Mountain Town News: Why this 14,000-foot peak in Colorado is private |

Mountain Town News: Why this 14,000-foot peak in Colorado is private

A roundup of news from other ski resort communities

Allen Best
Mountain Town News

Why this 14,000-foot peak in Colorado is private

SAN LUIS, Colo. – It’s popular sport during high summer to climb the mountains in Colorado that are 14,000 feet (4,267 meters) and higher. Colorado has 54 to 58 of them, depending upon whether high points in connecting ridges are counted as distinct summits.

Some 3,000 to 4,000 people have climbed all of them, including Capitol Peak, near Aspen, where most people cross the Knife-Edge Ridge, a thousand feet of thin air on both sides, their crotches hugging the granite rock.

In the San Juan Mountains, the remoteness of a clutch of 14ers poses a different challenge. Most climbers take a steam train between Silverton and Durango to get close to the base.

Culebra Peak, the 41st highest in Colorado, is different in this fundamental way: It is located entirely on private land. All others are primarily on federal lands.

The peak is located just north of the Colorado-New Mexico border, a little more than an hour from Taos, New Mexico. Spain claimed the area until 1821, when Mexico gained independence. But Mexican control was only nominal in these northern-most lands. To establish influence, the governor in Santa Fe awarded six land grants between 1832 and 1843 to individuals who promised to settle and develop these outlying regions. Most are in what is now southern Colorado.

The principal figure in the Sangre de Cristo Grant — on which Culebra Peak is primarily located — was a French-Canadian fur trader from Quebec named Charles Beaubien who had settled in Taos and married a Mexican woman. But two years after the grant in 1844, the United States invaded Mexico, wresting control of California and the desert southwest. In the peace treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848, the U.S. agreed to honor the land grants and, just before the Civil War, Congress mostly agreed, too.

That’s why the 14,053-foot Culebra Peak — Culebra is the Spanish word for serpent — is on private land. There are different ranches on the east and west sides.

Access to Culebra has been more common on the western or San Luis Valley side of the range. A lumberman from North Carolina named Taylor bought the west side of the Sangre de Cristo Range in 1960 and blocked access to locals and others. The matter was not resolved until 2002, when the Colorado Supreme Court restored access to about 500 local residents for logging and grazing, but not for fishing and hunting.

Value of the land has escalated rapidly. Enron Executive Lou Pai bought it in 1999 for $23 million. Five years later,he sold it for $60 million. Those owners, a trio from Texas, renamed it the Cielo Vista Ranch (Spanish for view of heaven) and are now ready to sell. They want $105 million.

That’s about $1,260 an acre. In comparison, hedge fund manager Louis Bacon in 2007 bought the nearby Trinchera Ranch for $175 million, or $1,000 per acre. (Bacon has also purchased the Taos Ski Valley and has been plowing money into a refurbishing of that ski area.)

Peak-baggers can climb Culebra — but at a cost, currently set at $150. Climbing windows are limited: Fridays and Saturdays from mid-June through August. The maximum climbers per day is 25.

That means far fewer than 1,000 people climb Culebra each year. Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s highest at 14,400 feet, gets the most visitors, about 25,000 a season, according to a trail counter set up in 2015 by the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. Nine other peaks, nearly all located relatively close to Denver, had more than 15,000 climbers.

The Fourteeners Initiative was founded in 1994 to preserve the natural integrity of the high mountains. At times, this has meant removing the threat of private ownership from the 14ers. Late last year, the Fourteeners Initiative paid $50,000 for three mining parcels that included the summit of Mt. Shavano, near Salida. Many others have also had mining claims.

Lloyd Athearn, executive director of the Fourteeners Initiative, sees ecological value in more limited access. The private property that encompasses Culebra can be more easily managed for wildlife habitat and diversity than public lands, he says. And the tract of land — 83,368 acres, pared down from one million acres in the original Mexican land grant — is still larger than some national parks, he points out.

The ranch is about the same size as Utah’s Arches National Park and, in addition to Culebra, has 18 peaks that are 13,000 feet and above. Mirr Ranch Group, the Denver-based real estate company with the listing, also reported there are bighorn sheep and thousands of elk on the property.

“So nature has prevailed in some ways more than in our wilderness areas, which we think are the most pristine and undistributed land holdings in the lower 48,” Athearn said.

In their own way, these sprawling, high-mountain ranches of southern Colorado, the legacy of the Mexican land grants created to thwart American manifest destiny, are national parks, too.

Sales unrivaled since the first half of 2008

VAIL, Colo. — Boosted by the $145 million sale of the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek, total real estate sales in Eagle County surpassed $1 billion in the first half of 2017. That level of sales has not been breached since the first half of 2008, noted the Vail Daily.

In September 2008, sales dramatically plunged amid an economic meltdown that had the two presidential candidates — Barack Obama and John McCain — suspending their campaigns to scurry to Washington, D.C.

In California, home sales around Lake Tahoe exceeded $500 million in the first six months of the year. The Tahoe Daily News made no comparisons of this year’s sales figures to those of the pre-Recession period.

Facebook founder gets Glacier’s climate story

WHITEFISH, Mont.— Facebook founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg toured Glacier National Park in July, but he did not meet with the park superintendent, Jeff Mow, nor Daniel Fagre, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Fagre has made a name for himself as a climate change and glacier scientist.

The original plan was for the two to accompany Zuckerberg. Officials in Washington, D.C., however, decided it was better to assign rank-and-file park rangers, reported the Hungry Horse News.

A spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke — who is from nearby Whitefish — denied that Mow and Fagre were pulled from the tour because of the climate change debate. The move was motivated by an effort to spend tax dollars responsibly, said Heather Swift, the spokeswoman.

Zuckerberg seems to have got the key message just fine without the top-level guidance. “In a couple of decades, there may not be any glaciers left in the park at all,” he wrote. That comment was —where else? — on his Facebook page.

Meanwhile, the Outdoor Retailer has had its last trade show in Salt Lake City. It will move to Denver next year. Organizers made the move after Utah politicians, who are uniformly Republican, tried to block designation of the Bears Ears National Monument and otherwise pushed for state take-over of federal lands within the state.

Among those speaking at the conference was Sally Jewell, Zinke’s predecessor as Interior secretary. According to an AP account, Jewell blasted President Donald Trump’s review of the designation of two dozen national monuments, accusing him of “treating the monuments like they are contestants on a game show.”

She was chief executive at outdoor retailer REI before serving four years as Interior chief under President Barack Obama.

Aspen tries to get handle on water needs in 2065

ASPEN, Colo. — Aspen continues to evaluate how much water the city will need 50 years from now, a time when accumulating greenhouse gas emissions will likely have more clearly changed the climate.

Aspen Journalism several months ago reported that city officials have maintained water rights for small dams on Castle and Maroon Creeks for about 50 years. If built, the dams could back up water into the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area.

Why would the city want to do that? One scenario is increased demand, such as caused by population growth. Aspen continues to grow, if far more slowly than during the 1960s, when the plan was conceived.

Climate change also poses great uncertainty. To what extent will rising temperatures cause earlier runoff and longer, hotter summers — and hence more need for stored water? About 60 percent of Aspen’s municipal water use goes to outdoor use, such as for lawns and also a golf course.

Aspen Journalism reported that economist George Oamek of Headwaters Corp. finds a range of risks. Much depends upon whether demand increases but also how much the climate warms. But in all cases, it appears Aspen will be hard-pressed to leave enough water in the two creeks to meet targeted instream environmental flows while also meeting all municipal water demands.

Storage needs also depend upon whether the city is willing to let its golf course dry up in the case of a deep, extended drought.

City officials have continued to maintain that some form of increased storage will be needed. Stepping back from their original idea, they are now pursuing the idea of new reservoirs along Woody Creek, well away from wilderness boundaries.

Can summer revive the first Steamboat ski area?

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — Elected officials in Steamboat Springs this week were scheduled to hear a vision for how to boost summer use of the city’s original ski area, Howelsen Hill.

Howelsen is located across the Yampa River and a few blocks from the downtown shopping district along Lincoln Avenue. The larger and relatively newer ski area is located several miles away.

The smaller ski area has been operating in the red. Now comes a plan to boost summer revenues as the result of investments of around $7.5 million. They include: ziplines, a tubing hill and a 200-seat restaurant with an outdoor deck. Also, a new chairlift to give mountain bikers easier access to Emerald Mountain, on which Howelsen is located.

Snow King, the private ski area in Jackson, Wyoming, compares with Howelsen Hill in almost every other way. It has also set out to reinvent itself by expanding summer attractions.

Steamboat Today reported municipal officials continue to evaluate turning over operation of Howelsen to the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., operator of the bigger ski area. That larger ski area has now been formally purchased from Intrawest by a new partnership of the Aspen Skiing Co. and KSL Capital Partners. Consummation of the sale was announced Monday.

Howelsen Hill is the oldest continuously operating ski area in Colorado. Olympic ski jumper Carl Howelsen, a Norwegian immigrant, founded the ski area in 1914, building several jumps. Dozens of Olympians have followed him up that hill. Uphill transportation began in 1931. The larger ski area began operations in 1961.

Might Aspen be eyeing purchase of Sun Valley?

ASPEN, Colo. – The new ski industry team of KSL Capital Partners and Aspen Skiing Co. has now consummated purchases of 10 mountain resorts, including six properties previously owned by Intrawest and four in southern California.

In Colorado, the Intrawest holdings include Steamboat and the long-term contract to manage Winter Park, which is formally owned by the City of Denver. The sale also includes Mont Tremblant in Quebec and Stratton Mountain in Vermont, among others. The $1.5 billion purchase included debt obligations.

The announcement was expected, but what maybe was a surprise was that two other Tahoe ski areas, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows are now part of the new partnership. They were previously owned by KSL. The Aspen Skiing Co.’s four ski areas at Aspen, however, will not be included in the new partnership.

Will Aspen Skiing Co. buy more ski areas? One rumor in Aspen has held that the company wants Sun Valley. The company built a 99-room hotel in Ketchum that opened in December. An Aspen hotelier told the Times that the only way the $70 million investment made sense was if Aspen also ran the ski area there.

The Aspen Skiing Co.’s Mike Kaplan laughed off the rumor, and told the Times that no purchase is being pursued. “That rumor has been out there for a long time,” he said.

Eleven of the 14 condos at the Limelight in Ketchum have sold for anywhere from $1.5 million to $3.9 million. That writes down the capital investment. A professor of real estate at the University of Denver said that if Aspen Skiing has finance-free cash flow, other investments might make sense.

Sun Valley was purchased in 1977 by Earl Holding, who died in 2013. His surviving family retains ownership. Holding made his fortune in oil in Wyoming and in real estate. The Aspen Skiing Co. has been owned for several decades by the Crown family, which made a fortune in Chicago’s 20th century industrial grime.

Another power line or maybe energy storage?

KETCHUM, Idaho – All the ski lifts, tooth brushes and iPods in Ketchum and Sun Valley get their electricity from the outside world via one high-voltage transmission line. Idaho Power, the local utility, has been pressing since 1995 for a second transmission line, to provide redundancy.

The transmission line would cost $30 million to $45 million. But the city government in Ketchum and local environmentalists have been pushing back. They argue instead for expanded local energy production and storage, what is called a microgrid.

Such microgrids are not unheard of. The U.S. Army has been building microgrids at its military posts, trying to become less reliant on outside power sources. In California, a city of 3,000 customers is served by just a single transmission line owned by San Diego Gas & Electric. Borrego Springs also has a 26-megawatt solar project, diesel generators and battery storage.

That is the sort of thing that Ketchum and Sun Valley should be looking at, said Aimee Christensen, an environmental advocate who works in the energy field.

“If we’re going to bring in $30 million in here, let’s really look at reliability,” Christensen told the Idaho Mountain Express. “The closer your source is, the more reliable it’s going to be.”

How realistic is a microgrid in Ketchum? Idaho Power paints a picture of costs up to $924 million to achieve one. Solar farms take a lot of land and, in winter, when Ketchum and Sun Valley have peak demands, the sun can be a distant cousin. That leaves the community vulnerable to lengthy outages if that transmission line gets severed.

But a renewable energy researcher at the Idaho National Laboratory presents a less daunting scenario. Prices for solar have been tumbling, and now battery storage prices have dropped to $550 to $600 per kilowatt-hour, Kurt Myers said. At $350 to $400, solar plus storage becomes competitive with natural gas plants used to produce power to meet peak demands.

From Vermont, the New York Times on Sunday reported that Green Mountain Power, an electric company, has launched a “bold experiment aimed at turning homes, neighborhoods and towns into virtual power plants, able to reduce the amount of energy they draw from the central electric system.”

Habitat for Humanity aims for zero-waste

JACKSON, Wyo.— The concept of zero waste is being pursued in a Habitat for Humanity construction site in Jackson Hole.

That goal jibes nicely with the policy adopted by Teton County in 2014. The county manages to divert 37 to 38 percent of its waste now, but an initiative called “Road to Zero Waste” sets a goal of 60 percent waste diversion by 2030.

The construction and demolition sector is responsible for a third of all municipal waste, noted the Jackson Hole News&Guide.

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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