Mountain Town News: More summer amusements in already busy mountain towns (column)
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Ski areas in the Tahoe-Truckee area continue to add summer attractions.
“It’s happening and it’s only going to continue to grow, hopefully beyond the bigger resorts,” says Michael Reitzell, president of the California Ski Industry Association. “I think every resort in some way or shape is heading in that direction.”
The Tahoe Daily Tribune cites Heavenly, which is owned by Vail Resorts. The “Epic Discovery” offerings include zip lines, climbing walls, tubing, ropes courses and a mountain coaster. A mountain coaster differs from a roller coaster in that it mostly hugs the downhill slope as the tracks twist and turn.
Northstar, located near Truckee and also owned by Vail, also has extensive summer operations, as does Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadow, which is owned by Alterra.
Others are following: Diamond Peak Ski Resort plans a major summer expansion. But other, smaller ski areas, such as those near Donner Pass, seem less inclined to expand into the non-amusement park attractions.
Ski areas operating on U.S. government land had been governed by a 1986 law that made no mention of summer use of the land used for downhill skiing. Most ski areas catered to mountain bikers, and many kept gondolas running to mountain-top restaurants.
But the U.S. Forest Service, on whose land 122 ski areas in the United States operate, was resistant when Vail Resorts and other ski area operations began talking about new, summer-centric attractions. The agency said it needed clear authorizing legislation.
Congress delivered that green light in 2011, the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act, which was then signed into law by President Barack Obama. The new law expressly loosely authorized the new activities.
Vail Mountain was the test case for the new process, followed soon by Breckenridge and Heavenly. The Nature Conservancy blessed the idea and helped construct information panels and other devices intended to explain the natural world evident from the ski area activities.
Ski areas get to keep much of the additional revenue and also extend some part-time jobs for employees into more year-round employment. Ski areas said they never expected that summer attractions would match that of skiing. So far, that seems to be the case.
In California, the Sierra Club opposed the summer expansion plans at Heavenly, but not because of the activities on the mountain. Instead, the environmental group worried about extra cars and exhaust in the Tahoe Basin during the busiest time of the year for tourists, explains the Daily Tribune. “I’m sure there are some resorts where the expansion is perfectly appropriate,” said Bruce Hamilton, the deputy executive director of the Sierra Club.
In Vail, the opening of the new attractions three years ago was hard to detect among the summer busyness. Vail’s two large parking garages 20 years ago sat largely empty. Now, they’re nearly full on many summer days.
Jim Lamont, who heads an organization called the Vail Homeowners Association, says the new attractions add to Vail’s traffic woes, and that decreases the quality of life. He also sees this fitting into a business picture, one of economic expansion with unintended consequences.
New and more customers results in the need for more employee housing. “Are you ever going to get enough housing built to meet the needs? No,” he tells Mountain Town News.
In California, the Daily Tribune portrays this against two important backdrops. One is climate change and the seemingly greater ups and downs of snowfall. Not every winter is epic, the newspaper notes. The other is the fact that skier numbers have been flat for a good many years.
What it fails to mention is that revenue from ski area operations, as opposed to skier numbers, has been anything but flat. How else do you explain why first Vail Resorts and now Alterra Mountain Resorts have engaged at a furious pace to buy more and more ski areas?
An airy perch for tourists, but is that really progress?
WHISTLER, B.C. — Whistler Blackcomb has another summer time attraction. The Cloudraker Sky Bridge allows people to venture to places where you can look down 426 feet to a ski slope below.
“Since we opened, it’s been pretty much full on crowds,” Wendy Robinson, a business development manager with Whistler Blackcomb, told Pique Newsmagazine.
This new bridge and viewing platform is seen as a way to broaden the appeal of Whistler Blackcomb. “You don’t have to be kind of a big-mountain skier or mountaineer to go up there now,” explained Marc Riddell, communications manager for Whistler Blackcomb.
An anonymous commentator on the newspaper’s website was less impressed, describing it as a “theme park, wow” type of attraction. The commentator seemed to think that instead of sightseeing activities, Vail Resorts should instead pursue active sports.
The idea was first assembled by previous owners of the ski area as part of a $345 million development plan called Renaissance. The centerpiece of that plan was a base area aquatic center. At the time of the announcement, it was described as an alternative necessitated by the increasing number of rainy days in Whistler, at least in the base area and lower slopes.
That plan has been postponed, but not formally eliminated. Instead, Vail Resorts is focusing on the on-mountain infrastructure.
Ex-CIA agent says Trump’s Russian ties began in 1986
TELLURIDE — Clearly President Donald Trump has something going with Russia. A former Central Intelligence Agency operative says the chumminess goes a long, long way back, at least to 1986.
Robert Baer, the former CIA agent, was in Telluride recently, where he explained that Trump — without realizing it —began rubbing elbows with KGB agents at a cocktail party. Later, when Trump visited the former Soviet Union in 1991, undercover KGB agents began filling his head with delusions of grandeur, including the possibility of a U.S. presidential run.
“It was a piece of flattery,” Baer said. “The Russians started his political aspirations.”
Baer, who grew up in Aspen during the 1960s, the son of an heiress, has had a storied career. He was a CIA agent for 21 years, working primarily in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. He has also written five books and is a commentator on CNN and other national media.
If you saw the 2005 movie “Syriana,” the role played by George Clooney was based roughly on Baer’s memoir, “See No Evil.” Baer now lives in a small town in the San Juan Mountains.
In Telluride, in a talk covered by the Telluride Daily Planet, Baer said the collapse of the Soviet Union did not end the KGB. It only caused the agency to criminalize. “They simply retreated and regrouped,” he said.
One of those places of regrouping, said Baer according to the Daily Planet’s account, was at Trump’s Taj Mahal Hotel & Casino. Trump, who needed money to finance his endeavors, started taking Russian money, said Baer. In his account, Trump has been cozy with Russian agents for a long time.
Can e-bikes help quell the cost of resort
AVON — Some 25 people tried out Bewegen electronic-assisted bikes last week in the Vail Valley in an effort to get people out of their cars and onto the electric-assisted pedal bicycles.
“Electric-assist bikes have a much smaller footprint than a car, and by getting more people on bikes and out of their cars, we can have a big impact on local transportation emissions,” says Kim Schlaepfer, project manager for the Climate Action Collaborative. The collaborative is led by the Walking Mountain Science Center, a local non-profit, but with participation by Vail, Avon, and Eagle County.
An e-bike generates 92 percent fewer emissions on average than driving a single-occupancy vehicle and 62 percent fewer emissions than taking the bus. These are national averages. Currently, 72 percent of residents in Eagle County commute solo to their jobs.
Transportation from vehicles accounted for 27 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in Eagle County, according to the 2014 Eagle County Energy Inventory. The county also includes Basalt and El Jebel, near Aspen.
In trying to promote e-bikes for commuting, members are pointing to the success of e-bikes in Park City. There the average e-bike trip has been 4.2 miles, as needed to commute for work and errands. That’s also roughly the individual distances between the three largest communities in the upper Eagle Valley: Vail, Avon, and Edwards.
The Vail Daily reports the Climate Action Collaborative has also been working on a vision to launch a regional e-bike share system similar to the bike share programs that have rapidly become common in cities during the last year. Aspen is also considering such an e-bike share system as it looks for ways to ease traffic congestion.
In Park City, one resident sees safety problems caused primarily by those renting e-bikes.
“These e-bikes require a learning curve to be safely driven, as their turning radius, stopping distance, powered acceleration and sheer weight dramatically change normal bike-handling characteristics,” writes Joseph Assenheim in a letter published in The Park Record.
Speed, too, is a problem, he writes.
In Vail, e-bike promoters see speed as posing little problem. “It’s hard to get these e-bikes to 20 mph,” said Schlaepfer on Monday. She visited Park City over the weekend to study the e-bike use there.
In Wyoming, the town of Jackson is purchasing six RadWagon e-bikes at a cost of $1,400 each: two for police, two more for public works employees, and two more for town hall employees. Each bike will have two saddle bags, because employees often carry paperwork and equipment. Police, for example, carry about 40 pounds when on bike patrol, says the Jackson Hole News&Guide.
Todd Smith, the police chief, said the e-bikes will allow officers to patrol wider areas without worrying about being unable to return to their cars quickly. Plus, they might see and smell things that they could not when in a car.
The town expects to save some money on gas, reducing its emissions in the process.
Warming temps to cause more rain-on-snow floods
BOULDER — A new study about the effects of warming temperatures predicts that flooding caused by rain falling on snowpack could more than double during the 21st century in parts of the American and Canadian West.
The greatest flood risk increases are projected for the Sierra Nevada, the Colorado River headwaters, and the Canadian Rocky Mountains, according to the study by the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
Flood risks could increase by as much as 200 percent in localized areas and potentially strain existing flood control infrastructure.
Warming temperatures, however, could yield less snow in coastal regions of California, Oregon, Washington, and maritime British Columbia, reducing the flood risk of rain-on-snow storms.
The near-failure of California’s Oroville Dam in 2017 illustrates the risk posed by heavy rains on snowpack. Some 188,000 people were evacuated from the Feather River Valley, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and downstream along the Sacramento River. The infrastructure sustained $1 billion in damages.
“Rain-on-snow events can be intense and dangerous in mountainous areas, but they are still relatively poorly understood,” said Keith Musselman, lead author of the study and a research associate at CU Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR).
Researchers used a state-of-the-art weather modeling dataset developed at NCAR to study past, present, and potential future rain-on-snow events. The dataset contains weather simulations across the continental U.S. in the current climate and a warmer future based on projected climate trends. The enormous data trove took Yellowstone, NCAR’s supercomputer in Cheyenne, Wyoming, more than a year to compile.
The results of this massive computing busyness in Wyoming yielded unprecedented detail and resolution of models. “This high-res(olution) dataset allows us to resolve mountains in granular fashion and examine the factors that combine to melt the snowpack when a warm storm comes in and hits cold mountains like the Sierra,” Musselman said.
The authors found that in a warmer climate, less frequent snow-cover at lower elevations would decrease the risk for rain-on-snow flood events in areas like the U.S. Pacific Northwest.
However, at higher elevations where winter snow will still accumulate despite climate warming (such as in the High Sierra and much of the Rocky Mountains), rain-on-snow events could become more frequent due to increased rainfall that might once have fallen as snow. The events will also become more intense.
“We were surprised at how big some of the projected changes were,” Musselman said. “We didn’t expect to see huge percentage increases in places that already have rain-on-snow flooding.”
The researchers hope that continued investment in snowpack monitoring networks and efforts such as NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory will provide additional ground information, allowing hydrologists and climate scientists to verify their models against observations and better inform flood risk assessment now and in the future.
A mountain town starts talking about water reuse
TAOS, N.M – Drought this year has forced Taos to a new reckoning of what the future might bring. A neighboring town, Questa, located at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, ran out of water in 2016. What would happen in Taos if that were to happen?
“If you have money, you can pick up and leave,” advises the Taos Daily News.
For others, says the newspaper, Taos must cultivate water conservation into the community, including more judicious use of landscaping.
Reuse of existing supplies should also advance, the Taos News says. “A wastewater treatment and reuse plant would be expensive but might make sense for the town. The technology has advanced from years past.”
The technology has indeed advanced. One type of reuse is called indirect potable reuse, such as when wastewater is allowed to flow downstream for a few miles before being pumped back to a treatment plant.
The second type, direct potable reuse, takes discharged wastewater directly to a water treatment plant, where it is purified to drinking-quality standards.
Cloudcroft, a town of not quite 700 people located in southeastern New Mexico, may be among the first in the country to employ direct potable reuse. It’s located at an elevation of 8,668 feet on what is called a sky island, a lone mountain standing above the desert. There’s a small ski area higher on the mountain, but there’s not much upstream to be had at this town north of El Paso.
Faced with water shortages, the town is at work on a treatment system that will employ multiple processes to cleanse the wastewater to drinking water standards. The work is expected to be completed later this year.
But even Aspen, which is relatively blessed with water, is planning to store wastewater in an aquifer underneath a golf course, for use later in irrigation.
In Taos, “the drought isn’t the worst ever seen in New Mexico, but it’s bad enough for everyone to talk about,” says the News. For much of the spring and summer, Taos County has been classified as being in “exceptional drought,” the most severe category according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Upstream on the river about an hour in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, the drought was the critical factor in a wildfire that burned 108,000 acres in early summer. The Wolf Creek ski area limped through last ski season with just enough snow, but with bare hillsides across the valley.
At Taos, 80-year-old Lena Gallegos says even the magpies needed to be given water, because there was so little on the landscape. “It makes me want to cry,” she told the Taos Daily News.
The newspaper tells of rural valleys where this year’s water scarcity has revived tensions that tend to go dormant in years of plentiful water.
The overarching question is whether this year’s drought is a harbinger of what lies ahead as the climate turns hotter and most likely drier in the Southwest.
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