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Mountain Town News: ‘Snowmastadon’ yields insights into climates

Allen Best
Mountain Town News

SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo. — Four yeas ago this past October, a bulldozer operator scraping away a meadow near the Snowmass ski area uncovered a bone that he almost immediately realized didn’t belong to a cow. It was of a juvenile mammoth.

In time, the site yielded the bones of nearly 6,000 large mammals, including bear, bighorn sheep and other animals native to the area now. But many were of species now extinct. There were mammoths and, even more, their elephantine cousins, mastodons, plus a bison antiquus, a species that would dwarf the animal colloquially known as the buffalo.

But, from the start, paleontologists wondered if the ultimate value of the exceptional discovery would be in the less glamorous items: leaves still green after 100,000 years when first removed from the peat as well as other proxies of the climate the last time the glaciers had receded. In other words, a time much like our own.

This week, as a special issue of Quaternary Research was issued, scientists said the take-home message was that climates at 9,000 feet of elevation don’t change in lock-step with broader climates. Yes, if the Earth gets colder, places like Snowmass will usually get colder. What surprised the scientists was how much more widely the climates swung. When the planet warmed, it got disproportionately warmer at Snowmass. Vegetation today found 3,000 feet lower was found amid the fossils of Snowmass.

Conversely, during a time when the earth cooled at 90,000 to 100,000 yeas ago, the lake where the fossils were found was frozen and timberline had descended to below 9,000 feet. It currently is at close to 12,000 feet.

The scientists had expected a cooler climate, but not that much.

The value of these insights? Possibly, they will help climate modelers refine their understandings of how climate during the next century will change as the effect of accumulated greenhouse gas emissions becomes more pronounced.

The thing to take home and ponder, says Jeff PIgati, a geoscientist, is that “what is happening in our backyard is not always perfectly predictable.”

Sol unwelcome in the Sierras

TRUCKEE, Calif. — Forgive California skiers and riders if they seem anxious. Three mostly terrible snow years will do that to you, and the weather forecast for Lake Tahoe and Truckee this week shows lots of smiley sun faces.

Ski areas are open, however, thanks to snowmaking. Because they tend to get bountiful snowfall, resorts of the Sierra Nevada were relatively late to the snowmaking game.

In the last couple of years, though, ski areas have invested heavily in snow guns. Lake Tahoe News reports that Sugar Bowl, a resort along Interstate 80, put in $500,000 worth of snowmaking equipment over the summer. Squaw Valley reported $2.6 million in snowmaking upgrades.

Heavenly and Northstar, both owned by Vail Resorts, have two of the largest snowmaking operations on the West Coast. That allowed them to open last week.

The drought has certainly dinged the ski industry in California. Until three years ago, the state was humming along at about 7.4 million skier visits a year. Last season, there were 5.3 million, or roughly what Summit County and Vail Mountain did. One of the more marginal ski areas is Mount Shasta, and it was able to open for only four days.

What explains this drought? It has been speculated that this is a clear reflection of a changing climate, with much of that due to accumulating heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. However, there’s also evidence that this falls within the historic range of variability.

But even if the drought is entirely natural, climate models are clear that the rising temperatures caused by greenhouse gases will affect resorts on the West Coast resorts sooner and more adversely than those higher, colder resorts deeper in the continent.

Carbon rises despite the best intentions

TELLURIDE — Four years ago, the mayors of Telluride and Mountain Village vowed to push down greenhouse gas emissions from their mountain towns. Instead, they’re going up.

A recent report by EcoAction Partners finds that, from 2010 and 2013, emissions for the towns and broader San Miguel County have grown from 338,000 metric tons to 354,000 tons.

A memo from Heather Rommel, the group’s executive director, notes that emissions track directly with weather, both temperature and snowfall. Snowfall instigates the use of energy-intensive snowmelt systems. However, snowfall also draws visitors and creates more dynamic economy and population growth. As well, the economy altogether recovered significantly from 2010 to 2013 as the nation came out of recession.

But she also noted that if not for carbon offsets, emissions would have totaled 368,000 tons. Offsets are a financial device intended to purchase carbon reduction strategies in one place and convey them to another place. In this case, the offsets are the non-carbon attributes of electricity produced by hydroelectric generation at nearby McPhee Reservoir.

Telluride’s municipal government has tried to set an example by cleaning its own house first. It has done the usual stuff, such as improving insulation of its old town hall offices and swapping out light bulbs and turning down the thermostat a notch.

The town has invested in solar panels for affordable housing units at a solar farm about 80 miles west near the Utah border, while also harnessing the power of flowing water for small-scale hydrogeneration.

Even so, says Karen Guglielmone, the special projects director for the town, it’s nip and tuck whether the town can achieve its carbon-reduction goals. While energy is saved in some places, more is needed for new purposes such as the town’s ice rink.

Scary times about oversized felines

IDAHO SPRINGS, Colo. – Residents of the foothills west of Denver were reminded recently to be wary of mountain lions, and for many of them there was a vivid local reminder.

A local high school student, 18-year-old Scott Lancaster, was jogging one January day in 1991 above Clear Creek High School when he was attacked and killed by a lion, also called a cougar or catamount.

Mike Hillman, the mayor in Idaho Springs, an old gold-mining town about 30 miles west of downtown Denver, told the Clear Creek Courant he’s heard recently from people who have spotted as many as four mountain lions at one time.

Although mountain lions rarely attack people, Wikipedia cites 20 known fatalities in North America between 1890 and 2011. Seven were in California and six in British Columbia (two-thirds on Vancouver Island), and one more in Alberta, when a resident of Canmore was killed just north of Banff National Park in 2001.

Other fatalities have occurred in Washington state, Texas, New Mexico and Montana, plus two in Mexico.

Colorado has had three. After the death in Idaho Springs, a 10-year-old boy hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, near Grand Lake, was killed. Then, in 2003, the remains of a 3-year-old west of Fort Collins were found four years after his disappearance. The remains were consistent with lion predation.

Mountain lions can also be found in the foothills just west of the university town of Boulder, located northwest of Denver. “They prowl down stream corridors, cross Boulder’s city line and wander into prosperous, tree-shaded neighborhoods,” explains Governing magazine. Boulder, the magazine adds, is now trying to balance the presence of carnivores with human safety.

“In the early days, if a bear or lion came into town, we just dealt with it” by shooting the intruders,” state wildlife manager Larry Rogstad told the magazine.

Now, there’s a hazier line when a lion shows up in somebody’s backyard. We’re all pulled between people who perceive great danger and others who think it’s great to have bears and lions around,” Rogstad says.

Mountain lions were traditionally confined to the West, but Governing observes that they have spread to Missouri and Iowa — even to the East Coast. In the last several years, a mountain lion was shot by police in Chicago and another was killed by traffic in the Connecticut suburbs of New York City.

No private choppers on Whitefish front-yard lawns

WHITEFISH, Mont. — It sounds like Whitefish is getting upscale. The Whitefish Pilot explains that several complaints were filed last summer about private helicopters landing in town.

“I’m not opposed to helicopters, but I am opposed to them taking off and landing a football field from my house for someone else’s convenience,” resident Mike Jenson told the city council.

The city council has ruled that private helicopters can only land on plots of land at least 15 acres in size.

Winter Park ski area starts its 75th season

WINTER PARK, Colo. — The Winter Park ski area is celebrating its 75th anniversary this season. It started in 1940, just before World War II, with a $40,000 rope tow.

At the time, there was a ski area at the top of nearby Berthoud Pass, one down the road at Howelsen Hill in Steamboat, and a primitive “boat” tow at Aspen. But the modern era of skiing really didn’t arrive until after the war.

Much has changed. The Ski Train that introduced many Denverites to skiing at Winter Park quit operating a few years ago. Winter Park expanded in the 1970s to include Mary Jane, one of the continent’s premier spots for mogul skiing. But more generally Winter Park has been eclipsed in its prominence by relative newcomers like Breckenridge, Vail and other resorts hard by Interstate 70.

Bob Singley, who began skiing at Winter Park in the 1950s, later become a ski patroller and all-round lively spirit.

“People said, ‘You guys spend more energy on organizing parties than you do at your jobs and work,’ Singley told the Sky-Hi News. “Well, yeah, there was a lot of that. Everybody was here to have a good time. And I know a lot of good times were had.”

Some in Whitefish want a law that keeps hate groups out

WHITEFISH, Mont. — What is it about the Northern Rockies that tends to draw the nut cases? The Flathead Beacon, serving the Whitefish and Kalispell areas of northern Montana, notes that a spate of Holocaust denial films were shown in the Flathead Valley several years ago.

Lately, Richard B. Spencer, of the National Policy Institute, set up headquarters in Whitefish. He preaches a brand of virulence such that the Southern Poverty Law Center named the organization one of the four leaders in the world of “academic racism.”

Spencer was in the news recently after he was arrested for three days in Budapest, Hungary. He espouses a “white Ethno-State on the American continent.”

The Beacon notes that a number of people testified for the need to adopt a law “so that hate organizations cannot do business in our town.”

Would a gondola ease traffic congestion in Banff?

BANFF, Alberta — Can a gondola ease Banff’s summertime traffic congestion? Town staff members have floated the idea of erecting a gondola from downtown Banff to popular tourist spots such as the hot springs, the Banff Center and other destinations.

The Rocky Mountain Outlook notes that 54 out of 62 days in July and August had traffic counts exceeding 20,000 vehicles, which the town has defined as the threshold for congestion.

This would be, say planners, a way to move people, not vehicles.

Zero-vacancy Banff looks at rental units

BANFF, Alberta — Banff’s council is looking to build up to 36 rental units on town-owned property. Mayor Karen Sorensen said rental housing needs to be a priority to address the town’s zero-vacancy rate.

There is no doubt we have a housing crisis, and I do believe the town of Banff needs to be part of the solution,” she said.

A housing-needs strategy calls for the municipality to develop 100 rental housing units over the next three years and for the private sector to develop another 300 units. This must be done on the existing footprint of the town, as it is an inholding within Banff National Park and is not permitted to expand.

New Mexico town

may get jobs back

QUESTA, N.M. – Questa is a small mountain town in northern New Mexico, north of Taos and east of Angel Fire. It long had a molybdenum mine, but the mine closed this summer and laid off 300 employees.

Economic salvation, of sorts, has arrived. A new company that intends to create cyber-security devices wants to open a small factory that would employ 50 people. These are assembly-line jobs and nobody will get rich. One of the owners of the company tells the Taos News that the jobs will pay $11 to $12 per hour, plus health-care benefits and daycare costs. It will also offer profit sharing.

A New Mexico state incentive will pay 10 percent of every employee’s salary that makes at least $28,000 a year, totaling about $13.50 per hour.

To be clear, it’s now

cannabis, not weed

ASPEN, Colo. – New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd in January checked into the Four Seasons Hotel in Denver and then legally purchased cannabis edibles. Back in the hotel, she took a bite – and so began her night of weirdness.

“I barely made it from the desk to the bed, where I lay curled up in a hallucinatory state for the next eight hours,” she wrote about five months later. “As my paranoia deepened, I became convinced that I had died and no one was telling me.”

Dowd’s experience as a cannabis tourist has become a cultural touchstone as Colorado and other states proceed in what Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has called “one of the great social experiments of the 21st century.”

In Aspen, panelists at a recent conference called Cannabis Grand Cru seemed to agree that despite Dowd’s strange night, cannabis legalization has been a good thing. Clearly articulating that viewpoint, according to an Aspen Daily News report, was Joe DiSalvo, the sheriff of Pitkin County.

“Since medical (marijuana), we haven’t seen our state fall apart. We don’t have holes punched in our moral fiber. Kids aren’t running amuck, cars aren’t crashing and dogs aren’t playing with cats. All of this shit they’re afraid of, I’m not sure it’s happening,” he said.

DiSalvo said that when he got to Aspen in 1980, marijuana was prevalent and pervasive and, in the eyes of himself and other cops, somewhat less of a concern than jaywalking.

“The way we thought about it was, you did it in your home, you didn’t do it where you were jeopardizing anybody else’s safety. It was a live-and-let-live attitude in this community,” he said.

He was quick to note that he was not a proponent of marijuana. Rather, he argued that education is the most important aspect of keeping the industry legitimate and keeping people safe.

Pointedly, according to The Aspen Times, DiSalvo says his soft-stick does not include marijuana shared with children.

“I have no tolerance when there are children involved with marijuana,” he said. We’re working on a lot of programs with the schools. ‘Just Say No’ sucked and D.A.R.E. was a horrible failure. I want to help educate teachers and parents when it comes to marijuana and kids. I also have zero tolerance for driving stoned.”

To embellish this legitimacy, a representative of a Denver-based business that makes gluten-free, strain-specific marijuana edibles said that her company never says “pot” or “weed,” but instead uses the term “cannabis.”

“Part of what we fight is the public perception, which is that everybody in Colorado just wants to become one giant frat house and get as stoned as you can,” said Monique Nobil of Julie and Kate Baked Goods. “That’s just not the reality.”

So what about Maureen Dowd? Reports that came out shortly after her column held that she had been “educated” for 45 minutes before she made her purchase. But nobody disputes that some strains of cannabis can leave people huddled on their couches.

To DiSalvo, the onus is on dispensaries to educate tourists on how to properly dose and not disable themselves.

“You don’t want to be ‘couch-locked’ when you have just spent $500 a night for a room in Aspen, Colorado,” he said. “I do think we have to be real honest about the effects.”

Agreed another panelist, it’s best for people to “start low and go slow.”

That also seems to be the philosophy of some other ski towns in Colorado. Vail and Mt. Crested Butte and many others have so far said no-thanks, both to medical and now recreational cannabis.

Jordan Lewis, owner of Silverpeak Apothecary in Aspen, attributed the tepidness to concerns about the impacts on family tourism. “I think they’re scared of the impact it could have on that,” he said. “My sense is that they are large corporations, and like most large corporations, they move at a glacial pace.”

Will a city ever get

built at Wolf Creek

SOUTH FORK, Colo. – Will B.J. “Red” McCombs ever see his “village” near the Wolf Creek ski area built? A businessman in San Antonio, he’s been at it 28 years and he’s now 87.

In 1986, when the U.S. Forest Service was much more amenable to land swaps in the interest of economic development, it said yes to a deal that gave McCombs the property near the ski area located along the Continental Divide between Pagosa Springs and South Fork in southern Colorado.

The Denver Post reports that the Forest Service has now indicated its support for a land exchange that would give McCombs access from the highway over the pass, giving him what he needs for the 10,000-unit city that he has envisioned.

This recommended approval of the crucial land exchange, however, falls short of a decision. But even if the land exchange goes through, McCombs would need to get approval from Mineral County.

Unlike most ski areas there is no private land at Wolf Creek other than what McCombs has acquired. It lacks condos or other housing at the base. People who ski at Wolf Creek have to drive a half-hour one way or another.

Furthermore, it’s located at about 10,000 feet, which would make it one of the highest “resort villages” in North America.

Environmentalists for decades have thought this proposed development a terrible thing for the environment, while experienced developers of mountain resorts have thought it a very difficult economic proposition.

Of course, people live at nearly 11,000 feet outside of Breckenridge, so who’s to say what is preposterous and what is not?

But, as the Post notes, lawsuits by Rocky Mountain Wild and perhaps other organizations are almost inevitable in response to this Forest Service decision.

Wes, Mineral Coiunty,658.2360

Art museum director

gets paid handsomely

ASPEN, Colo. – The director the Aspen Art Museum was in the news after the Aspen Times revealed she made $864,034 in the prior financial year plus almost $31,000 in benefits.

Directors of the museum tell the Times that Heidi Zuckerman deserves the high compensation because of her performance. In addition to being director and curator, she raised more than $100 million since she took the helm in 2005.

But the Times also talked with an analyst of the non-profit sector who said the salary is out of line with other like-sized nonprofits. The median salary for charities of that size is closer to $100,000, said Sandra Miniutti of Charity Navigator.

The Aspen museum drew $14 million in revenue in the period in which Zuckerman got paid her $864,000. By comparison, the Art Institute of Chicago had $253 million in revenues and paid its two presidents $521,0 and $610,000respectively

Snowmass raises bar

for Base Village

SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo. – The effort to restart the massive Base Village project at Snowmass Village must clear a slightly higher hurdle as a result of the recent town elections.

The Aspen Daily News reports that the council majority wants the remainder of the Base Village project to be subjected to a normal, three-step review process. The development company, Related Colorado, had asked that the sketch step be waived for the entire planned-unit development because it proposes no new uses, mass or scale, compared to what was originally approved in 2007.

Construction was halted by the recession and the bankruptcy of the project that followed.

The hitch is regarding changes in the “aquatic enter” that was originally proposed as part of the “community purpose” requirement.

The decision could potentially add three months to a development timetable that was originally expected to be completed by May 2015, reports the News in an Aspen Journal filing.

But could the requirement derail a Limelight Hotel planned by the Aspen Skiing Co. and previously approved? That seems to be the dangling question, and from the report in the Aspen newspaper, it’s unclear how much is bluff and how much is real threat.

More reporting and analysis from mountain valleys of the West can be found at http://mountaintownnews.net


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