Mountain Town News
By Allen Best
Fires on the mountains
FRASER, Colo. – Wildlife destroyed several hundred homes west of Boulder, Colo., in September. In early October, similar visions of destruction flashed in the minds of Winter Park-Fraser exurbanites, located about 30 miles west of Boulder but across the Continental Divide.
The fire crackled and roared across 500 acres, throwing a good scare into residents of the large lots near Sheep Mountain.
One couple with a home two miles from the fire had compiled an evacuation plan even while trying to create what foresters call “defensible space” around the house by removing trees. Still, they had vacillated about whether to remove the last few trees near the house.
With smoke in the air, they hesitated no more. In a blink, the trees were gone and the wood dragged to a distant location.
Another couple was less prepared, but told the Sky-Hi News of new motivation to create a list of must-take items, a map of where they are, and a list documenting the house’s contents that could be used to file an insurance claim.
In Winter Park, several miles away, the fire renewed angst about slow efforts to remove trees on national forests adjacent to the town. Funding was announced last spring, but no cutting occurred during the summer – much to the dismay of town officials in Winter Park. The acting regional forester, Tony Dixon, told the Forest Service that the wood removal efforts were delayed by the need for environmental review and bidding procedures.
For residents of Winter Park and other mountain towns, the fires this fall pose troubling questions about what it means to live in a disturbance-prone ecosystem. In Winter Park and Summit County, residents proudly pointed out how much better they cloaked their housing amid the trees than did places like Vail, where most housing can be seen from the interstate highway.
Then came the warmer winters, the tree-weakening drought, and an epidemic of bark beetles now well on its way to killing 90 percent of lodgepole pine in Colorado. A major conflagration is broadly feared.
Some residents know it’s just a matter of time. “It’s scary to see the smoke, but you know it’s eventually coming,” one resident told the Sky-Hi News.
Ski towns still talking biomass
TRUCKEE, Calif. – Just what role will biomass boilers play in dealing with the many tons of dead trees piling up across the West? There have been proposals in Colorado, Idaho and California.
And in Revelstoke, B.C., city officials want to expand a district heating system that uses heat generated by a sawmill to warm 10 buildings. Now, as Revelstoke looks at how it can reduce its role in the planetary emissions of greenhouse gases, officials believe an expanded district heating system could displace burning of fossil fuels.
“Revelstoke is a leader in North America in using biomass as a source of district energy, and it has been for the last five years,” insists David Johnson, chairman of the Revelstoke Community Energy Corporation.
Various Colorado towns have also talked about such an idea. Most prominent has been Vail, where a developer proposed to build a $50 million biomass plant. The plant he envisions would burn logs to produce steam, generating 6.2 megawatts of electricity. Then, the still extremely hot water would be shipped into Vail Village, at the base of the ski mountain, to provide hot water for showers, and then melt snow off streets.
But does the project in Vail have legs? While the federal government has been doling out billions of dollars for all manner of energy projects, it did not award any to biomass projects.
Also uncertain is whether there would be enough wood for the next 20 years to supply the plant. The plant would need to draw from within 50 to 75 miles of Vail, to keep costs down.
In California, there is talk about a biomass burner near Lake Tahoe. But the Sierra Sun reports considerable debate about whether that is an appropriate location. There is, however, plenty of wood thereabouts – as was evident in a major forest fire near Lake Tahoe three years ago.
Tourism’s the engine, but what’s the fuel?
WHISTLER, B.C. – Ski towns have for decades been re-evaluating what business they’re in. Is it tourism, and if so, what kind? Is it real estate? Or should they diversify, to become more resilient when one sector or another of the global economy sours?
That same conversation has been continuing in Whistler, where there has been talk from time to time of a college or perhaps a film industry. But a recent convening of the town’s most substantial business groups suggests agreement that tourism is the engine. The only question seems to be of fuel.
Chris Quinlan, a municipal councilor, made this key point in a meeting covered by Pique Newsmagazine. The success of any ancillary sectors depends upon how complimentary they are to Whistler’s core business as a resort, he said.
“We need to find more reasons to make people actually come to Whistler beyond just weather and how the snow is,” he said.
Taking stock of the conversation later, columnist G.D. Maxwell dismissed notions of economic diversification. “Let’s be honest: we’re a tourist town. We were built to be a tourist town, designed to be a tourist town, and mostly we’re pretty good at it,” he said.
What does draw people to Whistler, he added, are big events – even of activities in which people are marginally interested in. “They just like the buzz of something big.”
How well should you know
ASPEN, Colo. – Should criminal background checks of applicants for government-controlled worker housing in Aspen and Pitkin County be conducted?
“We’d like to have the ability to look for these people and screen them out ahead of time,” Tom McCabe, the housing director, explained at a recent meeting covered by The Aspen Times. “We have always been pretty permissive here. Every once in a while, we regret it.”
Even bigger Vail draws criticism
VAIL, Colo. – No, it’s not a Denver, a Vancouver or even a Salt Lake City. But for a ski town, Vail in the last few years became much taller and bulkier in its buildings.
Several new buildings – the Solaris, the Ritz-Carlton and the Four Seasons — are all coming on line this year. Lodges that just a few years ago looked big in Vail now are dwarfed. But is it good?
The Vail Daily asked that question of various citizens. One of the developers, Peter Nobel, insists that big isn’t bad if the architecture has integrity. In his case, he believes it does.
Sheika Gramshammer, one of the town’s original residents and hoteliers, sees the changes as too drastic. “We’re bringing the city into the mountains,” she said.
Kerry Donovan, the daughter of original residents, concedes that she doesn’t like what she sees. “But once they’re up, they’re up and you can only learn from them and move on from there.”
The task now, says Jim Lamont, executive director of the Vail Homeowners Association, is to figure out how to develop an international clientele to take advantage of this new and much bigger infrastructure. “To sit back and think we can relax and all we have to do is throw open the doors and wait for people to come again—think again,” he said.
New Fortress rumors
WHISTLER, B.C. – Widespread but unconfirmed reports have Fortress Investment Group planning an IPO, otherwise known as an initial public offering, for its Whistler-Blackcomb ski operation.
Fortress took on massive debt to buy Intrawest, the parent company of Whistler-Blackcomb, in a $2.8 billion leveraged buyout near the height of the real estate bubble in 2006. Since then, Intrawest has been pedaling hard to make debt payments, selling several ski areas in Colorado, California, and British Columbia, as well as a resort in Florida. It has also refinanced the debt twice, most recently last spring.
But the refinancing only buys time. The fundamental problem, explains Bob Barnett, publisher of Whistler’s Pique Newsmagazine, is that Fortress and Intrawest are in the same situation as many American homeowners: with a mortgage worth far more than the house.
Not surprisingly, there has been frequent speculation about potential buyers. Last summer it was supposed to be “the Russians,” he says. Then, it was a Canadian pension fund. And all along there has been talk of the local community purchasing the ski area with Nippon Cable, which owns 23 percent of the resort.
With plenty of cash and an admitted wandering eye, Vail Resorts also remains a potential buyer. Last year it was kicking the tires of Whistler-Blackcomb – although not other Intrawest resorts.
Plastic ban now in the bag
TELLURIDE, Colo. – Telluride last week officially became the first community in Colorado to ban plastic bags. The ban will be phased, beginning in January when the two local grocery stores will be required to begin collecting a 10 cents-per-bag fee. The full ban takes effect in March. After that, grocers can give out paper bags, but must charge a 10-cent fee. Small plastic bags for meat, produce and newspapers will be exempted.
Grousing over half-baked housing
PARK CITY, UTAH – As has Mt. Crested Butte and other communities, Park City now wonders about half-baked buildings and those not even in the oven. The Park Record reports 36 projects that have received approvals and some of which began building before the recession caused work to stop. Now, there are complaints of “eyesores.”
Schwarzenegger vetoes safety bill
TRUCKEE, Calif. — California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vetoed legislation that would have imposed the toughest ski safety standards in the United St
“Green” project slowed in Aspen
ASPEN, Colo. – Aspen officials have at least temporarily slowed their review of a sma