Mountain Town News: Santa sparing with some, more charitable with others | SummitDaily.com

Mountain Town News: Santa sparing with some, more charitable with others

Allen Best
Mountain Town News

TELLURIDE, Colo. – With the ground mostly brown just a few days before Christmas, some residents of Telluride gathered old skis and burned them in an offering to Ullr, in Norse mythology the god of snowshoes and some other items. The next day it snowed 4 inches at Telluride, reported the Daily Planet.

Coincidental or causal? Whatever. The San Juan Mountains have been so barren that just four inches was tantamount to a big dump in some winters.

Since then, a Christmas Eve storm left most of Colorado white. There was enough snow along the Continental divide in the Breckenridge to Winter Park area that avalanche forecasters warned backcountry skiers to definitely stay off slopes of more than 30 degrees.

"If you trigger an avalanche today, it may be large enough to kill you," warned the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

But the blanket of snow across Colorado was not uniform. Telluride got just an inch, while Steamboat Today reported the local ski hill got 24 inches in two days. Ski areas in Montana and Wyoming did better.

In California, there was even less cause for holiday snow-white joy. There was no mistaking the Tahoe area for the North Pole at Christmas reported the Reno Gazette-Journal. "The mountains were patchy with snow all the way up, and the only snow falling as that made by the ski resorts."

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"It won't be a disaster," said Chris Diamond, the former chief executive of the Steamboat ski area, just before the Christmas storm. He's now a consultant and has authored a book, "Ski Inc.," a roundup of his career in the ski industry from Killington in 1972 to his years at Steamboat.

Actually, it's been worse before. Most memorable in the modern ski area in the West was the winter of 1976-77 followed by another warm, dry winter of 1980-81. In that first winter, just 2.8 inches of snow fell at Crested Butte in all of December.

In Vail, hotels would normally be full for the two weeks of Christmas and New Years. But this year may be different. The Vail Daily reports guests were getting deferred reservations, postponing their stays until February and March in the belief that snow will come.

Jeanne Fritch, general manager of the Sitzmark, one of the Vail's oldest and most venerable lodges, said that rates were "slashed" for early season guests.

The problem for Colorado is the same as the problem for California: a persistent high-pressure ridge that has shunted moisture-laden storms northward. This has produced "almost inconceivably heavy snowfall in the coastal mountains of southern Alaska," explained Daniel Swain in a Christmas Eve posting on the California Weather Blog.

In southern California, this high-pressure ridge has delayed the rainy season, allowing wildfire season to continue well into December. Swain said an the "amazing" anomaly of the air-mass was revealed on the beaches of Southern California where the relative humidity fell as low as 1 percent with surface dew-points at or below 20 degrees F in some spot. "In other words, there was essentially no moisture at all in the air-mass that has lingered over SoCal for many days."

Is this a harbinger of a return of drought such as devastated California for several years? Swain said no, he doesn't see that yet, "but we're getting close."

Persistence of a high-pressure ridge doesn't spell doom for Colorado, Utah and New Mexico resorts, of course, but it does tend to favor the more northerly resorts.

Ketchum at heart of first dark sky reserve in nation

KETCHUM, Idaho – Ketchum and Sun Valley are in the middle of a new 1,406-square-mile designation of the first dark sky reserve in the United States. It's one of just 12 such designated reserves in the world.

Dark sky boosters in Colorado's Wet Mountain Valley had hoped to be first in the nation, but their efforts await approval of regulations that would limit use of outdoor lighting in new development.

The Idaho effort had been pushed along by Steve Botti, the mayor of Stanley, a town of 63 located a little more than an hour north of Sun Valley and Ketchum. He called the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve as something not just for locals and other people from Idaho, but for "visitors from across the world who can come here and experience the primeval wonder of the starry night sky."

Reserves can only be formed through partnerships of multiple land managers who have recognized the value of quality nighttime environment through regulation and long-term planning.

In Colorado, the towns of both Westcliffe and Silver Cliff have been designated dark sky status after each municipality adopted regulations limiting light pollution and light trespass. Next, retired architect Jim Bradburn, who designed the iconic teepee-terminal at Denver International Airport, had hoped to put Custer County under the dark-sky tent. The valley lies east of the Sangre de Cristos, in south-central Colorado.

The Wet Mountain Tribune reports that planning commissioners heard objections at a recent meeting. One county resident called it classic government overreach.

Others said that no, their property rights were being protected because they did not want bright lights intruding into their spaces. Gary Coleman said he had returned to the valley with the intent of opening a bed-and-breakfast, complete with telescope for those wanting to enjoy the night sky.

Excise Vilar name from performing arts center?

BEAVER CREEEK, Colo. – Now that statues to Confederate war generals have started tumbling, is it time to rename the performing arts center at Beaver Creek?

The primary patron for the 535-seat theater was Alberto Vilar, the co-founder of an investment firm. Before then, Vilar had promised lavish donations to opera and other arts institutions, from Los Angeles to Washington and New York City, even London and Saint Petersburg. By 2000, Vilar estimated he had granted $150 million in the prior decade.

At its peak, the firm had $10 billion in management. But his firm, Amerindo, was over-extended in the technology sector and got caught short in the dot-com bust of the early 20th century. He and his partner, Gary Tanaka, continued investing in risky stocks again the wishes of clients until the house of cards came tumbling down.

A 2006 profile in the New Yorker called "The Opera Lover" revealed how, even as Vilar's financial world collapsed, he continued to pledge money to arts organizations. "Asking Alberto for money was like offering an alcoholic a drink," one confidant told the New Yorker's James Stewart.

Bottom line: Vilar, now about 76, stole over $20 million from clients. He's serving a 10-year prison sentence for securities fraud and money laundering.

The Vilar Center for the Arts, located at the base of the ski runs at Beaver Creek, opened in 1997, and it's an exquisite place. But it would be better if the name of Vilar were removed, says a local resident, Ron Sills, in a letter published in the Vail Daily.

Since Vilar's conviction, he says, he's never attended any events at the performing center. 'It's been my small, silent protest."

His recommendation: name the performing arts center after the clients from whom Vilar stole the money.

Some institutions have removed Vilar's name from programs or facilities, especially when he failed to make good on his promised pledges. Some of the clients whose money he stole have died without compensation. In 2014, a federal judge added a year's imprisonment to Vilar's sentence after evidence emerged he had still tried to keep money from being returned to those who had testified against him.

Why don't businesses stay open on into the evening?

JACKSON, Wyo. – The vice-president of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce has been pushing businesses to stay open later in the evening.

"We looked at customer feedback surveys eight or nine years ago, and the common theme from visitors was they wanted to shop here, but the shops weren't open," explained Rick Howe.

The result was a program called Great Until Late, in which businesses pledge to remain open past 6 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays during winter.

The Jackson Hole News& Guide found one business owner who described later closings as being a matter of common sense. "That's when people are out, after they've gone out to dinner and they're in a shopping mood."

The program was also guided by a Study on Winter Resort Spending by the Brookings Institution. That study found 84 percent of winter visitors and locals in winter resort towns like Jackson spend 70 percent of their money after 6 p.m.

Ski area tribute to writer Hunter Thompson remains

SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo. – Almost 13 years since his suicide, the writer Hunter S. Thompson continues to be the subject of fascination and semi-idolatry.

One of those memorials is on the ski slopes at Snowmass, which altogether has quite a few in-the-trees, off-the-slopes assemblages to honor various causes and people. The shrine, explains the Aspen Daily News, is but one of dozens of quirky and unsanctioned on-mountain warrens of memorabilia tucked within the four local ski areas.

Most remain, although the Aspen Skiing Co., the operator of the four ski areas, has dismantled at least two of them as it constructed its new on-mountain coaster at Snowmass.

Among those dismantled was what the Daily News described as the "iconic golf shrine," a tribute to golf. Go figure. That tribute included a golf bag, a bucket of balls, a bench, and dozens of laminated photographs of such golfing greats as Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer.

But the Hunter Thompson shrine remains.

It consists of an American flag, a gloved arm with "gonzo" written on it, a lizard covered with multi-colored jewels, Tibetan prayer flags, and a copy of The Woody Creeker (he lived along Woody Creek, outside Aspen), among other artifacts.

The Daily News says that the Aspen Skiing Co. neither promotes the existence of the shrines nor advocates for their removal, as the company recognizes they are popular with some guests. Some ski instructors and mountain ambassadors get requests for directions.

BC bans grizzly hunting, but it may return to Wyoming

WHISTLER, B.C. – After a month-long consultation process, the provincial government in British Columbia has banned grizzly hunting. An exception is made for First Nations tribes, who will still be able to hunt grizzlies for ceremonial social and food purposes.

And in the Yellowstone area, the debate continues about just what effect a resumption of hunting would bring.

In British Columbia, the new policy is an about-face, notes Whistler's Pique. "As recently as August, the provincial governments vowed to end trophy hunting of grizzly bears but retain a so-called 'meat hunt,' meaning that grizzlies could be killed so long as it was for their meat."

The hunting ban is a major blow to the guide outfitting industry in British Columbia.

In areas around Yellowstone National Park, where hunting of grizzly bears ended in the early 1970s, at least some guides want to bring the hunt back, reports the Jackson Hole News&Guide.

One guide, from Gardiner, Mont., located at the northern gateway to Yellowstone National Park, said that hunting grizzlies is a matter of public safety.

"More bears about, becoming more aggressive. They need to be hunted so they fear the scent of humans, rather than following it as they do now," declared hunting guide Edwin Johnson in a court document submitted by the Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association.

Another guide, who has worked from the base of the Teton Range since 1959, recalls changes. "Back in the late '50s through the '60s, if you saw a grizzly, that was the talk of the year," said Harold Turner, co-owner of the Triangle X Ranch. "And if you killed one that was really something. Then it got to the point where if you just saw a track, that was the thing of the year."

Hunting ended in the early '70s, and the garbage dumps in Yellowstone National Park that drew bears from near and far were closed in 1970.

Now, it's a different game. Two of his elk hunters had to leave portions of an elk in the field overnight, said Turner. When they returned the next morning to retrieve the meat, they were greeted by 11 grizzlies. A sow and two cubs followed his clients through the fall elk hunt, waiting for the hunters to make a kill.

But do bears get more or less aggressive around humans depending upon the hunt? The News&Guide's Mike Koshmrl talked with a number of wildlife biologists, gleaning opinions and a bit of evidence.

Dan Thompson, Wyoming Game and Fish carnivore supervisor, say he believes hunting could influence some types of grizzly behavior. But hunting or no, grizzlies will retain their basic outlook of humans.

"Nothing we do is going to make grizzlies fear humans," Thompson said. "I don't think there's anything on the landscape that bear is actually going to fear, at least behaviorally. I think a grizzly bear is always going to know it can kill a human. I don't think that's going to change."

Another biologist, Rick Sinnott, who spent a career managing wildlife and overseeing grizzly hunts in Alaska, said bear behavior might change, but not overnight.

At the rate of grizzly hunting that's likely in store for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, he said, any change in how bears use the landscape and interact with people will likely be imperceptible.

"People who are alive now shouldn't expect to see much difference before they die," Sinnott said.

Small Taos-area pueblo now has a big solar array

TAOS, N.M. – Just days before the longest night of the year, the Picuris Pueblo flipped the switch on the tribe's one-megawatt solar array.

The Picuris Pueblo is the smallest in New Mexico, but has the solar capacity to power roughly 600 homes.

"Looked at in the big scheme of things, Picuris is a small tribe, but one of the most sophisticated," said Luis Reyes, chief executive of Kit Carson Electrical Cooperative. Co-op directors have set their sights on producing electricity for members 100 percent from renewables, with the first benchmark in 2022. Local solar installations are a major part of the strategy.

The endeavor was funded by a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, reports the Taos News.

Idaho ski town laying out footprint for new energy

HAILEY, Idaho – A study has been launched to determine whether local electricity can be produced in Hailey and the nearby areas sufficient to meet critical loads as required or essential city and medical services. The town is 15 miles down-valley from Ketchum and Sun Valley. The Idaho Mountain Express reports that a local environmental group, the Sun Valley Institute, has lined up support for the study from the nearby Idaho National Laboratory.

E-bikes now allowed on the paths in Jackson Hole

JACKSON, Wyo. – Electric bicycles are now allowed on pathways and in bike lanes of Jackson and Teton County.

The Jackson Hole News&Guide says the population of e-bikes has exploded in the past year or two, raising questions about their safety and legal use.

Proponents said the low-speed motorized bicycles, with maximum speeds of 20 mph, will accommodate needs of commuting professionals who can't show up to work sweaty in the summer.

"We have a traffic issue in this community, and this is a great alternative to allow people to use a different mode of transportation rather than jumping in their car," Teton County Commissioner Greg Epstein said.

In an editorial, the newspaper addressed a minority point of view, namely that relatively fast-moving e-bikes pose a safety risk to pedestrians and other slower-moving users of trails. "Put a bell on that e-bike," instructed the paper.