Drought over? Too early to say

FORT COLLINS - Is the drought that has afflicted Colorado and much of the Southwest finally over? Some water officials were saying so several weeks ago.

But the snowpack in Colorado on the fortnight of Christmas was little better than average, and even an average snow year wouldn't compensate for five mostly sub-par snow years, says Nolan Doesken, Colorado's assistant state climatologist.

"In reality, we are only in mid-December, and we have the whole winter to go," said Doesken. "Before we get excited, the snowpack should be about 140 percent of average. Otherwise, all we're doing is treading water."

Telluride debates boosting tourism

TELLURIDE - Most of the so-called tourist towns of the West about a decade ago began to understand that they were as dependent upon real estate flipping as bull wheels turning. This realization hasn't always gone over easy.

For town governments, while being called upon to provide for proliferating services and amenities, the tax base has become smaller. Taxes on retail sales have struggled to keep pace with inflation in most cases, even if these declines have in some cases been offset by increased sales of real estate.

In turn, there have been calls to minimize the real estate presence. Aspen, Park City and Crested Butte all talked about following Vail's lead and banning real estate offices from the ground-floor locations in retail areas. Only Aspen did.

On the other hand, some towns have even questioned whether tourists are necessary. Or they have wondered if there's another strategy for economic development that steers clear of both the seasonality and fickleness of tourism and the elitism of second homes.

In fact, as Jonathan Schechter points out often in the Jackson Hole News, the largest source of income there - and probably most ski valleys - is neither tourism nor second homes per se, but instead dividends and investments. In other words, lots of rich people have moved into the ski towns, and whether they're part-time or full-time residents is really irrelevant.

Meanwhile, in Telluride, there's discussion anew about whether the community needs to work harder at tourism. Seth Cagin, who publishes The Telluride Watch, argues that it should. In effect, he thinks the economy is too small, despite everything from ski area expansions to subsidized direct flights in recent years.

Neither the ski area nor the main street merchants can subsist on either the full-time or part-time residents, he argues. Both need tourists, and a lot more of them.

"We don't have nearly enough locals in nearly enough second homes, or nearly a big enough drive market to support Telski (the ski area operator) without the contribution from significant numbers of destination tourists," he writes. "Not only does the ski area enhance the quality of life for locals, it provides the foundation for the second-home market. And it provides jobs. We all benefit from a prosperous ski company, and we all suffer from a failing ski company."

Among other things, Cagin advocates extending subsidies to the retail sector, similar to the way affordable housing and open space are subsidized. "Without protection and support, the retail sector, too, will all go away or will develop in ways that do not sustain the community," he says. He suggests applying deed restrictions to ensure retail in certain spaces, and also a building trust to manage key properties in the best interests of the community, just as land trust manages open space.

He also thinks Telluride should try to host World Cup races, allow more building density in certain areas, and revamp its visitor and convention bureau.

Healthy Forest law has little impact

LAKE TAHOE - After considerable wrangling, the Healthy Forest Restoration Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush a year ago. What difference has it made so far?

In Lake Tahoe Basin, described as one of the most at-risk areas for wildlife in the West, it has made absolutely no difference. The problem? The federal government allocated only $760 million to the program, which is designed to reduce the flammability of forests on the interface between homes and businesses.

"To date, no fire districts in the Tahoe Basin have seen any sign of increased federal funding as a result of the act," reports the Tahoe World. "They're waiting and hoping that money will come before it's too late."

None of this would surprise a panel of experts assembled in Colorado's Summit County last March. There, ecologists representing environmental groups conceded the law has some good points, but predicted the law had no effect absent significant federal funding. So far, that funding has fallen between the cracks of war costs and tax cuts.

Ryan & Trista do tree-lighting honors

VAIL - For the first time since the 1970s, former President Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty, did not light the Christmas tree in Vail Village. Ford, 91, also missed a recent gathering that included all other living ex-presidents.

Ford, who lives in Rancho Mirage, Calif,, also has a home in Vail's sibling resort of Beaver Creek. In his absence, the ceremonial tree was to be lit by Vail firefighter Ryan Sutter and his wife, Trista, of the television dating show "The Bachelorette."

Mountaineering film in limbo

BANFF, Alberta - Organizers of the Banff Mountain Film Festival have pulled this year's Grand Prize winner from distribution because of uncertainty regarding ownership of the film.

The 21-minute film, titled "Odwrot," was made in 1968 by Jerzy Surdel, then a film student in Poland. Filmed in black and white in the Tatra Mountains, it follows an anonymous climber's desperate solo descent in search of help after an accident injures his climbing partner.

It was first shown in 1969 at the mountain film festival in Trento, Italy, where it received the Silver Palm award. After seeing it there, American climber and author Lito Tejada Flores expressed interest in acquiring a copy but was told there was only one and that the filmmaker was indeed deceased.

Concerned the film would disappear forever behind the Iron Curtain, Tejada Flores contacted his friend, Alex Bertulis, a Lithuanian mountaineer who had been a member of a 1979 Polish Himalayan expedition. Using his contacts in Poland, Bertulis in 1981 visited the Communist Institution of Film Polski, where authorities gave him rights to the film. Entrusting him with the master - and only - copy, they told Bertulis they supported his efforts to preserve the film and also told him the filmmaker was dead.

They were wrong. Surdel had in fact fled Poland to escape threats of imprisonment and was living in Switzerland. The Communist Polish government had simply declared him dead.

Returning home, Bertulis learned that restoring and reproducing the film would cost $10,000. He finally did so three years ago, and earlier this year submitted it to mountain film festivals at Telluride and Taos. Just before the Banff festival, Bertulis, who is now an architect in Seattle, learned that Surdel is alive, now in his 70s, and living in Poland.

The issue now seems to be who gets the grand prize money of $4,000 Cdn. Bertulis believes he should get at least part of it, given his costs, although the Banff organizers have sent the money to Surdel. While this issue of ownership gets cleared up, the film will not be distributed.

Biodiesel may soon be passed over

FRISCO - Biodiesel has been a trendy fuel in mountain resorts for the last several years. From Telluride to Jackson Hole to Breckenridge, the diesel fuel used for buses, snow groomers and other vehicles has included a 20 percent component made from vegetable matter, mostly soybeans.

The vegetable matter burns much more cleanly than conventional diesel, reducing emissions by 20 percent. The idea of being able to recycle waste from the kitchen into fuel for the car was also a fanciful notion captured in a film made in Telluride called "French Fries to Go."

But biodiesel has had its problems. Diesel gels at cold temperatures more than conventional gasoline, and biodiesel gels even more readily, which is why the 20 percent mixture is used in colder-weather locations.

As well, several snow groomers at Snowmass broke down recently because of an improperly mixed batch of biodiesel. At Breckenridge, buses this fall had to shift back to full petrochemicals because of problems of gelling.

Now, there are some who believe new federal regulations in the United States have doomed the biodiesel campaign. Beginning in 2007, engineers must reduce sulfur to 15 parts per million, oxides of nitrogen and nonmethane hydrocarbons by 50 percent, and particulate matter by 100 percent. The regulations tighten to zero by the year 2010.

- compiled by Allen Best





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