewable energy would create local jobs and stabilize energy rates as the cost of fossil fuels continues to rise.

The petition in Durango fits in with a broad pattern across the country of calls for municipalities to embrace goals of 100 percent renewables during the next few decades. In Utah, for example, Salt Lake City, Moab, and Park City have all embraced that goal. In Colorado, so have the Front Range communities of Fort Collins, Boulder, and Pueblo.

That goal no longer seems so far-fetched. Major, investor-owned utilities have been rapidly investing in renewables not because they have to, but because of tumbling prices for wind, but also solar. Cost of utility-scale storage has also started sliding.

Last week, Colorado’s largest utility, Public Service Co., a subsidiary of Xcel Energy, announced that it would seek approval of state regulators to retire two coal-fired generating plants at Pueblo, which began operations in 1972 and 1974. The retirements, if approved by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, will mean Comanche I and II will be retired a decade earlier than previously scheduled.

Xcel wants to replace the lost power with some natural gas-fired electricity but mostly with renewables, with up to 1,000 megawatts of wind and 700 megawatts of solar. It wants to move fast, too, to take advantage of federal tax credits that are scheduled to expire in 2020.

Cost to consumers will stay the same or more likely go down, explained David Eves, the utility’s president of Colorado operations. Reduced greenhouse gas emissions are a bonus.

After the switch, Xcel expects its will be at 55 percent in carbon-free generation. This year, it will be completing conversion of a coal-fired power plant in Denver to natural gas. It had also converted a plant in Boulder last year.

Xcel delivers power to Colorado’s Summit County, where Breckenridge elected officials recently heard from a local group that wanted a commitment to 100 percent renewables, first in city operations and then a few years later in the community at large. Town officials weren’t ready to commit, lacking a clear path to achieve these goals. This was a week before the Xcel announcement.

Mark Truckey, a town planner in Breckenridge who is a member of the local 100 percent group, called the Xcel announcement “huge.”

“This has to speak volumes about how the cost is coming down,” he said. Yet he concedes it’s not exactly clear how Breckenridge can achieve what his group advocates.

In Utah, it’s the same story. Rocky Mountain Power last week reached a deal with solar advocates about a transition. The utility, which serves Park City, has a plan for adding more wind generation from southern Wyoming and upwards of 1,000 megawatts —the equivalent of a giant coal-fired power plant—in solar generation from Utah.

Aspen Electric was an early adopter. The utility serves half to two-thirds of Aspen. More than a decade ago it invested in two wind turbines in Nebraska. It has also invested heavily in hydroelectric. As a municipality, it is also eligible for electricity from the giant dams of the West.

Several years ago it was able to achieve 100 percent renewables. Despite the renewables—or maybe because of them—residential customers in Aspen pay 20 percent less per kilowatt-hour than co-op members such as those serving Durango.

The rest of Aspen, including the ski area, gets its electricity from Holy Cross Energy. If moving briskly toward renewables, Holy Cross still gets a substantial amount of its electricity from another coal-fired power plant at Pueblo. Although news as of 2010, it increasingly looks archaic.

Solar panels have become abundant on rooftops. Even so, solar delivered just 2 percent of Colorado’s electricity in 2016. Solar energy proponents expect that will change. Costs of panels have declined 64 percent in the last five years, points out the Summit Daily News, citing the Colorado Solar Energy Industry Association. Too, utilities like Xcel, Rocky Mountain Power, and Tri-State Generation and Transmission are increasingly investing in giant farms of solar panels.

Tri-State provides electricity for the co-operatives that serve the Colorado mountain towns of Winter Park, Grand Lake, Crested Butte, and Telluride. The power for Durango also comes from Tri-State through La Plata Electric Association.

Last year, 53 percent of Tri-State’s electricity came from coal, although 27 percent came from renewables, and more is coming on line all the time, says Lee Boughey, spokesman. He points to 75 megawatts of wind generation from southeastern Colorado that will go on-line later this year.

About 4 percent of Durango’s power comes from local renewable sources, but a major solar plant on the Southern Ute reservation has also been added, reports the Durango Telegraph.

Can Durango get to 100 percent renewables, as the Sierra Club petition seeks? La Plata hasn’t said no, although there are many challenges. Most illuminating is a white paper from the co-op’s chief executive, Mike Dreyspring. The paper describes the evolution of markets that will allow slow-cost electrons from renewable sources to be moved around the grid to match demands. That other changes are poised to disrupt old business models—including the centralized power generation of the last half of the 20th century.

Locally produced power, called distributed generation, “shifts the balance sheet risk from owners of central station bulk power generation assets to DG owners,” the paper says. “The traditional, vertically integrated electric utilities that adapt to this changing market place will financially thrive.”

Another way of saying this is that yes, the train is out of the station. It’s just a matter of accommodating the new renewables. Whether 100 percent renewables is possible is a discussion for another day.

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