Mountain Town News: The continuing tango of the dollar and the loonie |

Mountain Town News: The continuing tango of the dollar and the loonie

Allen Best
Mountain Town News
The Farmer's Almanac explains usually the heaviest snow falls in February so it is called the Snow Moon. Some Nativer American tribes called this the Hunger Moon because hunting becomes very difficult.
Bitter Buffalo Photography / special to the Daily |

WHITEFISH, Mont. – The Canadian and U.S. dollars have been doing the monetary tango. The loonie, as the Canadian dollar is called, has dropped to 70 cents as compared to the U.S. dollar, the lowest since 2003, according to the Globe & Mail. That compares to 110 cents in 2007, an all-time high.

This means that it takes $145 in Canadian currency for $100 of goods or services in the United States. Conversely, it makes Canadian resorts like Banff and Whistler much less expensive for American visitors.

In Montana, where 19 percent of visitors come from Canada, this dipsy-doodle of exchange rates has been felt keenly. Just a few years ago, visitors sometimes arrived with U-hauls to buy goods from Costco and other stores. When the Great Recession hit, the Canadians still had money to spend, buoying the local economy.

Now, when they do go south, the Canadians are leaving less money behind in places like Whitefish, located a five-hour drive south of Calgary.

“There are still a lot of Alberta (license) plates in the parking lot, but we’re way down in our Alberta lodging,” says Nick Polumbus, director of sales and marketing for Whitefish Mountain Resort. “Maybe they’re staying with friends now or finding a less-expensive place to stay during their ski trip.”

In Kalispell, located a short drive south of Whitefish, the local Costco manager tells the Flathead Beacon of a 30 percent reduction in the number of Canadian customers.

Resort real estate has also been impacted. In 2012, when the U.S. economy was still recovering, some 225 properties in Flathead County were purchased by persons in Canada. The Beacon reports that last year Canadians purchased only 21 properties.

Oil prices explain the difference. When oil was $140 a barrel, Canada was prospering, owing to its giant production from the oil/tar sands of Alberta. Now, with all the oil being produced from shale formations, there’s a glut and oil has dipped to less than $30 a barrel.

It could get worse for Canadians. CBC News in January reported that an analyst with investment bank Macquarie expects the loonie to lose another 10 cents, to reach an all-time low of 59 cents by the end of 2016.

All this adds up to a very cheap road trip to places like Banff and Whistler for Americans, both because of low gas prices and the favorable exchange rate. Whitefish town manager Chuck Stearns tells the local newspaper, the Pilot, that he expects unusually heavy summer business to Whitefish.

Will free admission crowd national parks?

BANFF, Alberta – The Canadian national parks will celebrate their 150th anniversary in 2017, and Parks Canada, the federal agency that administers the parks, plans to make all passes purchased in 2016 good through 2017.

Could that mean too much crowding in Banff National Park? Park visitation increased 7.4 percent last year and 10.4 percent the year before. The Rocky Mountain Outlook reports that some policies are needed to steer visitors to spring, fall and winter months, as there are enough already during summer.

Warmer, drier winter a harbinger of future

BANFF, Alberta – It’s been warm and dry in the Bow Valley, including Banff and Canmore. In November, temperatures warmed 1 to 2 degrees Centigrade above normal and since Christmas they’ve been 2 to 3 C above normal. Precipitation is down about 25 percent.

El Niño explains this winter’s weather, but this winter’s weather also fits in with projected long-term climate changes, points out John Pomeroy, a local resident who is also the Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change. He told the Rocky Mountain Outlook that the area can expect warmer temperatures and less snow into the future.

“The winter minimums have gone up 4 or 5 degrees C since the early 1960s and there’s been overall a warming of 1.5 to 2 degrees C,” he said. “A lot of that is in winter; not much is evident in summer.”

Climate change models suggested continued winter warming in the next several decades. In turn, that means less snow and more winter rain.

Whistler talking about more rainy-day activities

WHISTLER, B.C. – It’s been snowing in Whistler this winter but also raining. That’s nothing new. Whistler, after all, is only 2,000 feet above sea level.

But the warming climate figures to produce more rain than snow, and that’s a problem, writes Clare Ogilby, editor of Pique. The resort community has made “weatherproofing” one of its key goals going forward. Talk of an indoor waterpark has stalled, she reports, but the discussion takes on “more urgency as climate change looms in the future.”

Meanwhile, Whistler’s municipal council has received a letter signed by three-dozen residents that calls for a stepped-up local action to address climate change and other environmental destruction.

“Time is of the essence, and it feels quite frustrating that our leaders seem afraid to take action for fear it will upset people,” wrote Nalini Binet in the letter.

Lake Powell tied at the hip to Colorado ski lifts

ASPEN, Colo. – Just how much more water can be drawn from the rivers that originate near Winter Park, Breckenridge, and Aspen, as well as Crested Butte, Telluride, and Durango, before the electrical supply powering the ski lifts gets wobbly?

That sounds a bit like a zen koan, but in fact, it’s at the heart of a discussion now underway in Colorado. The Colorado River that originates in those mountain towns is already heavily tapped by local farms. Then there’s the matter of the giant straws that convey 450,000 to 600,000 acre-feet per year to Denver, Colorado Springs and other cities at the base of the Rocky Mountains as well as other farms on the Great Plains.

There’s only so much water in the Colorado River, and its use is strictly governed by interstate compacts: a 1948 compact apportioning use among the headwaters states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. More importantly, those four upper-basin states are obligated to allow roughly half the water in the Colorado River to flow downstream from Lake Powell and through the Grand Canyon, to the lower-basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada, as well as to Mexico.

Just how much water remains to be developed in Colorado, whether for ski areas, cannabis farms, or Front Range cities? Nobody really knows.

But an upcoming $50,000 study funded by several organizations from the Western Slope of Colorado aims to get a better answer. Aspen Journalism reports that water organizations on Colorado’s Eastern Slope also want to get involved.

Chris Treese, the external affairs manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, recently explained the dynamics. If Lake Powell drops so low it can’t produce hydropower, he said, it also means the dam will not be able to release enough water to meet its rolling 10-year obligation under the 1922 Colorado River Water Compact.

“The earlier crisis point — and I don’t think that’s overstating it — is when Lake Powell falls to a level that is below the point where power can be produced through the dam,” Treese explained. That, in turn, means there’s too little water in Lake Powell to release the 8.23 million acre-feet required to meet the compact obligations.

Aspen Journalism explains that this call for a more definitive study has been spurred by a disagreement among river basins on Colorado’s Western Slope. The Yampa-White River Basin (includes Steamboat Springs) wants to reserve the right to dam and divert more water. The Gunnison Basin (includes Crested Butte) is concerned it will hasten what is called a “compact call,” or reduced water use in all basins.

And about that electricity? The turbines at Glen Canyon Dam, which creates Lake Powell, produce massive amounts of electricity, along with those at other dams in the West. This low-cost (and non-carbon) electricity is then distributed to utilities that serve many of the ski towns in Colorado and other states, too.

Snowmelt systems big user of outdoor energy

ASPEN, Colo. – In 1999, Aspen and Pitkin County adopted what amounts to a tax on what is considered to be extravagant use of energy in homes. The tax in the Renewable Energy Mitigation Program applies to homes that exceed 5,000 square feet in size and those with high-energy features such as private snowmelt systems, heated outdoor pools and outdoor spas.

Snowmelt systems burned the most energy, 84 percent of exterior use, in the 280 homes subject to the tax between 2010 and 2014, according to a study by the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, or CORE, which administers the program.

People building these new homes or upgrading existing ones can offset their high energy use by installing renewable energy features themselves or pay an in-lieu fee. Those fees since 2000 have added up to $12 million. The money is allocated to community energy efficiency and renewable projects.

However, whereas a decade ago 59 percent of homeowners mitigated their high-energy use with on-site renewable energy, in the last few years it’s been about 75 percent, according to a recent CORE report.

In the last decade, similar programs have been adopted by Eagle County, Crested Butte, and Telluride/San Miguel County, among possibly others.

Video game follows life of a fire lookout

JACKSON, Wyo. – A new video game set in Wyoming called Firewatch has been released, but it’s not an action-packed, excitement-overloaded game, reports the Jackson Hole News&Guide.

Instead, it’s one that allows the user to help the characters develop through a focus on the storyline. That story involves a fire lookout named Henry, who in 1989 — the year of the big fire in Yellowstone National Park — decides to get over the deterioration of his marriage by disappearing into the Shoshone National Forest of Wyoming to scout for wildfires.

The creator, Nels Anderson, a 2001 graduate of Jackson Hole High School, told the News&Guide that he sent his San Francisco-based team digging deep for details from which to fashion a credible backstory. They met with old lookouts, flipped through 1950s lookout cookbooks and apparently read some of Jack Kerouac. The so-called beat writer once worked as a fire lookout, until the boredom drove him away. He did get a novel, “Desolation Angels,” out of the experience.

The game is available for $20 and is programmed for Mac, Linux and Windows.

$1,500 fines for going to where caribou are

JASPER, B.C. – Three backcountry users were fined $1,500 each after pleading guilty to entering areas closed for the protection of the dwindling caribou herds in Jasper National Park.

The Jasper Fitzhugh explains that surveillance cameras alerted park wardens that the closure had been violated. The closure was instituted in the belief that human footprints in the snow can be used by wolves to more easily reach alpine areas and prey on the caribou.

The violators claimed ignorance, but the judge ruled that it wasn’t excusable. “In circumstances like these, you have to read the signs,” said Judge J.P. Higerty.

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