Mountain Town News: Water returning to health 25 years after mining ended |

Mountain Town News: Water returning to health 25 years after mining ended

A roundup of news from other ski resort communities

Allen Best
Mountain Town News

Dark skies group takes case for Milky Way to valley ranches

WESTCLIFFE, Colo. — Custer County veers libertarian in its politics, reliably voting Republican and, in a general way, shunning regulation.

But in outdoor lighting restrictions, regulation is acceptable. Two of the county’s three small towns — located in the Wet Mountain Valley about three hours southwest of Denver — have ordinances that sharply limit light pollution and light trespass. That work has made the towns a destination for people who want specifically to see a sky of glittering stars and something increasingly unattainable in urban areas: a view of the Milky Way.

Now, dark sky proponents are seeking similar regulations to govern unincorporated areas. Already, some of the familiar arguments have been raised. At a recent meeting of county commissioners covered by the Wet Mountain Tribune, one rancher said he needed the light in his yard to serve as a beacon when it was snowing.

Jim Bradburn, the president of Dark Skies of the Wet Mountain Valley, a nonprofit, said he thinks he and other advocates will prevail over coming months. Despite the objections of government interference in private affairs, he said, there are just too many winners in this case.

The local tourist industry gains with its expanded claim for dark skies, he said. Ranchers will get more lumens on the ground, where they are useful, and not in the sky. And the local electrical cooperative, San Isabel Electric, can get more efficient use of its product.

You have to want to go to the Wet Mountain Valley to get there. It’s an hour from an interstate highway. The low-rising Wet Mountains define the valley’s eastern flanks, and to the west, the Sangre de Cristo Range rises sharply to 14,000 feet and above.

Westcliffe, the county seat, and Silver Cliff sit cheek by jowl, together boasting 1,200 residents. Outlying are ranch lands. If the valley were closer to a city or a major highway, it probably would have been subdivided long ago.

But ranchers themselves in the 1970s chose to make subdividing into ranchettes just a little harder than elsewhere in Colorado. The minimum size is 80 acres on the valley floor — more than double what is allowed in most of rural Colorado — and 50 acres in the more wooded Wet Mountains. It was an agricultural valley that remains agricultural. The result is that lights don’t dominate the landscape, blotting out the stars.

“It’s pretty amazing when you see it for the first time,” Bradburn said of the night sky. “When people come here, they are just flabbergasted by the Milky Way.”

Bradburn’s organization first took aim first at the two towns. It took about seven years from the start when, he said, the common reaction was: “Don’t’ tell me what to do.”

Instead of arguing the impact to neighbors who wanted to see the dark sky, he made an economic argument: Do this, and we can get designated as a dark sky community — which will lead to more tourists.

“Which is exactly what has happened,” he said.

Motel and bed-and-breakfast operators have plentiful anecdotal evidence from customers that they came to see at night what they can’t at home.

The dark sky business has been helped by a host of national and regional reports. Westcliffe and Silver Cliff were in the New York Times and USA Today as well as CNN and NBC, among many others.

Smoothing the way in the two towns was an offer by Dark Skies Inc. to help pay for the switching out of offending lights that pointed skyward. Contributions augmented by a 10 percent match from a community fund have yielded $23,000 in the last two years. The money is used to defray implementation costs such as a light fixture on a school that was replaced with a hooded fixture to spread the light to the ground.

One of Bradburn’s arguments seeks to leverage the support of San Isabel Electric, the electrical provider, which actually owns the lights on the ranches. If lower-energy LED lights can be installed and the light deployed effectively to the ground, not the sky, less power will be needed. That means the electrical cooperative can serve more customers (technically co-op members) with the same amount of electricity. That means it spends less on upgrading infrastructure to handle a larger volume of electricity.

This would produce more profit to the electrical co-op and its members, including the ranchers, more useful light for the ranchers, and less light pollution to sully the dark sky, he says.

Perry sees new job partly instilling Aspen’s culture

ASPEN, Colo. — The Aspen Skiing Co. and KSL Capital Partners have linked arms to do battle with Vail Resorts. It’s an open question just how comfortable they will be in this new arrangement.

In April, they jointly announced plans to purchase six of Intrawest’s ski areas in North America plus Banff-based Canadian Mountain Holidays, a helicopter skiing operation. In a separate deal expected to close in August, they have also purchased Mammoth and three other ski areas in southern California. Neither deal has yet closed.

A key individual in bridging the corporate cultures of the Aspen Skiing Co. and KSL Capital Partners will be David Perry. He announced last week he had left Aspen Skiing, where he had worked since 2002, most recently as chief operating officer, to consult for the new joint venture of Aspen and KSL.

Aspen Skiing will continue to operate its four Aspen-area ski areas separately from the new partnership.

In an interview with the Aspen Daily News, Perry said he will work on the “integration of the new ski company,” focusing on the California ski areas. In addition to the four new ski areas located within several hours of Los Angeles being acquired, KSL Capital Partners already owns Squaw Valley and Alpine Mountain. They are now operated as one ski area.

Part of his job, Perry told the Daily News, will be “expanding and trying to bring the Aspen Skiing Co. way of doing business to this new company.” The Daily News says that company executives at Aspen see their company being rooted in environmental- and community-minded values.

Perry had been vice president of marketing and sales for Whistler Blackcomb before moving to Denver at the century’s turn to direct Colorado Ski Country USA for two years.

Water returning to health 25 years after mining ended

ANTONITO, Colo. — Life has been returning to a reservoir near a mining disaster in the San Juan Mountains north of the Colorado-New Mexico border.

Gold in the Summitville area had been mined beginning in the 1980s. But a Canadian company employed cyanide to extract gold from 1986 into 1991. It abandoned the site in late 1991, leading to a Superfund cleanup.

The Alamosa Valley Courier explained that mining processes, waste disposal practices and discharge of large amounts of copper and other heavy metals killed fish and other life in the Alamosa River and the associated Terrace Reservoir.

Now the waters are becoming healthy enough for fish, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife is proposing to build a boat ramp. Fish survival has been established through tests using stocked rainbow trout.

Beer flying and foaming down Wolf Creek Pass

PAGOSA SPRINGS, Colo. — Steep mountain passes can catch truck drivers napping, especially those from the flatlands. The Durango Herald tells of a truck bearing beer and energy drinks that upended while descending Wolf Creek Pass, in southern Colorado.

A campaign called “Beware the Wolf” tries to alert truckers of the steep grades as they crest the Continental Divide and start heading down toward Pagosa Springs. The trick is to stay in low gear, to prevent the truck from picking up too much speed. But the 25-year-old trucker from Missouri thought he could tap his brakes and slow the truck. Wrong.

The trucker took the last of two emergency exit ramps before the highway takes a pair of hairpin turns. As he did, 41,100 pounds of beer foamed off his trailer.

Montana’s ski areas take 2,100 miles of pedaling

WHITEFISH, Mont. — Tim Hinderman knows something about major human-powered trips. In 2014, he completed a 2,700-mile endurance biking trip along the Continental Divide from Mexico to Banff, Alberta.

Recently, he hopped on a bike again, this time to visit all 15 ski areas in Montana in just under a month. That will have him pedaling 2,100 miles. He’ll be passing the hat for contributions to the Flathead Valley Ski Education Foundation, which he directs.

Actor Bruce Willis back to plans for an airport

HAILEY, Idaho — The actor Bruce Willis is in the news in Idaho, where a document has been submitted that calls for expansion of a limited-service airport near his ski area, Soldier Mountain. The ski area is located 65 miles from Sun Valley. The Idaho Mountain Express reported continued staunch opposition to the airport from some nearby residents near the community of Fairfield.

Parsing the arguments for a rainbow crosswalk

JASPER, Alberta — Jasper’s municipal council voted 3-2 against installing a rainbow-colored crosswalk in Jasper. At least one member of a group called OUT Jasper was reduced to tears after spending months raising more than $5,000 to install the crosswalk, a symbol of the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender community.

One council member cited procedural problems, but otherwise supported the rainbow crosswalk. But another member of the council said he objected to what he calls identity politics.

“I just think when you define people on one or two aspects of their identities, for me, it’s the exact opposite of inclusivity because you’re narrowly defining a person by a very small part of their identity,” council member Gilbert Wall said.

But another councilor, Brian Nesbitt, said until there is true social equality, “I think we need things like the rainbow crosswalk.”

Revelstoke not immune to big, dangerous fires

REVELSTOKE, B.C. — With so much of British Columbia aflame this summer, the question is being asked in Revelstoke: Could we have fires like that here, too?

The answer, reported the Revelstoke Times-Review after consulting experts is: Yes. And the question is not if, but rather when.

The Revelstoke Community Wildfire Protection Plan makes a similar statement in a section looking at historic wildfires.

“Even in Revelstoke’s relatively wet climate, during extreme fire seasons, when high winds occur, there is a significant risk that wildfires in this area can become uncontrollable and threaten property and lives,” the authors wrote.

Most of the community, however, is surrounded by natural and man-made fuel breaks.

Still, memories in Canada and elsewhere linger of last year’s fire at Fort McMurray, the hub for extraction of the oil/tar sands.

Allen Best has edited mountain town newspapers for 20 years. He has served as managing editor at four different mountain town newspapers and is now living in metropolitan Denver. Visit for more information.

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