Mountain Town News: Western drought shows no signs of stopping | ParkRecord.com

Mountain Town News: Western drought shows no signs of stopping

Allen Best
Park Record Contributing Writer

Sunshine and warm days no friends to skiers or firefighters

TAOS, N.M. – Sunny skies were forecast for Taos yet again this week, a town and a ski area that desperately needs snow days.

The situation is sufficiently dire that last week Lorenzo Trujillo, in a letter published in the Taos News, proposed that the town council appeal to the Taos Pueblo Elders to see if there is a snow or rain dance ceremony that could be done.

Actually, members of the Taos Pueblo did perform such a snow dance at the Taos Ski Valley in early December. Maybe a second time is the charm?

Taos has lots of company across the drought-stricken West. In a general way, common in La Niña years, those to the north have fared better than those to the south.

Even in Colorado, ski areas just a few hundred miles apart have dramatically different situations. Summit County was close to average, even before this week's snow. Snow helped Southwest Colorado, where Telluride on Tuesday reported a 12 inches of snow in 12 hours.

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But as of late January, local river drainages in the San Juan Mountains were just 34 to 36 percent of average. Farther north, near Grand Junction, the Powderhorn ski area cut back its operations to Thursday through Sunday, to better conserve snow.

"There are some parts of the state that are in dire situations," said Jim Pokrandt, of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

California has it tough, too. At Phillips Station, south of Lake Tahoe, hydrologists last week found just 13 percent of average snowpack, reported the San Francisco Chronicle. Only twice since record-keeping began in 1946 has there been less snow: 2014 and 1963. No skis were necessary to get to the site; boots were sufficient.

The problem lies off the shore of California in the form of what climate scientist Daniel Swain of the California Weather Blog calls the "strong, persistent, broad and anomalous ridge of atmospheric high pressure." Several years ago he coined it the "ridiculously resilient ridge."

In a Feb. 1 posting, he reported a snow drought across most of the mountainous interior of the American West caused in part by below-average precipitation but more importantly by above-average temperatures.

It's been sizzling in Southern California. Daytime temperatures have soared above 90, overnight lows stayed above 70. In the Sierra Nevada, the temperature range was different, but the band of temperatures was also anomalous.

Swain predicts that the ongoing warm and dry spell will likely melt what little snow currently exists below about 8,000 feet in elevation.

Base elevation of Northstar is 6,330 feet; Squaw Valley 6,200 feet; Heavenly 6,255 feet. Mammoth is at 9,000 feet, although the town center is 7,500 feet.

Swain warns against expecting the atmospheric high pressure to dissipate before mid-February—and maybe not then. "It's still possible that a robust storm sequence in late February (or another "Miracle March") could bring a remarkable turnaround in short order. But while that possibility remains on the table the odds are long."

In New Mexico there are already questions about potential for forest fires. If past is prelude, this could be a tricky year.

Dr. Ellis Margolis, a research ecologist, has studied tree rings and photographs of aspen stands, which commonly appear after major blazes, in assembling a history of fires in the Taos area during the last 400 years.

He found that about 90 percent of the fires broke out in spring and early summer, usually in a drought year. Often the drought year or years had been preceded by wet conditions in prior years, which likely promoted the growth of surface fuels that helped the fire to spread.

Last year was a wet one in the Taos area.

The study also found that recent forest fires, although hot-burning, have not been particularly large compared to those of the past. Those past fires did not necessarily burn down trees.

According to an account in the Taos News, Margolis advises thinning the lower-elevation ponderosa forests along with controlled burns, to reduce the risk of the frequent fires in that ecosystem.

In the sub-alpine forests found at higher elevations, fires are more rare but burn much hotter.

"The challenging part is in upper elevation forests where historically those sub-alpine forests burn in big, hot patches and burn to the ground. Whatever's in the way could be in trouble."

One such community in harm's way is the Taos Ski Valley. Margolis stressed the importance of evacuation plans.

County updates take more steps to address wildfire risk

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. – After the big drought year of 2002, public officials in Summit County, Colorado got wildfire religion. That year the giant Hayman Fire charred 138,000 acres just across the Continental Divide in the foothills southwest of Denver. In Colorado that same summer, big fires howled at Glenwood Springs and north of Durango.

Instead of resisting any and all timber cutting, public officials in Summit County began pushing for selective cutting, began requiring defensible space, began focusing on what is often called the wildland-urban interface. Almost all of the homes in Summit County fall in that category.

Still, there was another fire last summer, when a billowing blaze in the Tenmile Range seemed to be heading straight for Breckenridge. It didn't get there. The weather intervened. But it was a stern reminder that communities of Summit County were vulnerable.

Now, Summit County's government has stepped up the effort to reduce wildlife hazard with the most comprehensive update to the Community Wildfire Protection Plan in 10 years.

The effort began before last year's fire, but Dan Gibbs, a county commissioner as well as a wildland firefighter, said the Peak Two Fire was a "sobering reminder of how real the threat of wildfire is in Summit County. We're very fortunate that the fire didn't make its way into our neighborhoods, but we have to be proactive in taking concrete steps to reduce our exposure to those types of risks."

Wildfire hazards and potential mitigation measures must be assessed when updating master plans and as part of any new rezoning, planned unit development, or subdivision application.

New landscaping regulations promote a more wildfire-resilient community through defensible space requirements. The changes also address the placement of combustible materials, such as wood fencing and firewood piles, which can indirectly lead to home loss from wildfire.

"We arrived at these changes through a rigorous review and analysis by numerous wildfire experts, community stakeholders and county representatives," said Lindsay Hirsh, senior planner.

Since 2006, more than 150 wildfire hazard-reduction projects have been completed through partnerships among Summit County, the U.S. Forest Service, local towns, residents, and landowners. Other partners in forest-thinning projects include Denver Water and the Colorado Forest Service.

Denver Water last February committed another $16.5 million to efforts to address forest stands in Summit County, from which it draws water for metropolitan Denver,

Political turmoil in county where Durango is located

DURANGO, Colo. – A liberal enclave, Durango is within a conservative region where people don't like to be told what to do. La Plata County is also, in its more southerly reaches, near the New Mexico border, also a place of intense drilling for natural gas.

All this has led to an effort to unseat Gwen Lachelt, a county commissioner. Recall supporters say her work with Western Leaders Network, a nonprofit that she started, impairs her objectivity on oil and gas issues. Lachelt has lobbied on issues such as the federal government's proposed rules governing venting and flaring of methane. She describes them as "common sense" regulations.

Lachelt told the Durango Herald that a special recall election is only a waste of taxpayer dollars. She was elected first in 2012 and re-elected in 2016. Her current term expires in 2020.

Detractors say Lachelt has missed meetings because of her lobbying activities. But county records show she attended 91 percent of county commission meetings, compared to 95 percent attendance by the two other commissioners. The Herald notes that no records are kept of other, ancillary meetings.

In a related matter, the Koch-brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity has announced it will seek to influence the outcome of La Plata County's proposed land-use rules. The county's proposed rules would introduce zoning for rural areas and impose restrictions such as on outdoor lighting. Many property owners fear this will diminish the value of their property.

Americans for Prosperity was founded in 2004 as a political arm of the business run by David and Charles Koch. David Koch is also influential in Aspen, but as a funder of the less controversial Aspen Institute, sponsor of the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Drought in Idaho blamed for death of family pets

HAILEY, Idaho – This winter's drought has had predictable consequences, such as dampening numbers of bookings to ski resorts in March. Here's one that may surprise you: a dog was killed recently between Ketchum and Hailey, down-valley from the slopes of Sun Valley.

"Somebody called us and said, 'There's a cougar on my back porch eating my dog,'" Kelton Hatch, from the Idaho Fish and Game Department, told the Idaho Mountain Express.

If mountain lions, as cougars are also called, have been snacking on dogs and other domestic pets for a long time, they may be more interested this year. Hatch explained that the lack of snow has allowed herds of deer and elk to range farther from the valley floor, making them more difficult to take than domestic animals.

This was the third dog reported killed by mountain lions in the Wood River Valley this winter.

Grizzlies in mind as plans put together for wildlife overpass

CANMORE, Alberta – Another wildlife overpass is being planned for the Trans-Canada Highway, this one east of Canmore, near the entrance to Banff National Park.

Six overpasses and 38 underpasses designed for wildlife passage have already been completed in the 82-kilometre (51-mile) section of the highway from the park entrance near Canmore to the Continental Divide. Neighboring Yoho National Park also has one underpass.

In addition to the wildlife overpass, an electric detection system that would sense wildlife movement, triggering messages on nearby signs, is being planned, according to the Rocky Mountain Outlook.

Grizzly bears are among the wildlife species expected to benefit if the overpass is built. A new study of use of overpasses and underpasses in Banff National Park found that grizzly bears select larger and more opens structures like overpasses and open-span bridges, compared to tunnels and culverts. The study, published recently in the Wildlife Society Bulletin, also found that a mother bear with cubs opted to use an overpass instead of an underpass in almost every case.

"Highway mitigation that does not address the passage needs of breeding females is not highway mitigation," said Tony Clevenger, a renowned road ecologist based in Canmore. He is affiliated with the Western Transportation Institute of Montana State University.

"In order to ensure that we've connected the population genetically and demographically, we've got to get breeding females across these highways if they're going to be viable over the long term."

Clevenger went on to say that a large number of overpasses are not needed. "There's got to be a range of other structure-types that are smaller, but one or two overpasses there are critical, especially with this expanding grizzly bear population."

Might highway mitigation be stepped up in the United States? The Outlook reports the U.S. Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team is paying close attention to the research at Banff with an eye toward mitigation needed for highways between Banff and Yellowstone National Park. There have been mitigations along U.S. Highway 93, which extends from Arizona to Banff, but not in the I-90 and I-15 corridors as they cross the Rockies.

How about calling people of more years 'perennials?'

WHITEFISH, Mont. – This weekend a seminar is planned in Whitefish about ageism. Ina Albert, 82, has been at this for almost 20 years, talking about the effects of aging on language, communication styles, legal protection, and more.

She tells the Whitefish Pilot that instead of phrases that cast a person in a certain category, she prefers the phrase "perennial," a word first suggested by Laura Carstensen, a professor at Stanford.

"Perennials aren't guaranteed to blossom year after year, but given proper conditions, good soil and nutrients, they can go on for decades," Carstensen wrote in The Washington Post.

Albert says that ageism comes from inside with the fear that some people have of getting older. She also contends that it comes from outside societal pressure that says it's negative to age and be over 50.

Steamboat's Howelsen Hill the most perennial in nation

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. – There were ski areas in the United States before Howelsen Hill in Steamboat Springs, but none have been operating continuously for longer.

The 1915 founding date of Howelsen is seven years earlier than Eaglebrook School in Massachusetts. This distinction was reached in a list compiled by the National Ski Areas Association, the major trade group for the ski industry in the United States.