Mountain Town News: The solar eclipse, immigration in Aspen and more |

Mountain Town News: The solar eclipse, immigration in Aspen and more

JACKSON, Wyo. — Sometimes no news is the big news. That seems to be the case with the eclipse of 2017. Crowds from Ketchum, Idaho, to Jackson, Wyoming, were exceptional for late August.

But gas stations still had gas, grocery stores still had food and if roads were clogged after the darkness ended, nobody was complaining.

Giddiness, not grouchiness prevailed. There was elation, not emergencies.

“People have been literally jumping for joy when they get here,” said Janine Jolley, whose family hosted 280 reservations at the Fox Creek Campground near Victor, Idaho.

On the other side of the Teton Range in Jackson Hole, traffic surpassed all records for those days in August. Still, it was something less than might have been expected. “Quiet weekend” is how the Jackson Hole News&Guide described the Sunday preceding the big day.

Then came the eclipse at 10:16 a.m. It got more quiet yet. Even emergency calls stopped for about 90 minutes. “The call volume just dropped,” said Rich Ochs, Teton County emergency management coordinator. “It was just silent. Everybody was watching a pretty amazing event all at the same time.”

On Rendezvous Mountain, at the top of the tram at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, two veteran eclipse chasers decided it was high time to get married.

Tony Crocker and Liz O’Mara had met on an eclipse-themed website. He has viewed 11 eclipses around the world and she nine. Together, they’ve viewed five eclipses. But this one was special. “It’s the most beautiful eclipse I’ve ever seen,” she told the News&Guide.

Weather forecasters had warned against going to mountain tops to see the eclipse, because of the greater likelihood of clouds. But sunny skies prevailed. The sharp drop in temperatures that had been predicted did occur, between 10 and 15 degrees, according to the News&Guide.

“It was a mixture between excitement and anxiety,” said Martha Clarkson, who had driven from Crested Butte, Colo., to be in the center line of totality. “It’s like a sunset,” she added. “The colors just raced across, and they filled the whole sky.”

In Jackson, where the late-August population normally runs about 50,000 between locals and visitors, the eclipse probably pushed the population to about 75,000. That’s about what town and county officials had planned for.

At nearby Grand Teton National Park, park rangers reported smooth operations despite major crowds that exceeded expectations. The only negative was a half-dozen tipped over portable toilets.

In Idaho, planners in Ketchum had expected a somewhat bigger crowd than was experienced, but that’s OK, too, said Jeff Bacon, director of the chamber in Ketchum and Sun Valley. “To a certain extent I felt we were over-prepared, but that’s not a bad thing,” he told the Idaho Mountain Express.

That was the same view in Idaho’s Teton Valley, on the west side of the range. Brian McDermott, director of the Teton Regional Economic Coalition, said some businesses in Driggs and Victor may have overinvested, because the total number of visitors could not be predicted with certainty. “But we hit a home run on the overall goal of creating a positive experience for residents and visitors alike,” he told the Teton Valley News.

Starting from Vail, Rob Schilling drove to Alpine, Wyoming, just south of Idaho’s Teton Valley. Two days later, back in Colorado, he met an old friend near Steamboat Springs. They were all smiles and high-fives. They had both missed Woodstock, but they saw the Eclipse of 2017.

Aspen down-valley town wrestles with immigration

CARBONDALE, Colo. — Even as President Donald Trump continues to make noise about building a sturdier wall to block illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border, the news in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley reflects a greater nuance.

The valley is home to Aspen and Snowmass but also Carbondale, located 30 miles down-valley. It once was a coal-mining town, but that mine closed 30 years ago. Now, Carbondale is home to nonprofits and creative sorts but also to a large population of immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries. This is the labor that helps drive the resort and real estate economy of what might be called the Aspen valley.

But the labor supply has become more iffy since Trump became president. The Glenwood Post-Independent over the weekend reported 14 undocumented immigrants had been arrested in mid-August both in the Aspen and Vail areas by agents of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Administration.

All but one were males, and about half were from Mexico, with others from other countries of Central and South America. Twelve of the 14 had been convicted of crimes, such as drunk driving. One was a gang member.

“Obviously, this makes life more risky and miserable if you’re undocumented,” immigration attorney Ted Hess told The Aspen Times last week, when the arrests were still rumors. “What it really does all too often is separate functioning families who are contributing to our society and economy.”

Amid this uncertainty, the Carbondale Town Board unanimously passed a resolution proposed by students of the local middle school. The resolution — paralleling that adopted earlier by Pitkin County — bars town employees from inquiring about a person’s immigration status or taking action based solely on immigration status. Any town employee needs approval of the town’s Board of Trustees to work with federal immigration officials, unless the cooperation is for an ongoing criminal investigation.

More generically, the resolutions says the town “supports a clear path for immigrants to legally live, work and become citizens of the United States.”

Carbondale Mayor Dan Richardson told the Aspen Daily News that the resolution seeks to foster trust between immigrants and local police. It says that public safety is “not served when immigrants are afraid to report crimes, bear witness and seek essential services for fear of deportation.”

But The Aspen Times reports more complex legalities. Town employees can still give and receive information from the federal agencies about an individual’s legal status. Richardson told the Times that that language makes clear that the town does not seek to exempt itself from federal law. If ICE agents arrive with a warrant, there must be local cooperation.

The resolution also establishes an outreach effort to the Spanish-speaking immigrant community.

Co-ops told they’ll have to wait to produce juice

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Local electrical co-operatives in western Colorado will have to wait at least two years before they can increase the amount of locally generated electricity.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission delivers power to 43 co-operatives between New Mexico and Wyoming, including those that service Telluride, Crested Butte and Durango.

As of the end of 2016, Tri-State reported that 43 percent of its generation came from coal, 21 percent from natural gas, 24 percent from renewables and 12 percent from contracts. Much of the renewable generation comes from the giant dams of the West, although Tri-State — like other electrical providers — has been investing in wind and solar.

Several local co-ops would like to accelerate the transition to renewables. Last year, Kit Carson Electric — which delivers electricity to Taos and several other smaller ski areas in New Mexico — left Tri-State in its quest to rapidly accelerate toward 100 percent renewables. Both San Miguel Electric, which serves Telluride, and Durango-based La Plata Electric have asked to be exempted from the existing 5 percent cap. They proposed being able to generate as much as 10 percent of the electricity themselves.

But at an August meeting, directors of Tri-State ruled that the 5 percent cap on self-generating power will remain for at least the next two years.

What does Tri-State have against this? If the local co-ops produce more of their own energy, they will pay less to Tri-State. That leaves the other co-ops on the hook for higher costs of operating existing infrastructure.

Lee Boughey, spokesman for Tri-State, points out that the local co-ops can generate as much electricity as they want and sell it to Tri-State or to a third party. If sold to Tri-State, however, they receive less than the electricity they get from Tri-State costs.

Alex Shelley, a spokesman for San Miguel Power Association, tells the Telluride Daily Planet that the work during the next two years is to persuade other co-operatives of the wisdom of the shift to a higher cap. Tri-State was created by the co-ops and directed by the co-ops.

Young, athletic & in love: a tragedy on Capitol Peak

ASPEN, Colo. — If every mountain climbing death can be viewed as a tragedy, the story about a 20-something couple, newly in love, who died on Capitol Peak, has unusual depths of sadness but also this: exceptional joy.

As reported by both daily newspapers in Aspen, the bodies of Ryan Marcil and Carlin Brightwell were found below the Knife Edge ridge on Capitol Peak, which is known as possibly Colorado’s most difficult 14,000-foot mountain.

A friend of Brightwell told the Aspen Daily News that “she appreciated every ray of sunshine, every snowflake that fell and every breath she took. She knew the power of a smile, the strength of a hug, and the indescribable meaning of friendship.”

The owner of the Emporium, a retail shop where Brightwell worked, told The Aspen Times that Brightwell “never met a person she did not greet with a smile and a hug.”

Marcil had worked in finance in New York City before moving to Aspen, where he worked at a ski boot shop. He also served on the board of a local mental health advocacy group. He was described as charming, outgoing, and athletic.

Friends said the couple had met last winter and fell for each other hard, moving in together and talking about marriage.

Just how they came to fall from the peak remains unclear. Their bodies were recovered from the north face of the mountain in the general area of the Knife Edge, which many people cross moving along on their crotches, because of the exposure. There’s a ledge on the north side, and there’s some speculation they tried to use that. Both hollering then a sustained scream were heard in the vicinity about the time the couple fell, sheriff’s deputies reported.

These were the third and fourth deaths on Capitol Peak this year. A fifth occurred on Sunday, and again in the area of the Knife Edge ridge, when a man fell 600 or 700 feet to his death. The victim had also used a less conventional route to avoid the Knife Edge.

Taking stock of these 5 deaths and 2 more on the nearby Maroon Bells, Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo called for blunt information about the risks of mountain climbing in prominent websites.

DiSalvo also wants the U.S. Forest Service to designate the safest routes to the high peaks. In the past, the Forest Service has resisted signs in wilderness. The peaks are in designated wilderness areas, where by the federal law created in 1964 Congress indicated few permanent marks of men or women. Trails are indicated by rock cairns.

But the Aspen Times on Monday reported that Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest, indicated he’s willing to have a conversation about changes. “I don’t think we’re closed to ideas beyond cairns,” Fitzwilliams said.

DiSalvo said he’s not proposing street signs, but rather permanent markers that clearly indicate the main, safest routes up and down the peaks.

Both Capitol and the twin summits of Maroon Bells are among the most difficult of the 54 peaks in Colorado above 14,000 feet. They are also among the least climbed peaks, each getting 1,000 to 3,000 climbers a year. Colorado’s most-ascended 14er is Elbert, which is both the state’s highest and among the easiest. It gets 25,000 to 30,000 hikers per year, according to new estimates produced by the Colorado Fourteener Initiative.

Raising cash for energy retrofits of bad housing

MT. CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — Mt. Crested Butte is planning to throw in $5,000 next year toward an energy efficiency assistance program. Energy Smart Colorado has pledged $35,000. Other entities in the Crested Butte-Gunnison area have also made pledges.

The goal is to assess 150 homes per year and retrofit up to 75 of them. A recent housing needs assessment survey identified 1,700 homes in Gunnison County as substandard, reports the Crested Butte News.

Two resort counties take different views of new tax

GUNNISON, Colo. — Two resort counties in Colorado are taking different approaches to raising money for affordable housing.

Gunnison County Commissioners have said they will not support asking voters to approve increased property taxes to raise $900,000 a year.

“This feels like a Band-Aid on a neck wound,” said Commissioner John Messner in a story reported by the Crested Butte News. “Why not take a step back and develop a comprehensive, well-supported ballot initiative and develop a funding source that voters can approve that will solve the problem in perpetuity.”

The response to that, from Jennifer Kermode, executive director of the regional housing authority, is that this money would get Gunnison County qualifying money for grant applications. Plus, there’s an escalating demand now.

Several hundred miles to the north, Routt County commissioners meeting in Steamboat Springs have drawn a completely different conclusion. An almost identical proposal there would raise $850,000 a year during the next decade from an increased property tax. Unlike Gunnison County, though, the tax would only be assessed in Steamboat Springs and adjoining areas.

The proposal was motivated by findings of a report last December that 700 new housing units of diverse types are needed to close the existing gap between supply and demand. The Yampa Valley Housing Authority narrowed that gap in a small way last spring with the completion of 48 income-restricted rental apartments.

One county commissioner opposed the ballot initiative, fearing that a risk of defeat in November will be greater than the gain. “I don’t think we have the time to have the outreach to get out the vote,” said Dillon Fulcher, according to an account in Steamboat Today.

But the attorney for the housing authority, Bob Weiss, pointed to many property tax increases approved by voters over the years for such diverse purposes as conserving ranch lands and building a new library. “All passed on the first try,” he said, but cautioned that a “concerted, energetic campaign” will be needed. “It’s politics, and it’s a lot of work.”

UnVail adds Deer Valley but what will be the end game?

PARK CITY, Utah — The new and still-unnamed ski industry consortium that might be called UnVail added Deer Valley to its stable last week.

From California’s Mammoth Mountain to Vermont’s Stratton, it has 13 ski areas under its tent. This includes 6 formerly owned by Intrawest. Vail Resorts has 16 across three countries.

Deer Valley will put the UnVail—a formal name has not been disclosed—cheek-and-jowl to Vail Resorts at the Park City Mountain Resort. What comes of this consolidation at Park City and elsewhere is unknown.

In Park City, local nerves seemed to be allayed by assurances that no major changes were planned. Bill Malone, the local Chamber director, told The Park Record that Deer Valley’s top-notch product is “probably a lot of what they were paying for, in addition to bricks and mortar. So I wouldn’t anticipate much change.”

Changes will come, though. Most speculation has focused on the ski pass and brand that UnVail will create to compete with the Epic Pass and brand created by Vail Resorts.

“Looming season-pass showdown among Colorado’s ski-industry heavyweights,” said the Denver Post in reporting the story.

UnVail is a consortium of the Crown family of Chicago, owners of the Aspen Skiing Co, and KSL Capital Partners. Jim Crown is the active member of the family in Aspen, although the business name is more formally called the family of Henry Crown.

The Crown family bought half of the Aspen Skiing Co. in 1985 and the rest in 1993. The family has diversified holdings, including a large chunk of military contractor General Dynamics and stakes in the New York Yankees and Chicago Bulls.

KSL was created in the early 1990s by Mike Shannon, who had been president of Vail Resorts, and his top lieutenant, Larry Lichliter, along with Wall Street figure Henry Kravis. It stayed out of the ski business, instead pursing golf and other resort properties, until relatively recently.

It is based in the Denver-Boulder metroplex, as is Vail Resorts.

The UnVail now has 10 ski hills altogether (counting Alpine and Squaw Valley as separate but joined-at-the-hip resorts). The effort is being led by David Perry, formerly No. 2 at the Aspen Skiing Co.

Vail Resorts has been driving changes, but most of the themes are relatively old. Discounted ski passes had existed for decades before Winter Park adopted the idea in the late 1990s. Under Adam Aron, Vail Resorts began discounting ski pass prices at its then four ski areas in Colorado.

Rob Katz, taking the corporate reins in2006, has expanded the chain and continued the

vertical integration begun by Aron. From the van you ride from the airport to the shop where you rent your boots, Vail is very likely to be your helping hand—and the recipient of your credit card. That includes property in Aspen.

Wall Street likes what Vail has done. In 1997, when it went public in ownership, the stock price has increased from $16 a share to $218 as of Monday.

Rick Kahl, editor of Ski Area Management, told The Denver Post that the winner in this new competition will be skiers and snowboarders. How UnVail plans to compete, however, remains in doubt. But he sees the season passes being the key.

The Epic Pass offers unlimited skiing at any Vail Resorts’ property. The Mountain Collective Pass put together by Aspen Skiing with a growing family of independent resorts offers two days at 16 top-flight ski hills.

“Whatever they come up with, I expect it will be fairly simple,” Kahl said. The answer, he added, will be forthcoming probably in late February or early March, when UnVail rolls out its season passes for the 2018-2019 season.

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