Mountain Town News: Snow wonderful, but with lots of challenges | SummitDaily.com

Mountain Town News: Snow wonderful, but with lots of challenges

Allen Best
Mountain Town News

PARK CITY, Utah – Usually, there are winners and losers in the snow sweepstakes. This year, everybody's getting slammed, creating wonderful winter wonderlands across the mountain towns of the West—but also life-threatening problems.

In Utah, Park City Mountain Resort had a snowpack 160 percent of normal. Nearby at Alta and Snowbird, a station showed 165 percent of normal.

Rudy Julander, a supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency, told The Park Record that typically April snowpack levels have arrived by January.

In Colorado, between Durango and Silverton, Coal Bank Pass and Molas Divide have received more snow the January than any other at least since 1993, when record-keeping there began.

Of course, the blessing isn't without its challenges. In many towns, cars unused for a few weeks are buried. Municipal snow-removal budgets are getting tapped. In Idaho, Ketchum officials report they were halfway through their annual allocation for snow removal by mid-January.

For deer and elk, winter is always a slog. This one is already desperate enough that state and local officials in the Ketchum-Sun Valley area have warned snowshoers and other recreationists to avoid areas where deer and elk congregate. People were advised to keep dogs on leash.

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"Unfortunately, even well-trained dogs find chasing wildlife hard to resist," Blaine County Sheriff Steve Harkins told the Idaho Mountain Express.

In Colorado, the state wildlife agency has begun a baiting program near Gunnison. The goal is to draw deer and elk away from U.S. Highway 50 to avoid the danger of hooves and hoods colliding. No feeding is planned unless mortality is expected to exceed 30 percent of the adult does.

The Crested Butte News explains that officials cite the cost of feeding operations, as several may be needed around Colorado, but also the danger posed by congregating deer and elk spreading diseases. Too, deer and elk have different dietary needs.

But there are other dangers, too. In Rico, a small town south of Telluride, a 42-year-old woman died in a blast that may have resulted from a propane explosion in the basement. Her body was found 30 feet from the house.

In California Placer County officials warned businesses and homeowners at Lake Tahoe of the "extreme" danger that mounting snow loads may have on propane tanks and buildings. More than 20 feet of snow have fallen in some areas during recent weeks. In 2011, a leak from a propane tank caused an explosion that destroyed a home. Propane tanks must be allowed to vent.

Buildings have also collapsed. Several weeks ago a conference center in Breckenridge, collapsed under the weight of new snow that was particularly dense with precipitation. In Bend, Oregon, a former factory also collapsed.

Experts tell the Associated Press that water density in the snow has increased, meaning a roof that doesn't appear to be holding that much snow can actually be straining to support the weight.

"They may look at the roof and say, 'There's not as much snow there because it settled,'" said Ron Abramovich, a water supply specialist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service. "But it really comes down to the amount of water in the snowpack."

Whistler stance on pipeline not strong enough for some

WHISTLER, B.C. – What's a responsible municipal council to do when it comes to shipment of oil? In Whistler, the council has expressed concerns about the Kinder Morgan pipeline that seeks to pump oil from diluted bitumen from Alberta's tar sands to coastal ports in British Columbia.

Whistler has long been worried about the potential of oil spilling into the ocean. It remains so because of the "potentially negative impacts an oil spill would have on the environment and tourism," the official resolution says.

But some council members would have preferred more forceful language. On the other hand, John Grills says the alternative to the new pipeline would be more shipments by train, "which to me is a very poor option."

Meanwhile, in an environmental issue closest to home, a patio has been approved for a liquor store located in Whistler Village. One of the councilors would like to have seen a ban on outdoor gas fireplaces on the patio. After all, the fireplaces burn fossil fuels, which must be imported from afar, whether by train or by pipeline.

But the majority of the council agreed to wait and let that be part of a broader discussion. The background fact for this delay to have a fuller discussion is that the municipality has gas fireplaces at Olympic Plaza and at the skating rink.

Spilled grain not sole reason for dead bears

BANFF, Alberta – For some years, bears have been getting smashed and killed along the Canadian Pacific Railway line as it passes through Banff National Park. Spilled grain was suspected of drawing the bears to the railroad tracks.

Now, after a five-year study, researchers say that the spilled grain really doesn't explain everything. In fact, nothing explains everything.

"It's a very complex problem. There's really no single solution, no silver bullet, if you will," said Rick Kubin, acting superintendent for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay national parks.

More grain was spilled at the west end of the park, but more grizzlies were killed at the east end. In all, 10 grizzlies and 27 black bears have been killed by trains in the last decade.

The Calgary Herald explains that researchers concluded that the grain amounts to just 110 tons annually. "This is a remarkably small amount of grain, about one-and-half hopper cars. But that equates in calories to the annual need of 50 adult grizzlies. But it's not the only factor attracting them, and may not be the main one," said Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a professor at the University of Alberta who led the research.

For the study, researchers collared 11 to 13 grizzlies with GPS collars to learn where, when, and why they were using the railway. In addition, GoPro cameras were mounted to the front of trains to study what affected the ability of bears to detect and flee from trains

Also, says the Herald, some grain samples were treated with a substance that induces nausea to see if it would keep bears from looking for grain along the tracks.

But if grain isn't necessarily the main story in the bear deaths, Parks Canada and the railroad have agreed to cut back vegetation along the rail line. They will also install four electrified mats. The mats will be placed in locations that attract bears to deter them from such areas.

In addition, an early warning system will continue to be evaluated.

It uses LED lights and electronic sounds to alert animals to oncoming trains. Tests show it has worked with elk.

But work that began in the 1980s to prevent the parallel TransCanada Highway from being a barrier to wildlife has reduced animal deaths, researchers say. "The numbers have dropped considerably since highway mitigation measures with fencing and crossing structures. It's really dramatically dropped," said Tony Clevenger, a biologist who evaluated crossings in Banff National Park for the Montana-based Western Transportation Institute.

Research shows an 80 percent reduction in wildlife collisions on the highway. The death rate for large carnivores is 50 to 100 percent lower along sections of the highway where there are crossings. Almost no elk are now being killed, compared to about 100 elk-vehicle collisions before mitigation work.

The first wildlife crossings in Banff were installed in 1988. Now, there are 38 underpasses and 6 overpasses along 82 kilometers of highway. That segment is also lined with fences, to keep large animals out.

Elk were the first large species to use the Banff crossings, and deer also were not wary. But grizzly bears and wolves took up to five years to adjust to the new way to cross the highways. Cougars, however, prefer the low and narrow underpasses.

Utah craft brewery to expand into Idaho

PARK CITY, Utah – Two years after popping the top of its first can of beer, Park City Brewing is expanding its distribution. The beer can already be found in Utah grocery stores, but soon the brand will expand sales into Idaho.

Owners tell The Park Record they hope to expand to places where Park City visitors come from: Southern California, Phoenix, even Texas.

Durango tries to figure out homes for 13,000

DURANGO, Colo. – If Durango's population grows from today's 18,500 to the 31,500 projected by 2040, where will they all live? A comprehensive plan being reviewed would encourage dense housing within the city as well as annexation of peripheral areas, a consultant tells the Durango Herald.

Truckee begins talking about cannabis rules

TRUCKEE, Calif. – Truckee town officials have started taking comments about how to respond to new authority granted by California voters last November for the sale of cannabis for recreational use.

California has allowed the sale of marijuana since 1996. Truckee had not chosen to allow sales from dispensaries. But it has yet to decide how to develop local policy in response to the new authority.

The new state law allows Californians to possess and cultivate up to six plants for recreational use. How those plants are allowed to be cultivated is left up to local lawmakers.

Since last April, town officials in Truckee have been tracking the experience of Colorado ski towns to inform their decision-making.

California county seeks to collect tax on rentals

TAHOE CITY, Calif. – Placer County officials estimate that 54,600 properties are being used as short-term rentals in the county's unincorporated areas. The county extends from the foothills west of Sacramento to the north shore of Lake Tahoe.

The Lake Tahoe News reports that county officials have retained Host Compliance, a San Francisco-based research firm, at a cost of $248,000 for a year to collect the transient occupancy tax from lodging properties. The company had helped Truckee identify 460 short-term rentals that were not up to date with tax payments.

In Colorado, city officials in Steamboat Springs have learned that pursuing taxes or fees on short-term rentals to help fund community housing would be complicated, expensive, and perhaps unfeasible, reports Steamboat Today.

Councilman Scott Ford said at a recent meeting that he thinks any fee on rentals would have to be in the form of an additional lodging tax that is placed not only on Airbnb and short-term rentals but also on hotel accommodations and other rentals of 30 days or less. But Airbnb in January started collecting and remitting the required city sales and lodging taxes for all hosts in the city.

The fee on short-term rentals was one of five suggestions from a steering committee that spent months studying the region's housing woes and shortfalls.

Parking bedevils resort towns of the Rockies

JASPER, Alberta – Parking continues to bedevil mountain resort towns of the Rockies from Jasper to Ketchum to Park City.

In Jasper, a couple who want to construct a new building have come up with a novel idea: It would be in the deed to the housing units that no cars would be allowed, just like such deeds can restrict dogs and other pets. This would allow them to spend less money and space on parking and deliver larger units to the employees.

But they're also looking into the idea of a car-sharing program for tenants that could cost about $375 per person on top of rent. They point out that Jasper isn't big enough to really require a car, so somebody might not need a car but for once a month, according to an account in the Jasper Fitzhugh.

Mountain group hopes to prod electric vehicles

EAGLE, Colo. – Ten local governments and a non-profit in the Aspen-Glenwood Springs-Vail areas have joined an in effort to ratchet down the prices of new electric vehicles through bulk purchases.

Similar programs have been done in several cities, including the Boulder and Fort Collins areas of Colorado and in Salt Lake City.

These and other programs are modeled after successful solar-power group purchase programs pioneered in Portland, Oregon, in 2010. In the case of electric vehicles and hybrids, auto dealers are asked to submit proposals, which presumably will include price incentives.

In the case of a program organized by Boulder County, the price of a Nissan Leaf S model was knocked down $8,349 from the suggested retail price of $31,810. With a federal tax credit of $7,500 and a state tax credit in Colorado of $3,831, the net price for buyers was $12,130, according to a study by the Colorado Energy Office and energy efficiency advocate groups.

In a similar program offered to faculty, staff, students, and alumni of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and adjoining areas, dealerships offered nine different models.

While sales of EVs have accelerated as more models and associated charging infrastructure have become available, the same report noted that sales in the Fort Collins program increased from 15 to 52 in the year after the program was adopted. A survey showed that 72 percent of the vehicle purchasers in the Boulder program were not intending to buy an EV prior to the program's adoption.

The study, called "The Electric Vehicle and Photovoltaic Power Purchase Handbook," also noted that a Nissan Leaf customer who drives 12,000 miles per year and pays 12 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity would save $550 a year compared to paying for gas at $2 a gallon. This assumes a gas-fueled car that gets 25 miles per gallon.

Low energy costs have been offset in the past by range anxiety. In the context of mountain communities, this encouraged purchase instead of hybrids. But Chevrolet has now introduced the Bolt, with a range of 238 miles, putting Aspen within a drive of Denver. Tesla is expected to follow with a new car with comparable range later this year.

Will these new, longer-range EV's make a difference? Heather McGregor, a consultant to Clean Energy Economy for the Region, a Carbondale-based non-profit, says she thinks they will.

"The Bolt especially will bring a new cohort of buyers to the table, people who want to go all-electric but haven't been able to make the 80-mile range of a Leaf or a Focus fit their lifestyle. Me included!" she says.

She says organizers think it's likely that one of the local car dealers, Mountain Chevrolet, will offer a proposal that would yield a group discount for buyers of both the Chevy Bolt and the Chevy Volt.

Electric vehicles generate about 40 percent less carbon emissions than comparable gasoline-powered vehicles, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.