Mountain Town News: Rolling coal on protesters, Aspen debates climate change and Banff aims for zero vacancy |

Mountain Town News: Rolling coal on protesters, Aspen debates climate change and Banff aims for zero vacancy

Conspicuous air pollution smokes up gun protesters

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. – When students and others marched in Steamboat Springs in the wake of the latest mass shooting in Florida, several passing pickup trucks spewed out dense, heavy exhaust.

The diesel-burning pickups had been retrofitted to allow what is called “rolling coal.” Wikipedia describe it as a form of conspicuous air pollution.

The New York Times in a 2016 story written from Montrose, Colorado, a farming town about halfway between Crested Butte and Telluride, put it this way: “Depending on whom you ask, rolling coal is a juvenile prank, a health hazard, a stand against rampant environmentalism, or a brazen show of American freedom. Coal rollers’ frequent targets: walkers, joggers, cyclists, hybrid and Asian cars and even police officers. A popular bumper sticker reads ‘Prius Repellent.’”

The Times went on to explain that “rolling coal has origins in truck pulls, in which pickups compete to pull a heavy sled the farthest. Drivers modify their tucks to pump excessive fuel into the engines, increasing horsepower and torque. Stripped of emission controls, the trucks also bellow thick, black smoke.”

Drivers spend anywhere from $200 to $5,000 to bypass emissions controls so that they can belch the black smoke.

Colorado last year outlawed the practice. Rep. Dan Coran, a Republican from Montrose, was one sponsor, and Rep. Joann Ginal, a Democrat from the university town of Fort Collins, was another.

But passing a law is one thing, enforcing it is another. Steamboat Today reports that police found two of the three drivers. One was a high school student and the second a 20-year-old. Each was fined $100. Unlike speeding, Colorado’s law does not take points off an offender’s driver’s license.

Ginal told Steamboat Today that the original bill was stripped of its teeth. She told the newspaper she views it as an “infringement of the First Amendment and the freedom of speech. It’s really harassment, and to me, a form of bullying.”

Ski industry puts big bucksinto British Columbia resorts

KAMLOOPS, B.C. – Canada’s second largest ski area, Sun Peaks, recently revealed plans for $60 million in capital improvements. It is, says Pique Newsmagazine, emblematic of what is happening in the ski industry in British Columbia.

“Capital investments don’t happen overnight, so a lot of ski areas have actually been rebuilding since 2008 after going through a big economic crisis,” said Chris Nicolson, chief executive of the Canada West Ski Areas Association. “It’s the peak of that cycle where investor confidence is there, and investments are being made.”

Earlier in March, Big White Ski Resort announced $10 million in spending, the largest single-year investment in the Kelowna-area property in the last decade.

Vail Resorts in December announced a $66 million investment in a new gondola and lift infrastructure at Whistler Blackcomb. Also last year, Silver Star Mountain Resort announced plans for a new gondola.

Significant chunks of the new investments are focused on summer. Summer visits at Sun Peaks have increased roughly 20 percent each of the past two years.

Is Aspen preaching or doing what is right for the planet?

ASPEN, Colo. – Perhaps no ski company executive has used the bully pulpit in Washington D.C. more often than Mike Kaplan of the Aspen Skiing Co. Some would say used it more promiscuously, but that will come later.

Starting his career at Taos before moving to Aspen, he went from snowmaking and ski instructing to the top job at North America’s best-known resort, Aspen, by 2006. He then was only 41.

As the Denver Post points out, Kaplan and Aspen have been stepping into the spotlight on many testy issues, “becoming arguably the most politically active of Colorado’s large outdoor industry businesses.”

The company, the Post goes on to say, “now champions some of the nation’s most divisive topics, from immigration to climate change and LGBTQ rights.”

Aspen, of course, draws the notables, both Democrats and Republicans and CEOs of every stripe. That has continued since the election of Donald Trump – also a frequent former visitor – in 2016. Last Christmas, Vice President Mike Pence and his family were there, and other Trump advisors have also vacationed at Aspen and skied at Snowmass.

“A lot of the leaders of the free world come here to ski and come here to spend some downtime,” Kaplan told the Post. “So if we can just get a little bit of their mind-space with this perspective, think about the leverage and the power of that – both in the public sector and private sector.”

A newspaper columnist formerly from Vail isn’t nearly as impressed. “Aspen always was more affected and preachy, oozing earnest authenticity as if they actually believed they were saving humankind, not merely providing skiing and opportunities to be seen for the rich and famous,” wrote Don Rogers in the Truckee (Calif.) Sun a few days before the Denver Post story was published.

Rogers, formerly the editor of the Vail Daily and now editor and publisher of several newspapers in the Truckee area, says he hears echoes of Aspen at Squaw Valley, which is about 10 miles from Truckee. “Look, look how responsible we are! Preserving winter and the environment for future generations! We care! We really do!”

Squaw is expanding its base village, which has drawn opposition, but is also aggressively pursuing a goal of 100 percent renewable electricity.

Rogers suggested gray shades, not black and white, describe what constitutes progress in Truckee and elsewhere.

“Let the battles roll over what most improves life here, but understand it’s never all one way, as much as we like to think so in these Trumpian times. Genuine improvement comes in shades of gray, rather than pure black or pure white. Hard choices, not easy answers, and always consequences.”

Highest commercial airport loses its commercial flights

TELLURIDE, Colo. – On a mesa just outside of Telluride, across from the ski area, lies the highest commercial airport in the United States. It’s at 9,070 feet in elevation.

After a $50 million improvement project that began a decade ago, the airport now has a 7,111-foot-long runway. The reconstruction also leveled the runway, which previously had a drop in the middle. All of this work, subsidized primarily by the Federal Aviation Administration and Colorado state grants, was designed to improve safety and allow use by larger jets.

Even so, the airport accounts for just 3 percent of visitors to Telluride who fly commercially. The other 97 percent fly into Montrose about 65 miles away, then take buses or rent cars to drive into Telluride.

Now, the airport is without commercial service, the second time in several years. Great Lakes Airlines ceased operations last week, citing a shortage of pilots.

Matt Skinner, of the Colorado Flights Alliance, told the Telluride Daily Planet that some flights may return in summer, but full-time service will most likely not return until winter.

For the record, 8 of the 10 highest airports in the United States are in Colorado, the highest being Leadville, at 9,934 feet, according to, an aviation website. Leadville has no commercial service, however.

How about zero vacancy rate at two Banff towns

BANFF, Alberta – You think housing is tight in your town, check out Banff. The housing rental vacancy rate has been sitting at zero percent since 2013.

By comparison, the vacancy rate in Calgary, about an hour-and-a-half away, sits at 6.3 percent. A healthy vacancy rate is between 3 and 5 percent.

At Canmore, at the entrance to Banff National Park, the housing vacancy has also been at zero to 1 percent.

Rising rents are one manifestation of the demand. The average rental rate for a one-bedroom in Banff is $1,505.

“These exorbitant rents are making for a pretty volatile situation in our community: overcrowding, under-maintained housing, huge affordable issues, and rent-bidding is going on,” said Sharon Oakley, the housing sustainability manager for the municipality of Banff.

The Rocky Mountain Outlook tells some stories that suggest just how things can get wild when housing is so limited. One woman posted an ad on a Facebook Buy and Sell page looking for a place for just a week. She got an offer, but not one she appreciated: a place if she was willing to sleep with the person. “Sorry im probably being an ass or asking to much,” he said in what passes for English on Facebook.

Both Banff and Canmore have been building housing. Banff has a 131-unit housing development nearing completion, with another 38-unit staff housing project coming on-line. Down-valley at Canmore, a 148-unit purpose-built affordable housing project has been developed and two more projects with about 200 units have been approved. This comes after 60 affordable housing units went on-line in late 2016.

Jackson Hole will have to build steadily to catch up on housing

JACKSON, Wyo. – Jackson and Teton County have a goal of housing 65 percent of the workforce locally. To achieve that, according to the local housing department, an additional 280 units will be needed in each of the next 10 years.

How will this happen? The town and county have been reworking town zoning and housing mitigation requirements. Very simply, the town is putting more onus on developers of new commercial real estate. Zoning is being reworked in several parts of Jackson, the valley’s only town to allow more density.

The Jackson Hole News&Guide explains that new jobs have outpaced housing since 2012, with 3.5 percent annual growth in jobs compared to 1.1 percent growth in housing.

The town council recently made the controversial decision to pump the brakes with an emergency moratorium on new, large developments. The News&Guide, in an editorial, notes that many developers —rightly so—fear this could lose them a construction season.

“Yet the community has said it believes the pace of commercial building has been too rapid and is driving our housing shortage into a housing crisis,” the paper says.

Now, says the newspaper, the task is to find the sweet spot for housing mitigation where “developers are accountable for housing their employees but the requirement is not so burdensome that there’s no way to stay in business.”

Recreation at last on lake along flanks of San Juans

DURANGO, Colo. – Lake Nighthorse, a reservoir on the Animas River south of Durango, will be available for boaters this year. It’s taken some time in coming.

The dam and reservoir were approved by Congress in 1968, in an era when Congress was allocating tons of money to build dams in the American West. But it wasn’t at the top of the to-do list. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter lopped it off entirely as being without strong economic benefit. The primary justification was that it needed to be built to honor treaty commitments with the Ute nations of southwest Colorado.

In 2003, a scaled-back dam was authorized and construction started. The dam began holding back water in 2009.

The Durango Herald explains that the Durango City Council accepted responsibility for administering the reservoir for recreational use. But motorized boats or the self-propelled? The Solomon-like decision rendered by council members after consultation with the Utes will allow motor boats five days a week and non-motorized uses every day.

Bark beetles to summer this year around Crested Butte

CRESTED BUTTE, Colorado – Crested Butte has largely been spared the beetle epidemics that turned vast swathes of forests in Colorado and other states first red and then gray. The time for Crested Butte, though, is coming soon.

Sam Pankratz, assistant district forester for the Colorado Forest Service, told local officials recently that there are no silver bullets. “We’re not going to come in and tell you to start spraying your forests with chemicals,” Pankratz told the Gunnison County commissioners. “And as far as cold temperature killing the beetles? That’s basically a myth because research says you need a week of daytime temperatures at 60 degrees below zero, and we don’t have that.”

The Crested Butte News notes that Colorado’s warming climate has contributed to proliferation of bark beetles. The state overall had temperatures in 2017 that were 3.2 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the last 30 years.

Still searching for ways to reduce coal-mine methane

PAONIA, Colo. – Coal miners used to carry caged canaries down the shafts as a way of getting an early warning of high concentrations of carbon monoxide and other toxic gases. The coal mines of Colorado’s North Fork Valley, located about 90 minutes from both Aspen and Crested Butte, are particularly gassy.

The gases can be vented, to reduce danger to the miners. But the methane itself is a problem for all of humanity. It punches heavy, trapping up to 100 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide within a five-year period.

Methane can, however, be put to good use producing electricity. Some landfills are used to generate electricity. In 2012, methane from the Elk Creek Mine was similarly put to use, being burned to produce electricity, after a $5.5 million electric generation plant was installed.

The Aspen Skiing Co. put up the key funding for that plant through its electrical supplier, Holy Cross Energy. But the developer, Vessels Coal Gas, also gets money from California’s cap-and-trade market.

Methane capture costs more than other forms of electricity, which is why the first project needed subsidies. It’s also why a proposed expansion of the nearby West Elk Mine is at issue. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management approved expansion of the mine to an area underlying a roadless area. The Forest Service has jurisdiction over the surface, the BLM over the subterranean deposits.

But Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper made his “support contingent upon Arch Coal’s stated commitment … to explore and develop a methane capture strategy at the mine, as well as to explore opportunities to put the methane to beneficial use.”

That led to creation of the North Fork Coal Mine Methane Working Group, which is charged with looking into alternatives for capture and use of methane. The Crested Butte News reports the group has met monthly, hearing from experts about possible uses of the methane. One idea is to use it to make plastic or fertilizer. Another is to lay pipeline to make it part of our natural gas network.

Future meetings will delve into the use of methane as an electric power source. Gunnison County Commissioner John Messner noted that the West Elk Mine, unlike the mine with the existing electrical production, is an operating mine. “So the dynamics of using the waste methane are different.”

Environmental groups think the working group got off to the wrong start in its mission statement of providing support for the coal industry.

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