Beetle kill ‘Katrina of the West’

FRISCO – Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar last week showed why he has gone from a farm boy without electricity to one of the nation’s more powerful politicians. He can turn a phrase, galvanizing an audience, even at long distance.

Speaking by telephone last week to 200 people assembled at a forum in Frisco, he likened the forests of north-central Colorado to a potential “Katrina of the West.” The aging, beetle-weakened forests could yield massive fires similar to those of 2002, he went on to say. The phrase found its way into the front page Denver’sRocky Mountain News.

The forum had been organized by Salazar’s office and others as a way to highlight potential answers to the fact that trees from Vail to Dillon to Winter Park and Grand Lake are dying in large numbers. The turnout at the forum caught organizers by surprise. People spilled out into the street, and even at the end of a six-hour session it was standing-room alone.

However, the answers are not overtly obvious, nor is there even agreement about the problem. The most immediate blame is assigned to bark beetles, which exist in all forests at all times but brew to epidemic portions periodically as conditions ripen. They made a major foray into this same region in the early 1980s, but then began waxing in numbers until about 1996. Unchecked by the lack of sustained cold temperatures, they continue to spread in forests of old growth lodgepole pine that are naturally more vulnerable to forests pests. Other beetles are also making some inroads into spruce and fir forests, which have longer lifecycles.

With rust-colored trees now bordering condominiums and homes, mountain towns and valleys are becoming worried – so worried that they have shed traditional mistrust of loggers. Even a half-dozen years ago, few people could be rounded up to defend timber sales near ski communities. But last winter, the ski towns dispatched a delegation to Washington D.C. to see if federal rules could be revised, to better accommodate below-cost timber sales.

Ski valleys become the new suburbs

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – Many ski valleys have been mightily resisting vestiges of suburbanization. Regulations have been enacted to restrict national franchisers, particularly big boxes, which are the symbols of suburban sprawl.

But Steamboat Springs is increasingly a suburb – and many other ski towns are, too, says Jonathan Schechter. “These are the new suburbs, but they are virtual suburbs,” he told a group in Steamboat Springs recently. People choose to live where they want to live, in part because of rapid growth in technology that allows them to do so, but also because of rising incomes, he said.

These changes caused Steamboat and places like it to add as many people in the 1990s as had lived there in 1960, before the arrival of tourism. But even now, it is not a purely tourism-driven economy, he said.

What could change this trend? Schechter, a long-time Jackson Hole resident, sees nothing to stop the masses – unless their arrival fouls the nest. “The boom is not going to bust … unless we screw up the reason people want to move here,” he said.

To that end, Schechter was the architect of an idea recently implemented called One Percent for the Tetons. In the program, businesses give 1 percent of revenues to a fund that is dispersed in grants to projects intended to help retain the environmental integrity of Jackson Hole. Some 50 businesses are participating, and $25 million has been raised.

Green energy starts slow in Taos

TAOS, N.M. – The connection between local electrical use and the construction of new coal-burning power plants is also being nailed down in Taos. There, the chief executive director of the local rural coop, Kit Carson Electric, points out that less than 3 percent of the electricity consumed by the cooperative’s members comes from alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar.

Luis Reyes, the CEO, suggests that Taoseños aren’t really walking their talk. Taos has homes with straw-bale construction and other cutting-edge innovations but the masses have been unwilling to pay a small incremental cost to help fuel the demand for alternative energy, he said at a recent gathering. He pointed to several Colorado resort areas as leaders.

In New Mexico, as in many other places, about 85 percent of electricity is generated by burning coal, resulting in emissions that most scientists have fingered as a prime cause of global

warming. Another large percentage of electricity comes from burning of natural gas. Only a small percentage comes from alternative sources.

New Telluride development pitched

TELLURIDE – Owners of a long-abandoned mining town called Alta, located at an elevation of about 10,000 feet near the Telluride ski area, have sweetened the pot in hopes of getting the property annexed to the town of Mountain Village, which would provide utilities for the project.

The biggest pot-sweetener is affordable housing: 71 price-capped units. In exchange, the developers hope to be able to build 71 high-end residential lots, a 44-unit lodge and sporting center, and 45 small, for-sale cabins.

Affordable housing is in short supply in the Telluride area, and Mountain Village earlier this year emerged with some egg on its face for its proposal to put affordable housing well away from the town, in a river canyon about 15 miles west. That plan received a barrage of criticism and was then withdrawn.

This new affordable housing, if the annexation is approved, will also be apart from Mountain Village, thus eliminating traffic impacts that existing property owners feared. Those objections killed a previous effort to annex in 1997.

Eagle County offers same sex benefits

EAGLE COUNTY – Same-sex couples who are among the 450 employees of Eagle County government are now eligible for insurance benefits. Human resource director, Nora Fryklund, toldThe Vail Daily she expects that a half-dozen of Eagle County’s employees might qualify but maybe only two will request the benefits.

The standard that will be used is the same as has been used for cohabitating heterosexual couples. They must provide proof of commitment as reflected in such things as jointly holding a mortgage or lease, or even just a joint bank account.

Vail Resorts, a major presence in Eagle County, has extended insurance benefits and ski passes to same-sex couples for several years. That corporation, however, requires couples to sign paperwork saying they are married according to common law. “We’ve done it for several years now,” said corporate spokeswoman Kelly Ladyga. “It’s important for us, and it is used.”

The Vail Daily also notes that its parent company, Colorado Mountain News Media, which publishes newspapers in the Aspen and I-70 corridor from Summit County to Grand Junction, also offers benefits to same-sex couples.

Other governments, including the towns of Vail and Avon, do not provide the benefits to domestic partners, nor does another major employer, the Vail Valley Medical Center.

Ski towns join global warming action

VAIL – The Colorado Association of Ski Towns is getting engaged in the debate about global warming. The group has delegated Stan Zemler, Vail’s town manager, to represent it on a new task force set up in Colorado to evaluate a state-wide response to climate change. The backup delegate is Tim Gagen, Breckenridge town manager.

Eight states, led by California but also including Arizona and New Mexico, have completed action plans for responding to global warming, and five states have started. Bypassing Colorado’s state government, a Denver-based group called the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization has organized a panel with a broad arc across Colorado’s political and business climate.

Included are mayors of three Front Range cities: Denver, Fort Collins and Lakewood, plus former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart, utility company executive Pat Vincent, and assorted others. The group expects to issue a report next year to the new governor, Bill Ritter, and state legislators.

Armstrong registers for Leadville 100

LEADVILLE – Bicycle rider Lance Armstrong is scheduled to test his mettle next summer against the 100-mile mountain bike race at Leadville, report theLeadville ChronicleandDenver Post.

The race starts at Leadville, elevation 10,152 feet, and during the 100-mile course, gains some 11,000 vertical feet. At its high point, the trail reaches an elevation of 12,600 feet at the somewhat ironically named Hope Pass.

– compiled by Allen Best

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