Mountain Town News: Jackson braces for influx of shadow-loving sorts (column) |

Mountain Town News: Jackson braces for influx of shadow-loving sorts (column)

JACKSON, Wyo. – Umbraphiles will soon hasten to Jackson Hole and other locations along the path where the moon will completely block the sun on the morning of Monday, Aug. 21.

Umbra is Latin for shadow, and some people will be flying in from around the world to see this spectacle. The United States has not had the sun getting totally mooned from Pacific to Atlantic since 1918. This eclipse will cross the country from just south of Portland, Oregon, to Charleston, South Carolina.

Jay Anderson traveled the path of the eclipse across America four years ago while preparing an extensive report on where best to get stationed to see the eclipse, based upon the likelihood of clear skies.

Jackson Hole isn’t the best, but it’s pretty near the top, with only a 34 percent chance of cloudy skies on that particular date, based on past meteorological observations. A retired meteorologist from Canada, Anderson tells the Jackson Hole News&Guide that even better odds for seeing the eclipse can be found in the deserts of eastern Oregon and, in Wyoming, at Riverton. Riverton is on the east side of the Wind River Range, about two hours from Jackson Hole.

Jackson Hole is bracing for a full house — including some who will be flying from across the world. Rod Hill, from Melbourne, Australia, told the News&Guide this will be his ninth full eclipse. “It’s very addictive,” he said.

Even in Riverton, motel rooms were scarce months ago. One California couple that will be flying to Denver then driving to Riverton, six hours away, had to settle for a smoking room when booking lodging several months ago. The New York Times, in a special section on Sunday, recommended Nebraska as the best opportunity for those wanting rooms along the eclipse path.

Smith’s, the largest grocery store in Jackson, will have extra workers from Salt Lake City for the weekend before the eclipse. Special delivery of goods is also planned in advance.

A gas-and-convenience store operator tells the Jackson Hole News&Guide that he expects busy times but not pandemonium. “I don’t think it’ll be that crazy,” said Tony LeSpade, manager of a Loaf ‘n Jug.

When Crested Butte was amidst a career change

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – Crested Butte sort of has had two careers. First there was a mining town and then a resort. The big coal mine there closed in 1952 and the ski area opened in 1962.

Arriving in 1970 was Paul Andersen, who found an economy that was marginal during ski seasons and summers so lazy that a dog could sleep all day in the middle of Elk Avenue, the town’s main street.

“The streets were dirt, coal smoke hung in the air, and Serbo-Croatian was spoken in the bars, shops and restaurants by the relic coal miners,” he writes in a column published in The Aspen Times. “At night, polka music mixed with the yips and howls of coyotes in the high mountain air at 9,000 feet.

The Crested Butte he remembers is like a museum diorama depicting an otherworldly mountain refuge: snow banks reaching the eves of quaint Hobbit houses through May. He also remembers a nude co-ed bathhouse. Sunshine’s Paradise Bathhouse is long gone, “but the mammaries stand out. (I mean, the memories!),” he writes.

“In the intervening years, Crested Butte has grown and prospered. Today it suffers an identity crisis between community and commodity, a threshold Aspen crossed many years ago,” he writes. “There are good arguments for both values, but one thing is for sure: There is no going back to the innocence and simplicity that geography and history conspired for picturesque mountain towns that once offered refuge from the madly spinning world.”

Electrical co-op pushes back against solar power

FRASER, Colo. – The plunging price of solar is posing a challenge to utilities deeply invested in centralized power production from fossil fuel plants. The friction is clearly evident in Fraser, a town 4 miles from the Winter Park ski area.

The Winter Park Times reports that Fraser would like to assemble solar arrays with a capacity of 200 kilowatt-hours at its wastewater treatment plant. Electricity costs the town government $180,000 a year, and town manager Jeff Durbin says solar energy would lower the cost.

That would mean that the local electrical provider, Mountain Parks Electric, would have to buy the electricity and sell it back when the treatment plant needs it. The concept, called net metering, has provoked broad discussion across the United States. Utilities have fought back, as they argue it presents a greater challenge to be able to provide electricity. They argue also that it shifts the cost of maintaining the electrical grid to consumers who do not have intermittent renewable sources of their own.

Mountain Parks Electric, a co-operative that gets its power from Tri-State Generation and Transmission, may cap the amount of solar that members can erect on their homes and businesses: 10 kilowatt systems on homes instead of 25, as is now allowed. Businesses would be capped at 25, instead of the 250 now allowed.

Rob Taylor, manager of communications and member relations for Mountain Parks, explained at a recent board meeting that declining solar prices available to co-op members poses a challenge. “With our rates going up and solar going down, it presents a real eye-opener for us.”

The Times consulted with Auden Schendler, the vice president of sustainability for the Aspen Skiing Co. Aspen’s four ski areas are all served by an electrical co-op called Holy Cross Energy. Like Mountain Parks, it is governed by publicly elected directors. Schendler has pursued a strategy of pushing for change by promoting candidates more favorable to renewable energy.

“This sort of downgrade to allow solar capacity appears to be the kind of regressive utility politics played by dying co-ops. You can’t fight the solar revolution, so it’s much better business to get on board the bus rather than let it run you over,” Schendler said.

“If I were a business or homeowner in the region served by that utility, I’d be looking for candidates to run for the board who realize utilities are going to have to engage the clean energy revolution.”

Jasper told beetle-killed forests have upsides too

JASPER, Alberta – Red-needled, dying trees are a bad thing, right? Not so fast, advises the Jasper Fitzhugh, which reports a tripling of forested areas in Jasper National Park since 2014 showing evidence of a mountain bark beetle epidemic.

Colorado had a major profusion of mountain bark beetles in its vast stands of lodgepole pine starting in about 1996. That epidemic is now primarily spent, although a different but related beetle is now making its way through the spruce-fir forests of southern Colorado. The even more extensive lodgepole pine forests of British Columbia have also had a major beetle epidemic in the last decade

Mark Fercho, the chief administrative officer in Jasper, the municipality within the park, was in Prince George, British Columbia, when forests there were turning red and dying. He told a recent meeting of townspeople in Jasper that communities such as Jasper are always vulnerable to wildfire.

“Fire is fire. It doesn’t matter if it’s beetle infested or not,” he said.

A beetle-killed forest is much more volatile, though. He advised fire-smarting of homes by residents, such as clearing vegetation from around the house, and using fire-resistant materials in home construction.

After the epidemic has run its course, forests do recover. The Jasper Fitzhugh says that the epidemic should be “a welcome sign for a forest that is long past its due date.” It identified decades of fire suppression as an unwise and ultimately unsuccessful effort to deny forest succession.

Kevin Van Tighem, formerly superintendent for Banff National Park, had previously told the Fitzhugh that epidemics enable more sun and rain to reach the forest floor, producing an “explosion of biodiversity” once a pine beetle population eruption passes through an area.

More than 90 percent of the trees in many of Banff’s stands died in the 1980s.

When smoke gets in your eyes… and in your lungs

WHISTLER, B.C. – Skies were hazy or worse across much of the North American West last weekend. The worst of the fires were in British Columbia, which had more than 100 wildfires. There were also fires in Montana and Wyoming.

In Whistler, the air quality was rated at 9, only a notch better better than “very high health risk.” That caused organizers of the lung-burning Red Bull 400 to cancel the event, which involves scrambling up the mountain at the Olympic jumping venues. It’s called the steepest 400-meter race in the world.

“Delivering a premium race that is safe and provides a positive experience for athletes is our ultimate goal for Red Bull 400,” said race director Geoff Langford. “Under current conditions, that is not possible.”

There are concerns that the smoke will imperil this weekend’s mountain biking event, Crankworx, one of Whistler’s biggest events of the year.

The conflagrations are expected to continue. British Columbia has declared a state of emergency until Aug. 19.

From her office in Whistler, Pique editor Clare Ogilvie reported visibility was reduced to 300 to 400 meters, making it impossible to see the mountains above. The smoke had been this bad for about a week, she said. Three years ago, major fires in British Columbia produced comparable smoke but only for a few days.

Whistler was full of people, as is always the case in mid-summer, but the plaza and other outdoor venues were not inviting. For those with compromised lungs or other reasons to want to get out of the smoke, the municipal library was offered as a haven. The library’s air-conditioning removes smoke particles.

This summer’s fires once again bring home to Whistler its own vulnerability to forest fires. Residential neighborhoods, except for the newest one, Rainbow, are all heavily treed.

For two years, says Pique’s Ogilvie, addressing the community’s vulnerability has been the No. 1 priority for the municipal government. An evacuation plan has been prepared and an individual expressly to address efforts to make the community less vulnerable, through the FireSmart program.

One result of this new focus was an agreement with operations of Whistler Blackcomb, now owned by Vail Resorts, to keep snowmaking equipment operational during summer. Water in the system was used just as intended several weeks ago to douse an outlying fire.

But the smoke now is reminding people of chores such as moving firewood from next to homes or removing drying underbrush from their yards. “It just makes it more immediate,” says Ogilvie.

A hot July in Banff, but more can be expected

BANFF, Alberta — July was the 12th hottest July since record-keeping began 130 years ago. And it was dry, too, the 16th driest July on record.

Get ready for more of the same, warns the Rocky Mountain Outlook. The newspaper points out that temperatures in Alberta overall have increased 1.4 degrees C during the past century (2.5 degrees F), with most of that increase occurring since the 1970s.

More of the same is almost certain. The mean annual temperature in Alberta could increase by at least 2 degrees C (3.6 F) by the end of the century, possibly as high as 4 to 6 degrees C (7.2 to 10.8 F).

This week, the New York Times published a draft report by scientists from 13 federal agencies that concludes evidence of climate change can be found “from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans.”

Even if humans immediately stopped emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the report says, the world would still feel at least an additional 0.5 degrees F (0.3 degrees C) of warming over this century compared with today. The projected actual rise, scientists say, will be as much as 2 degrees C.

Among the more significant of the study’s findings is that it is possible to attribute some extreme weather to climate change, the Times reported.

And in some places, rain and just a little too much

WESTCLIFFE, Colo. – In southern Colorado, it has been rainy of late. “Rain, a welcome guest in the Valley, has recently overstayed its welcome,” explained the Wet Mountain Tribune of Westcliffe before going into the details of recent flooding there.

Cost sill being assessed for wealth of hard-rock mines

MINTURN, Colo. – The cost of Colorado’s colorful mining history continues to mount, both in an old mining district near Vail and in the Silverton mining area.

Hard-rock mining on Battle Mountain, located about 10 miles from Vail but within a couple miles of the Back Bowls, began in the 1870s. Consolidated mining began in 1912 and continued until 1977. Zinc, gold, silver, and other metals were extracted.

By 1986, the Eagle Mine had become a Superfund site. Cleanup at the site, known for its picturesque but abandoned hamlet of Gilman, continued until 2001.

But in one respect, the cleanup will continue forever. A plant in Minturn treats 221 gallons of water per minute, and over the course of a day removes 178 pounds of metal before the water is released into the Eagle River. This costs $1 million a year.

The mining company that began operations has been subsumed into other corporate concerns, now operating under the title of CBS Operations, the big media company. The company presumably has deep enough pockets to continue paying the $1 million annual cost of operating the water-treatment plant.

If not? Then it’s left to the public to get the job done.

Meanwhile, water quality regulations have become more stringent, posting a new challenge. Arsenic is found naturally in the water, because of deposits upstream from the mine, and the mine introduced additional arsenic into the water. The EPA and Colorado’s lead health agency have been working on plans for additional work to remove arsenic going into the Eagle River sufficient to meet elevated water quality standards

In Silverton, the cleanup has yet to get underway. The Silverton area has extensive mining since the 1870s until just a few years ago. One of the most productive operations for awhile was the Gold King Mine. But two years ago on Aug. 5, a contractor accidentally breached a plug in the mine, producing a three-million-gallon torrent of orange-colored water from the mine that surged down the Animas River through Durango and into the San Juan River in New Mexico.

Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, toured the site with state and local elected officials last Friday. He assured them that funding the cleanup is a top priority. The site was designated a Superfund site last year.

A Durango city councilor, Dean Brookie, told the Durango Herald he believes the EPA administrator sincerely is totally committed to funding the cleanup. “I don’t think it was a token visit for political purposes of any kind,” Brookie said.

But the Herald notes that Pruitt, in an interview with The Denver Post, said he wasn’t sure Gold King and other sites in the Bonita Peak district near Silverton would make the top-10 list for funding.

The EPA faces a nearly 30 percent budget cut under President Donald Trump. Pruitt said that Superfund cleanups would have the highest priority.

Since the spill, the EPA has spent more than $29 million in its response and reimbursed $3.5 million to local, state and tribal governments, the Herald notes. In addition, the EPA has stabilized the Gold King Mine portal, among other projects.

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