​Mountain Town News: A banner year for snowfall across the region | ParkRecord.com

​Mountain Town News: A banner year for snowfall across the region

Allen Best, author of Mountain Town News.
Courtesy of Allen Best

Records tumbled in winter of big snow, which lingers

SALT LAKE CITY – It snowed last winter in places where it didn’t the year before, making all the difference in the world.

Colorado’s San Juan Mountains were the very definition of parched last year. But the snowpack as of May 23 stood at 374% of average.

In Silverton, organizers of the Hardrock 100, an endurance race at an average elevation of 11,000 feet, were hedging their bets whether the event, which is scheduled for July 19-21, will be possible. Dale Garland, run director, told the Durango that he and others are “cautiously optimistic.”

The race was canceled in 1995, because of too much snow, and in 2002, because of too much smoke from the Missionary Ridge fire near Durango, about 30 miles south.

This year, the road to Animas Forks, a one-time mining hamlet at tree line, was covered as of last week with 100 feet of snow. Avalanches may have torn out other sections of backcountry trail.

Downstream on the Animas in New Mexico, organizers of a river festival told the Farmington Times that there might actually be too much water in the Animas River.

The Gunnison River drainage also had a huge amount of snow for late May, 334% of average for May 23. At Crested Butte, this meant no driving across Kebler Pass to Paonia or Aspen. “Typically we get it open by Memorial Day weekend,” Gunnison County commissioner Jonathan Houck told the Crested Butte News. “This was not a typical winter.”

Across the Elk Range at Aspen, economic records tumbled during the winter. December started slow, a hangover from last year’s drought, but then retail sales from January through March rose $15 million, a 5.9% increase from the previous year. March was a bonanza, with a total take of $ 95.8 million, a record, reported the Aspen Daily News, citing city tax auditor Anthony Lewin.

This was all about the skiing economy, of course. Occupancy for the ski season was 61.7%, according to Destrimetrics, the resort reservations tracking firm. Jeff Hanle, spokesman for the Aspen Skiing Co., said snow was the major story, although inauguration of Alterra Mountain Co.’s Ikon Pass did help push numbers higher, he said.

In Utah, the Ikon Pass may have had something to do with a record number of skiers, but Nathan Rafferty, who heads the state trade organization, pointed to a more certain suspect: snow.

“We have a saying in the ski industry: ‘It’s the snow, stupid,’ when we all sit around and think we’re the most brilliant marketers and have got it all figured out,” Rafferty said at a press conference covered by The Park Record.

Utah, through last week, had topped 5.1 million skier days, a record, and also a 24% increase over the prior, snow-short winter. In 2000-2001, just as the state was gearing up for the Olympics, it was below 3.3 million skier days.

New Eagle River Park adds to Eagle’s portfolio of amenities

EAGLE, Colo. – Eagle continues its transformation from a ranching center to that of an amenity-laden mountain town, this time with the addition of a river park.

Residents of the town of 7,000 people, which is a half-hour down-valley from Vail, approved a half-cent sales tax for four years, long enough to raise $5.8 million. The money was used to reconfigure the Eagle River with concrete blocks, the better to raise water levels and continue the boating season for kayakers and other rivers users.

Originally, points out Mayor Anne McKibbin, an archaeologist by profession, the river had meandered more leisurely. When Interstate 70 was constructed in the late 1970s, the river was pushed about 100 yards away from bluffs and toward the town, causing it to flow straighter and hence more rapidly.

Water parks have become the rage in Colorado in the 21st century. Vail was among the first, creating a kayak course through the middle of the town. Breckenridge, Glenwood Springs, and perhaps two-dozen others have followed.

In some instances, the new river parks reflect a new recognition of the value of the rivers, assets that were long ignored or at least relegated to industrial necessities, much like the water treatment and sewage treatment plants. In Eagle, the park takes the space that was long dedicated to parking by long-haul 18-wheel trucks.

In Steamboat Springs, an eponymously named street along the Yampa River was formerly occupied by businesses, such as the local electrical co-operative, that could be lots of places. Shops and restaurants catering to the tourist trade were a block away, along Lincoln Avenue.

Now, the river street is almost as lively as the main street. Several restaurants offer river-side dining.

You can still see rivers ignored. One striking case is at Durango. It has a lovely river-side park favored by boaters. But down-stream a mile, a giant big-box retail is built almost to the edge of the riparian area– with only the delivery doors fronting the lovely Animas River.

Eagle sees this river park as a central feature for future development. The town, says McKibbin, a river rafter herself, cannot dictate what the owner of the largely undeveloped property along the south bank of the river do. But if they chose to develop, the town sees multi-family housing overlooking the river.

Celebrating Eagle’s achievement was Jon Stavney, director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. Earlier in his career, he was a town trustee, mayor, and then town manager in Eagle during a time when Eagle was reimagining itself.

“A river is a placemaking and economic development opportunity,” he observed in an op-ed published in the Vail Daily.

In 2014, as Eagle began imagining the river park, he and other town leaders traveled to Salida, a high-desert town located in the shadow of 14,000-foot peaks which has had a river festival called FibArk since 1969. Some businesses have completely flipped their front doors away from F Street, the town’s main corridor, to the river and a new pedestrian corridor.

In Golden, where Clear Creek emerges from the foothills into metropolitan Denver, improvements “changed an overgrown stormwater chute into a vital pedestrian corridor that enhanced and activated adjacent properties and connected disparate parts of the city,” he wrote.

Steamboat bans plastic in response to student prods

STEAMBOAT SPRRINGS, Colo. – Steamboat Springs has joined eight other towns and cities in Colorado, in banning single-use disposable bags. The ban that takes effect Oct. 1 will be applicable to four large stores in Steamboat, those of more than 10,000 square feet in size.

The stores can provide paper bags at 20 cents a bag. Council members, reported Steamboat Today, agreed that that’s just enough to get people to start taking reusable bags.

The fees collected will be used to support a new waste-diversion outreach program, but some money will also be used to give out reusable bags for free. Some property management companies already do provide the bags in units. Stores can retain 5 cents of each bag fee for their own use.

The council’s action was pushed by high school students during the last year.

Vail students up to task of creating teen-friendly places

VAIL, Colo. – A virtual reality tour of summer in Vail for winter visitors has a prototype. As demonstrated to the town council members recently, users could mount a bicycle and, with aid of a laptop, get a virtual reality peek of riding on Vail Mountain’s trails in summer.

The Vail Daily explains that the idea was among many hatched by seventh- and eighth-grade students at Vail Mountain School. They were given the challenge in a class called Design Thinking to imagine more teen-friendly spaces in Vail.

Other ideas include Chess & Chill, a place where young people could do homework, buy soft drinks and snacks, but yes, practice their chess moves.

Two other students concluded that many teens visiting Vail wanted to do more than shop and eat. Ergo, the idea of a padded maze in which kids could bounce off each other.

Most of the ideas required space in a place where space comes at a premium. But the idea of the virtual reality preview seemed to have some wind at its back.

Ida got legislative traction, but will it help I-70 traffic?

SILVER PLUME, Colo. – Colorado has a new law that boosts the requirements of all cars and other vehicles driving on Interstate 70 during winter across the mountain barriers.

The old law said 1/8th inch tread depth was sufficient. The new law, which was signed by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis in the ceremonial bill-signing held at the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel recently, requires a minimum of 3/16th will be needed, along with all-wheel drive.

Legislators who proposed the law say it will improve safety and reduce traffic jams.

Traffic on I-70 has steadily increased, somewhat proportionate to the population of Colorado. This compounds the problems during winter storms, when cars lose traction and block traffic.

The Summit Daily News reports that some with a direct interest in Interstate 70 mobility question just how valuable the new law will be. “Enforcement could be an interesting issue,” said Colin Remillard, a spokesperson for the Colorado State Patrol. In other words, how do you tell somebody driving from, say, Florida of the law until they get into troiuble?

Owner of a rental car firm in Summit County blames car-rental companies in Denver. “I think it’s just an ongoing issue of people not knowing the area,” said Peter Griff, of Breckenridge Rental Car. “They don’t know the laws or how they work. They think they’re all set with that four-wheel drive car, even if they don’t have the right tires. I think the intention is in the right place, but it’s a matter of how enforceable that I is.”

With memories of stabbing, Whistler breathes sigh of relief

WHISTLER, B.C. – The weekend in Whistler went without much note. Some people drank too much, but it was not accompanied by the violence, vandalism, and public drunkenness that had marked the Victoria Day holiday in some years past.

Whistler knew things had gotten out of hand in 2015 when a 19-year-old was stabbed to death in a public area. Three of the man’s four assailants were juveniles.

It was part of a summer-time pattern, says Pique Newsmagazine editor Clare Ogilvie. “When my kids were small, I stayed out of the village at night on summer weekends. There were too many drunks, people smoking weed, spouting profanity and making poor choices played out publicly in front of family outings,” she writes.

In response to that stabbing, Whistler organized programming that Ogilvie describes as “part family, part-adventure-activity-fueled.” When it was first announced six years ago, many in Whistler thought it was a wishy-washy idea. They thought more Draconian measures were needed, including a refusal by lodges to accept underage vacationers or pricing that would preclude the younger crowd from visiting Whistler.

This compromise, she suggests, seems to be working, at least in the kick-off-to-summer weekend.

Will jail for pair who started wildfire help build a new house?

BASALT, Colo. – Last week two individuals pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges stemming from the wildfire they started last year when firing tracers rounds in violation of regulations at a shooting range.

The fire they started in a year of drought raced across 12,600 acres, destroyed three houses, and forced thousands of other residents to flee. The fire also very nearly caused portions of Aspen, 20 miles upvalley, as well as Snowmass, to lose power.

The plea agreement calls for the two individuals, a 24-year-old man and a 23-year-old woman, to be jailed for 45 days and to perform 1,500 hours of community service. Each was ordered to pay $100,000 in restitution. Formal sentencing is scheduled for July 1.

The Aspen Times asked Cleve Williams, a firefighter who lost his home in the blaze, what he might tell the judge at the sentencing. “I know they did wrong, but I don’t know what 45 days in jail will do,” Williams answered. Taxpayers, he added, will just be footing the bill. And assuming they can come up with the restitution, it will have to be shared and under the best of circumstances will not compensate him for his losses. “It was two years of my life that they’ve taken,” he said, explaining that he is now reconstructing a home.

Total firefighting costs exceeded $20 million. Pitkin County still working on how to cut energy use

ASPEN, Colo. – Pitkin County continues to wonder how it can reduce the energy consumed by its luxury homes. Last year, there were proposals to cap the size of new homes in the unincorporated areas around Aspen at 10,750 square feet, down from 15,000 square feet now.

Instead, reports the Aspen Daily News, an advisory group composed primarily of individuals associated with the real estate and development sector have proposed a “whole project budget.” The idea involves setting a threshold for energy consumption by both interior and exterior amenities such as ovens, snowmelt driveways, heated pools, and the like.

Builders, explains the Aspen Daily News, would be required to integrate renewable energy or energy savings systems into their projects. The goal would be a net-zero impact.

Is it possible? The Daily News cites the comments of County Commissioner George Newman, who cited studies that show that in homes over 7,500 square feet, energy use goes up exponentially.

Pitkin County downzoned in the 1970s, and it might be time now to downsize houses.

The commissioners, though, have made no decisions. Aspen is not part of the same debate, nor is Snowmass Village.

Another Colorado town goes to 100% renewables

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. – Glenwood Springs this week joined an elite group. A new contact with the city’s utility provider, the Municipal Energy of Nebraska, will allow the resort town of 10,000 people along the Colorado River to declare itself powered 100 percent by renewable sources, mostly wind generated on farms in Nebraska.

By the calculations of Glenwood Springs, there are now seven towns and cities in the United States that can make this claim of being 100 percent renewably powered.

Aspen Electric joined that elite club in 2015, when there were just three, and it established the pathway that Glenwood Springs is now using. Aspen has a variety of energy sources.

The Glenwood Springs Post Independent reported that the cost with renewables will actually drop, saving the city $500,000 per year. It had previously been powered 35 percent by renewables.

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