Colorado town buzzes over biomass

OAK CREEK – Investigation is under way into the possibility of creating a central heating system in Oak Creek, a small town about 20 miles south of Steamboat. The specific proposal calls for burning wood from the dead and dying forests in northwest Colorado to create heat and possibly, electricity.

The coal town is in the midst of an ironic transition. The local schools are replacing their coal boilers with a biomass boiler. That boiler is supplemented by a geoexchange heating system.

Townspeople and businesses, however, are on individual heating systems that use propane. The price of propane has increased from about $1 per gallon during the 1990s to $2.60 per gallon by the end of ast winter.

Enter Mark Mathis, who last year constructed a plant in Kremmling, a former logging town about 50 miles away, that takes dead trees and grinds them up into pellets. His company, Comfluent Energy, shipped its first load in January.

The Steamboat Pilot & Today explains that Mathis is now trying to persuade Oak Creek to convert to biomass for both heating and electrical production. His bottom-line argument is cost. Mathis estimated Oak Creek spends at least $2 million a year on propane to heat its homes and businesses. He claims that cost can be reduced to $500,000 by burning biomass pellets in a central burner.

The new infrastructure will cost a pretty penny. He estimates $1.2 to $4.1 million for the central burner, and then $5 million for pipes to distribute the heat via hot water to individual homes and businesses.

There may be additional savings, he says, if carbon emissions are monetized, resulting in payments for efforts that result in reduced emission from forest fires.

Mathis estimates payback on investment at four years.

If Oak Creek were to do so, it would become the first town in the United States to go to biomass 100 percent.

Elsewhere in the world, full-blown biomass heating is not rare. A delegation from Vail visited Austrian facilities several years ago to study what might be in Colorado. Nothing concrete, however, has come of it.

Biomass burners, however, are not infrequent in the United States. A biomass burner is used to heat a greenhouse in nearby Walden, a place of long, long winters. California’s Sierra Nevada also uses biomass to generate electricity and is studying the feasibility of more expanded use.

One key issue still facing the fledgling biomass industry in is the long-term supply. While Colorado currently has huge amounts of dead trees, the Forest Service so far has offered no assurances of long-term availability of supply.

Magazine for luxury national parks

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. – You know what’s wrong with Yosemite and a lot of other national parks? They don’t have enough five-star rated hotel rooms.

So saysThe Economist magazine from its perch overseeing world affairs in London. The magazine notes that visitation to Yosemite during the last 13 years has dropped 9 percent. This is despite population growth of 17 percent in California, much of it inland, closer to the Sierra Nevada, where Yosemite and other parks are located.

Such proximity is a theme across the West, where population growth is occurring most rapidly near national parks and forests.

“Americans plainly think it is a good idea to live near national parks, but they are not keen on visiting them,” says The Economist.

What’s going on? The magazine examines a variety of factors. Big-game hunting has also slackened. Cities, which people may have been fleeing in the 1990s, have become safer. And shopping malls are now outdoor oriented, instead of domed.

“Yosemite is long on staggering views but short on what most people would today regard as entertainment,” saysThe Economist. It also notes that the hotels of Yosemite, although pretty, are basic. “If they were in Las Vegas, they would have been dynamited long ago.”

Top-end hotel rooms at parks get booked far more rapidly than cabins, notes the magazine, and cabins with indoor plumbing are reserved before more rustic accommodations. The magazine thinks the conclusion is obvious. And the fault, it says, lies with conservationists opposed to upscaling.

“This is a shame, and a self-defeating exercise,” concludes the magazine. “America’s environmental movement emerged in the 19thcentury to push for national parks. In the 20th 

century it sold them to the public through photographs and writing. It now seems bent on driving people away from them.”


Mountain Village seeks critical mass

MOUNTAIN VILLAGE – Several years ago a short film titled “The Lost People of Mountain Village” was created. It instantly became a cult classic in ski towns.

The protagonists in this film are Indiana Jones-type archaeologists, coursing through the empty plazas of Mountain Village during the off-season, wondering loudly about what could have happened to this vanished civilization that was responsible for these edifices.

But, in a way, the situation in Mountain Village is similar to that in many ski towns. It is to Telluride what Snowmass Village is to Aspen, and what Mt. Crested Butte is to Crested Butte. The pace notably slackens anytime the ski lifts aren’t operating.

Ski resort planner Paul Mathews more or less confirmed local sensibilities about what to do. He and his company, Whistler-based Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners, were retained by Mountain Village to study the dynamics. The town, he has concluded, needs more “hot beds,” i.e. those that can be rented to tourists, and it needs more diverse recreation activities.

Without those draws, there isn’t enough business for other businesses, he said. “There are more empty spaces than full spaces right now. It makes you sort of wonder what may have gone wrong.”

Only 60 percent of the accommodations planned for Mountain Village have been built, and they need to be constructed to achieve that critical threshold. Then, it’s also a matter of building a year-round economy, having enough affordable housing to keep operations going and …

Well, if you know anything about ski towns, you know the drill here. Of course, Hal Clifford in his bookDownhill Slide argued that such master-planned communities are doomed for failure.

Developers struggle with new realities

MINTURN –The Ginn Co., the developer of a giant resort real estate project near Vail, also has projects in the southeastern United States, including one in North Carolina called Laurelmor, which is struggling to survive.

The project, reports theVail Daily, has missed an interest and principal payment of $675 million. The company is trying to restructure the loan. Slowed sales were blamed.

Ginn is planning to build a giant new real estate development of about 1,300 units, a small ski area, a gondola, and a golf course on one-time mining properties in the triangle of Minturn, Red Cliff and Vail.

Representatives of Ginn told theDaily that the projects are separately financed and legally separate.

The Ginn project has been annexed into the town of Minturn, but must get a further approval next year. As well, a fundamental problem involving water supply has yet to be resolved.

Meanwhile, some 40 miles to the west, another project considered cutting edge is off the burner. Aspen-based Kurt and John Forstmann had proposed a resort ranch project in the Gypsum Creek Valley. The theme of sustainability was to have been featured at the 340-home project, with solar collectors on homes and even a communal agriculture area for local production of food,

A Gypsum town official told theEagle Valley Enterprise that the Forstmanns’ timing was a problem, including doubts about market conditions.


Condi Rice plays Brahms in Aspen

ASPEN – Condoleeza Rice spent Saturday in Aspen, tickling the ivories and defending the Bush Administration policies.

Rice had performed in Aspen before. She was 17 then and living in Denver, and was a student at the Aspen Music School. After listening to 11- and 12-year-olds play music from sight that she had spent all year learning, she decided she was more likely to be asked to play piano at Nordstrom’s than Carnegie Hall.

Instead of music in college, she took an international relations class at the University of Denver that was being taught by Joseph Korbel. Korbel, the father of Madeline Albright, secretary of state under Bill Clinton, oversaw her studies through her Ph.D

The Aspen Times says that Rice did a credible job of performing Dvorak and Brahms.

– Allen Best



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