Mountain Town News: Jackson Hole preparing for crowd like none other |

Mountain Town News: Jackson Hole preparing for crowd like none other

JACKSON, Wyo. – One day four or five years ago, Bob McLaurin, got a phone call from a university professor.

McLaurin, who is the town manager of Jackson in the valley commonly called Jackson Hole, has talked with college professors occasionally through his career studying the nature of mountain resort towns. He was, for example, the town manager in Vail both during one of its days of glory, when the World Championships were held there in 1999 as well as a year earlier, when a ski lodge burned, attracting the world’s attention.

The college professor this time told McLaurin about an event that would make Jackson unusual: It was to be in the path of the total eclipse of the sun on Aug. 21, 2017. It would, the professor said, fill the town.

“I said, ‘Look partner, the place is already full on the 21st of August.’”

Just how much fuller it can become will be known next Monday. McLaurin and local officials have been planning for about a year now, even hiring a woman from Australia who has helped other sites within solar eclipses to prepare for the crowds. But at the end of the day, nobody really knows for sure how many people will show up.

Teton County, which is largely the same as Jackson Hole, has a permanent population of 23,000. Being “full” ordinarily means another 50,000 people staying in hotels, campgrounds and so forth. That puts Jackson and adjoining areas at roughly 75,000 for the biggest days of the year. The eclipse could double it.

“But nobody really knows for sure,” says McLaurin. “We don’t know whether (the town) will be locked up (in congestion) or it will be just like a good July 4th crowd.”

Jackson has hired extra people, and nobody has the day off. Will they all be needed?

“It may be a non-event, but at the end of the day I’d rather plan for a huge big deal and have it turn out to be nothing rather than have the place go ape-s**t crazy.”

Dwight Reppa and his wife, Bobbie, have been preparing for the place to go ape-s**t crazy, too. They own the only sewage-handling business in Jackson. “We’ve never dealt with something like this. This is a new thing,” he told the Jackson Hole News&Guide.

Reppa is bringing in 200 portable toilets from Salt Lake City in addition to the 450 or so that he already has scattered around the valley at construction sites and on hand for special events. Among those getting the portable toilets is Grand Teton National Park, which expects the busiest day in the history of the park.

Reppa said he expects to make money from the big day in the shade. “But it’s not like I’m going to retire after this.”

Squaw operators fined for death of ski patroller

TRUCKEE, Calif. – Operators of the Squaw Valley ski resort have been fined $20,000 as the result of an accident in January when a ski patroller was killed during avalanche control work.

Joe Zuiches, 42, was exploding a hand charge containing ammonium nitrate. It weighed 1.8 pounds with a cap and fuse and had a 90-second burn rate, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The charge exploded near the ski patroller’s torso.

Is Taos losing some of its forward movement?

TAOS, N.M. – There’s angst in Taos, and it didn’t just arrive with the hot weather. First a proposal for a Dollar Store and now a plan to build a four-story Holiday Inn have generated conversation about whether Taos is headed in the wrong direction.

Landscape artist Michelle Chrisman recalls a sort of “museum village” when she arrived in Taos 14 years ago. But now, she reports big plots of land being set up for development and fences with “no trespassing” being erected in meadows she once painted.

Incongruously, downtown Taos is rife with “empty carcasses of buildings,” she says in an op-ed printed in the Taos News. The town is a “flower quickly fading.”

Blogger Steve Milstead agrees. “Taos IS economically depressed,” he writes on the Taos News website. “The traditional drivers of tourism — winter skiing and summer outdoor activities — are simply not generating the revenues they once did.”

In addition to more crime, Taos has had a dramatic increase in drug addiction and drug trafficking, mainly heroin. He wants more resources devoted to mental health and rehabilitation.

“If the community cannot sufficiently address the problems of mental health care, homelessness, crime and drug addiction, then its attractiveness to tourists will continue to erode.”

Navajos purchase ranch near sacred mountain

GARDNER, Colo. – In late July, the governing committee of the Navajo Nation approved purchase of a large ranch along the eastern flanks of the Sangre de Cristo Range in Colorado. This is three or four hours southwest of Denver.

Before European settlement in the 19th century, this area had been populated by the Ute tribe. But in the Navajo world view, their lands have been described as something of a rectangle. At one corner of the rectangle are peaks near Flagstaff, Arizona. Another corner is defined by Hesperus Mountain, located in the La Plata Mountains near Durango.

At the opposite end of the rectangle is 14,344-foot Blanca Peak, called by the Navajo Tsisnaasjini’ or White Shell Mountain. It overlooks the San Luis Valley and, like the others, is considered sacred by the Navajos.

The mountain is not actually on the 16,357-acre property purchased by the Navajo. However, the ranch is relatively close and reportedly teems with wildlife. The ranch is between the towns of Westcliffe and Walsenburg.

The ranch had been owned by Tom Redmond, owner of the Aussie brand of hair care products and until June had been on the market for $54.7 million. The Navajos purchased less than half the ranch.

“There is tremendous potential for development in certain areas of the ranch while also providing the opportunity for conservation of the pristine landscape from which our sacred mountain of Tsisnaasjini’ can be viewed,” Navajo National President Russell Begaye said. “Our Navajo people have historically inhabited this area and this ranch brings us closer to connecting with our ancestral ties to the land.”

Man fined for leaving his dog in pickup on hot day

JASPER, Alberta – Police in Jasper say that a 46-year-old man left a dog in a pickup truck. The Jasper Fitzhugh says the man got a summons for failing to protect an animal from injurious heat when he arrived, just as authorities had gotten inside.

“The situations shows that leaving windows cracked open or the sunroof open won’t make any difference and that the temperature will still significantly increase in a short period of time,” said a local constable.

But he warned against thinking that it’s OK to break a window to retrieve a pet in hot weather. “People have to be very careful because depending on the situation a person breaking a window and removing a dog from a vehicle could potentially face charges,” the constable wrote.

The dog apparently survived.

Idaho town has no say about internet rentals

KETCHUM, Idaho – Up and down the Rocky Mountains, town officials are trying to figure out what exactly to do about the proliferating short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods conducted through websites such as Airbnb and HomeAway.

In Ketchum, they can’t do anything about it. The Idaho Mountain Express explains that state legislators earlier this year made it illegal for local governments to regulate short-term rentals aside from health, safety and welfare issues.

Before that, a graduate student from Arizona State University had been hired to dive deep into studying what is happening in Ketchum. Genevieve Pearthree’s year-long research confirmed what had been anecdotally observed: the number of long-term rentals declined precipitously. For example, from 2012 to 2016, studio apartments available for rent declined from 38 to just 4. She also found that half of the short-term rentals were in areas where city zoning prohibited them. Ketchum had never enforced those restrictions – and now, because of the new state law, it cannot.

One property owner who had long-term rentals from 1979 to 2013 said short-term rentals are better. The old-timer cited at least one case of a renter trashing the unit. “I’m glad that the state legislature tied your hands,” William Glenn told Ketchum council members. “I have no obligation to provide affordable housing.”

But a new resident of Ketchum, fresh from San Francisco, had a different viewpoint. Ed Johnson was able to rent a place only with a commitment of paying a year’s rent in advance. “That’s not reasonable,” said the newcomer.

It’s an issue of equity in Canmore, located at the eastern entrance to Banff National Park. A municipal staffer told the council there residential neighbourhoods were not designed for visitor accommodations. “People have concerns over noise, security and property values.” Too, hoteliers pay higher taxation rates than people who rent out spare bedrooms.

Andrew Shepherd, who manages the Blackstone Lodge in Canmore, said it goes beyond simple tax rates. “ From smoke detectors to fire escape routes, hot tub and pool maintenance, to laundry detergent and water temperatures – hotels are regulated in ways that Internet rentals are not. According to an account in the Rocky Mountain Outlook, he also pointed out that lodges contribute to promotion of tourism – what helps fill the rooms rented through the websites.

Some rentals have always occurred illegally in residential districts, observed Canmore Mayor John Borrowman, who worried about “having our residential neighbourhoods slowly turn into hotel districts.”

Canmore plans to educate, and if necessary, enforce residential homeowners about overstepping their rental rights.

In Colorado, Crested Butte will ask town residents to approve a 5 percent tax on short-term rentals. If this goes forward in November, it would result in a total of 18.5 percent in taxes on lodging and would generate $250,000 for affordable housing efforts.

As in Canmore, the issue in Crested Butte is one of equity.

“I see the homeowners using a residence as a business but not paying the much higher commercial property tax rate on the structure,” said Mayor Glenn Michel, according to the Crested Butte News account. “They don’t pay the same property tax rate as a lodge. I think it helps balance that out a bit.”

Also in Colorado, Durango city officials are ensuring they get their municipal mitts on tax proceeds of this proliferating Internet-based economy. A new deal with rental website Airbnb ensures collection of a 3 percent lodger’s tax that is expected to produce $74,000 a year for city coffers, the Durango Telegraph reports.

In this new agreement, Durango joins 300 other jurisdictions around the world that have partnered with Airbnb on tax collections.

But Durango city officials have decided against adding another tax on the sale of marijuana. Sales are already taxed by state and local taxes at a rate of 20 percent. Aspen, meanwhile, is continuing to evaluate whether to impose another tax on tobacco.

And Ketchum waiting for biggest day ever

STANLEY, Idaho – “Expect congestion,” says the chamber of commerce website for Stanley, a town of 63 people located along Idaho’s Salmon River. “Expect delays.”

Stanley will have a total eclipse of 2 minutes, 13 seconds on Aug. 21, assuming the sky there is bereft of both clouds and smoke. It’s the first time for a total eclipse there since 1687.

An hour to the south, Ketchum and Sun Valley expect several days of congestion. The total eclipse there will be a little over a minute.

The Idaho Mountain Express reports that Great predicts 93,000 to 370,000 visitors to Idaho to see the eclipse.

In Ketchum, a consultant advised city officials to assume the community’s best-attended event of the year, then double it. That best-attended event is 17,000 visitors, for Wagon Days, a celebration of Ketchum’s pre-skiing, pre-Hemingway career as a mining and sheepherding center.

Short-term rentals in the Ketchum area are being listed for $400 to $650 per night. High-end lodging can fetch $1,500 per night.

Federal land officials worry about people driving onto meadows whose grasses have dried out, creating a tinder that can catch fire when coming into contact with the hot metal of internal combustion engines. And if there’s fire, can people escape if highways are clogged?

“It’s kind of like Y2K planning,” said Bart Lassman, chief of Wood River Fire & Rescue. “You plan for the worst.”

Y2K came when the 20th century tripped into the 21st century, with much worry about havoc created by the coding of computerized systems. The worries were mostly for naught. Few computers failed.

The hospital in Ketchum plans to have three helicopters in service, including one stationed across the Galena Summit at Stanley.

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