Turning highway’s lemon into tourism lemonade
October 1, 2016
BAKER, Nev. – U.S. Highway 50 passes the Monarch ski area and comes within 30 miles of Crested Butte in Colorado. Arriving at Lake Tahoe, it passes by Heavenly and Sierra-at-Tahoe, plus Kirkwood and other ski areas nearby.
That leaves most of the intermountain West to cross, though. Especially in western Utah and Nevada, it can be a lonely, if enchanting travel across big, dry and sparsely populated valleys. A few decades ago, it could be an hour or more between cars or trucks driving through Eureka, Austin and other old mining towns bisected by the highway.
Now, the two-lane highway can sometimes be almost busy. The Las Vegas Journal-Review traces the new busyness to a photo published in Life Magazine 30 years ago. An accompanying caption contained a warning from a spokesman from the American Automobile Association: "We don't recommend it. We warn all motorists not to drive there unless they're confident of their survival skills."
That warning angered the few merchants along the highway, who demanded that the magazine recant the heresy. But then tourism boosters in Nevada had a better idea: an official passport.
"Now, summertime brings streams of tourists, whose stamped Highway 50 passports can earn them a certificate that proclaims, 'I survived America's loneliest road,'" explains the Review-Journal.
Sunset Magazine and Newsweek in recent years have also devoted stories to the "loneliest road in America," which may help explain its busyness of late. Also, in the 1980s, a new national park was designated near the Nevada-Utah border. Great Basin National Park's Wheeler Peak is, at 13,156 feet, the highest point in Nevada.
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A big, big snow year or just something average?
ASPEN, Colo. – Aspen Weather meteorologist Cory Gates is predicting an upcoming winter like that of 1983-84. If you were in Colorado ski country then, you remember that winter well.
Gates, who has run a subscription-based daily forecast for the last five years, told a crowd in Aspen last week that he believes a weak La Niña and warmer temperatures in the north Pacific caused by a Pacific Decadal Oscillation will produce snowfall 10 to 20 percent above average for Aspen.
Predictions by Gates last year for the four ski areas in and around Aspen were very, very close to what happened, the Aspen Daily News reports.
But the Aspen Times reports that other meteorologists aren't nearly as bullish on a big snow year for Aspen. The newspaper cites meteorologist Chris Tomer of On the Snow, who sees "near-normal" snowfall for ski areas along the I-70 corridor in Colorado. Joe Ramey of the National Weather Service sees no preferred storm track.
But what if Gates is right about a big winter? It wasn't so much winter as a wet, snowy spring in 1984 that was the big story. It caught hydrologists in the Colorado River flat-footed. When temperatures finally warmed in June, surging floodwaters rapidly filled Lake Powell and nearly tore out Glen Canyon Dam.
Ho-hum election seen from Crested Butte eyes
CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – Like nearly all ski towns, Crested Butte veers left when it comes to national politics. In decades past, it has been willing to wear its politics on its sleeves. When David Duke, a national leader of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1980s, vacationed in Crested Butte, he was shunned by the locals.
But if the comments of Crested Butte News editor Mark Reaman are any guide to contemporary local sensibilities, this year's presidential election has inspired very little enthusiasm. "There is a real fear that Donald (Trump) may literally blow up the world if elected and Hillary (Clinton) may sloppily focus on blowing up her bank account," he writes. "Neither candidate option brings great joy for a great many people."
Durango evaluating trail ban of e-bikes
DURANGO, Colo. – Durango city officials are grappling with what to do with electric bikes. The electric bike riders don't want to ride on the grumbling highway of sharp-edged metal moving through Durango from north to south.
"In traffic, with semis, I don't feel safe," said Corey Sue Hutchinson. The Durango Herald also reports that some bike riders say they need the electronic assist because of disabilities. Mary Handrick says she has almost as much metal in her body as in her bike. "A lot of us need those bikes."
But pedestrians who use the paved trail along the Animas River have the same concern about bicycle riders. "There is a real fear factor, too, for the pedestrian," said Chris Paulson.
The city council has prohibited e-bikes from the trail, but is revisiting the ban.
Green Party official makes case for coal-fired plant
TELLURIDE, Colo. – An avowed environmentalist is making the case for a coal-fired power plant. The enviro is San Miguel County Commissioner Art Goodtimes, the only member of the Green Party in elected office in Colorado. The power plant is at Nucla, which is near his home about an hour west of Telluride.
The plant is owned by Tri-State Generation and Transmission, which delivers electricity to 43 electrical cooperatives in the Rocky Mountain states, including some of the ski towns. WildEarth Guardians, an environmental group, had sued, arguing that Tri-State's coal plants were violating federal air quality standards for regional haze.
In the negotiations that followed, Tri-State agreed to close the Nucla Station plant by 2022, causing the loss of 83 jobs at the plant and the adjoining coal mine. The local towns of Nucla, Naturita and Norwood have been relatively poor since the end of the uranium boom in the 1960s. These jobs pay far better than most.
Goodtimes has represented those towns at the county courthouse in Telluride for several decades. At a recent meeting covered by the Telluride Daily Planet, Goodtimes made the case for his constituents. The closing was more about economics than about haze, he said.
"Closing a plant that is going to have minimal, if any, effect on haze for any of our national parks, that does not make any sense. It sounds really bad. You made a decision that seems to me to be based on your economics, not upon your responsibility for air quality."
Sarah Carlisle, a Tri-State representative, agreed that economics had affected the plan. Cheap natural gas has undercut coal, she said. The coal plant at Nucla had operated a third of the year. She agreed with Goodtimes that the plant is among the cleanest of the plants operated by Tri-State.
In a follow-up interview with Mountain Town News, Goodtimes explained that the plant, with among the fewest emissions in Tri-State's fleet of coal plants, will have less beneficial impact on air quality than shutting down other plants. WildEarth Guardians, he charged, was "snookered" in agreeing to the plant's shutdown. "It looks good on paper, but I don't think it appears to have a whole lot of impact on haze," he said.
Goodtimes calls for a calculated approach to easing out of coal. Instead of enviros cheering the loss of the plant and locals being upset, he said, there needs to be a deliberate, bottoms-up approach.
"I am not a big fan of just big-government bailouts," he said. "We need selective empowerment of local people to find a new direction."
A lament about 'cult of wolf worshipers'
JACKSON, Wyo. –The debate goes on about the role of charismatic megafauna in ecosystems of the Rocky Mountains. Penning a letter in the Jackson Hole News&Guide, local resident Ila Rogers objects to the "cult of wolf worshipers."
"The worshipers like to quote the experts who said we needed wolves, but they disregard those same experts when they said the numbers needed monitoring," Rogers writes.
He suggests a link between the increase in wolves and declining ungulates in Yellowstone National Park. "I have not seen a moose in Yellowstone in years, nor do I see the herds of elk that roamed the Lamar Valley."
He said he doesn't hate wolves, but says that "refusing to allow management is like living in Disneyland."
5,000 grizzlies ID'd from Banff to Yellowstone
WHITEFISH, Mont. – Earlier this year, grizzly bears were discovered to have returned to the Big Hole River Valley of Montana after a century-long absence.
The discovery, says the Whitefish Pilot, illustrates just how far DNA analysis of bears has come in the past 25 years.
Tracking of grizzly bears through DNA analysis of hair follicles started in the 1990s in British Columbia. It was continued with a study that gathered about 34,000 hair samples and ultimately identified 545 individual grizzlies. That study looked at both natural bear rubs — where bears rub on trees or in some cases, fence posts — and in hair traps, where bears were enticed into barbed wire "traps" to a lure station. When the bear went to smell the lure, they would leave hair on a four-barbed wire fence.
After years of research both in the U.S. and Canada, the database of individual bears in various ecosystems from Banff National Park to Yellowstone National Park numbers about 5,000, according to David Paetkau, president of Wildlife Genetics International.
Backcountry loses favor in Jasper National Park
JASPER, Alberta – The backcountry trail system in Jasper National Forest created in the 1980s and early 1990s is becoming neglected. The Jasper Fitzhugh reports that trail crews built more than 900 bridges over a 15-year period thanks to a healthy budget and a high priority given by Parks Canada to make the Jasper backcountry more accessible.
That was then, funds have been slashed, and bridges swept away in floods are not being replaced.
"The 1970s was the backpacking era," explains Brian Patton, co-author of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide.
"All of a sudden, Parks Canada took no interest in the far backcountry because Jasper didn't have the same sort of day-hiking opportunities that Banff and Yoho had, so it became the backpackers' park."
On his website, Patton keeps a list of decommissioned trails in Jasper. He blames the deterioration on shifted priorities. Parks Canada now wants to do the things that are popular with the mass of tourists. He points in particular to a proposal to build a paved trail from Jasper, the town, to the Columbia Icefields.
One idea pitched to Parks Canada is to make greater use of volunteer labor. One such group, Jasper Trails Alliance, is accredited to clear trails in any of the mountain national parks.
Grim pictures and glad tidings from climate front
DENVER, Colo. – Joe Romm brimmed with both grim predictions and glad tidings when he was in Colorado recently. Reviewing his pronouncements, listeners were left to wonder whether Floridians displaced by rising seas might soon be fleeing to mountain states of the West.
Romm is a physicist, with a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who lived in the Aspen area in the early 1990s. Following a stint as an undersecretary in the Department of Energy, he has been writing the influential ClimateProgress blog since 2006.
Speaking in Denver recently, Romm painted grim pictures and trumpeted giant strides in the energy transition. The changing climate poses the "greatest existential threat to the American way of life, to you," he said. "The fact that we are not talking about it every day is a great moral failure of every leader in the country."
Ocean-front property in Florida? Not a good investment, he suggested. "The only reason people can afford to live near the coast is $1.2 trillion in flood insurance courtesy of all of the taxpayers." The next hurricane will require another bailout — but, he added, "I don't know how many bailouts there will be, but we will eventually pull the plug."
A 30-year mortgage on a sea-side home in Florida will be impossible to get in about a decade, he said.
In the American Southwest, desertification will continue as drought such as experienced during the Dust Bowl will become permanent.
This will create new domestic immigrants fleeing rising seas and desertification. "No moral society would come anywhere near this," he said. "I think we will get desperate in 10 years. We are serious in this decade – finally."
From the worst of times, Romm pivoted quickly to the best of times. Renewable energy, he said, has arrived on the simple premise of cheaper cost.
But then it was back to the worst times. Avoiding catastrophic climate change in the next 10 to 25 years "will become the organizing principle for humanity," he said. "It will become the organizing principle for all great universities, all great institutions that are involved in any way, shape or form with energy, water, agriculture, because of what we face if we don't take action."
Sierra Nevada lake gives clues about future climate
LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Despite a near-average snowfall last winter, you can see evidence of the drought of the last five years when flying over the Sierra Nevada of California. On Saturday afternoon, the vegetation looked dry, and even from 20,000 feet you can see a reddish tinge of dry tree needles in forests near Yosemite National Park.
It could get worse, according to a new study led by a professor from the University of California Los Angeles. In the study, which was published last week in a scientific journal, Glen MacDonald finds that warming produced by accumulating greenhouse gases could extend drought-like conditions more or less indefinitely.
Extended drought has occurred before, but not as a result of human activities. The 12th century had a 60-year drought called the medieval climate analogy. It has been linked to decreased volcanic activity and increased sunspots – and La Niña in the Pacific Ocean.
A much drier period from 6,000 to 1,000 B.C. has been linked to a slight variation in Earth's orbit that increased the amount of solar energy received by the Northern Hemisphere in the summer months. California was warm and dry—and the Pacific Ocean again in a La Niña-like state, likely reducing precipitation.
These climate conditions of the past were sharply profiled in sediments taken from the bottom of a lake high in the Sierra Nevada. The team correlated the findings from Lake Kirman, located between Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Mountain, with other studies of California's climate history. But also, for the very first time, they cross-referenced the studies with histories of the Pacific Ocean's temperatures taken from marine sediment cores and other sources.
Here's the take-away: the dryness found in the Sierra Nevada mountains goes hand in hand with changes in the Pacific Ocean.
"Climate models today have a challenging time predicting what will happen with Pacific sea-surface temperatures in the face of climate change, and we hope that our research can improve that," MacDonald said in a press release issued by UCLA.
There's an even bigger take-away from the study. Drought-like conditions can last indefinitely as long as increased warming, or radiative forcing, is present. And greenhouse gases are currently expected to increase.
"In a century or so, we might see a retreat of forest lands and an expansion of sagebrush, grasslands, and deserts," MacDonald said. "We would expect temperatures to get higher, and rainfall and snowfall would decrease. Fire activity could increase, and lakes would get shallower, with some becoming marshy or drying up."
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