The West’s epic winter continues

PARK CITY, Utah – And on into February the blustery storms continued, a source of both frolicking joy for many who choose to live in mountain towns and growing weary for those who think summer, not winter, is the best part of mountain life.

The passes in and out of Silverton were closed last week for the third time this season. Only slightly less isolation was experienced in Wyoming’s Jackson Hole, as winds blew the snow with a fierceness described as “rare.” With avalanches blocking several roads used by long-distance commuters, many businesses operated with skeleton crews.

Blowing snow closed even the road between the big ski area, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, and the town of Jackson, for awhile. The ski area has received 400 inches so far this year, compared to a season’s-end average of 465.

Wind was also the story in Vail and the Eagle Valley, where the first “snow day” since the early 1980s was called for local schools. That there are now far more people trying to drive local roads may have also been part of the story, as the Vail area is increasingly like the cities to which most mountain dwellers like to feel smugly superior.

It has been an uncommon winter, particularly in the more southerly locations. The Gunnison Basin, where Crested Butte is located, has registered more than 150 percent of average in snow depths. That, however, has been brutal for deer herds, leading some wildlife biologists to conjecture that more than half of Colorado’s deer will die this winter.

Building officials have also been fretting about snow loads. In Aspen, city officials warned that storms thus far could be loading roofs with 58 pounds per square foot. Modern building codes mandate strength sufficient to hold 75 pounds, but older buildings may be designed to hold only 45, and some manufactured homes – Aspen still has dozens of trailers – are designed for only 30 pounds.

In Park City, a section of ceiling trusses over the dressing rooms in a middle school gymnasium collapsed on Saturday, crushing lockers and causing a sprinkler system to activate.

All of this snow has city crews working overtime. City crews had removed about four times the average amount of snow from downtown Park City. Pace Erickson, who manages municipal snowplow operations, toldThe Park Record that snowplowers are becoming weary. “You can just tell by the body language,” he said.

In Steamboat Springs, it’s not been a particularly epic winter. Still, to many it is getting old. Joanne Palmer, writing in theSteamboat Pilot & Today, confides imagining ways to loft the snow from her driveway into her neighbors’ yards. And as for the next person who says “We need the moisture,” she vows a claim of temporary insanity.

In Park City, theRecord lauded the professional snow movers for their work in a very difficult storm sequence. “Most cities across the country would have been crippled by the amount of snow our mountains received this week,” noted the newspaper, but the local economy barely skipped a beat.

Another way of saying this is that in places like Denver or Salt Lake City, it’s a disaster when it snows. In ski towns, it’s a disaster if it doesn’t.

Targhee development finally OKed

TETON VALLEY, Idaho – After more than 15 years, two ski area owners, and countless hearings, the die has been cast for real estate development at the base of the Grand Targhee ski area. Mori Bergmeyer, formerly an architect from Boston, had initiated the process of a land exchange, but finally threw in the towel in the face of opposition and sold the ski area to the George Gillett-led Booth Creek Ski Holdings.

Gillett, the one-time owner of Vail, and his family then continued to press for a land exchange, which was finally consummated several years ago. The Gilletts then proposed more than 800 housing units. The proposal has been contentious, spurred by fears that this would be the beginning of the end for what is called the quiet side of the Tetons. Jackson Hole is on the other side of the range.

But last week, the Teton County commissioners finally approved a scaled-down plan calling for 450 units. A county commissioner representing that area, Leland Christiansen, called it a start in the wrong direction. “I don’t know how many people in 20 to 30 years are going to applaud the work we’ve done.”

But while Christiansen might have wanted to see a Rockefeller family arrive to preserve the land, as has been done on the other side of the Teton Range, Commissioner Andy Schwartz noted that the Rockefellers also built resorts, where visitors can enjoy those lands. It was, he said, a good compromise,

and Geordie Gillett, son of George and the Gillett in charge at Grand Targhee, said he was also persuaded of the value of down-sizing. “I have come to be convinced that less is more,” he said.

Obama popular in mountain towns

KETCHUM, Idaho – Barack Obama came out the clear winner in ski-anchored mountain valleys of Colorado and Idaho during the Super Tuesday caucuses.

In Idaho’s Blaine County, home to Ketchum and Sun Valley, a record turnout of nearly 1,200 Democrats was reported, with large numbers of people turned away because they failed to arrive by the 7 p.m. start. The assembled partisans gave 86 percent of their votes to Obama, leaving Hillary without so much as a delegate to the state convention.

Elsewhere in Idaho, the story was similar. In Donnelly, at the foot of the Tamarack ski area, 233 Democrats showed, versus 56 the year John Kerry got the nomination, notesThe Star-News.

Obama also got the hosannas in Colorado’s Eagle County. There, reports theVail Daily, Obama got 74 percent of local votes in a boisterous gathering. In Gunnison County, reports theCrested Butte News, he got two-thirds.

Meanwhile, in Wyoming, there is some speculation that when caucuses are held in Jackson Hole in March, the race between Clinton and Obama may not yet be resolved, meaning there might actually be a purpose in going to the caucuses.

Telluride reaches power accord

TELLURIDE – The news from Telluride is that a third power line may be strung – and dug – to serve the community. The story goes back about 10 years and is of considerable importance to Telluriders, given how important electricity is to the tourist economy – and how vulnerable existing lines are.

One existing line comes from Durango, loping across various passes in the San Juan Mountains. It is vulnerable, as was proven several years ago when an avalanche knocked down poles, forcing brownouts during the peak of ski season. The other power line comes in from the west, but it is aging.

A new and taller power line was planned from the west, but landowners on the scenic mesas over which it would cross have resisted. Now, a compromise has been forged. As demanded by San Miguel County, the line will be buried as it crosses the scenic mesas, elevating the cost. The total cost of $16.4 million is to be absorbed among various users and beneficiaries, plus the electrical provider. However, many details are yet to be worked out, officials tellThe Telluride Watch.

Canmore looks beyond tourism

CANMORE, Alberta – Canmore’s mayor, Ron Casey, in his annual speech, said it’s time for Canmore to more fully realize that it’s no longer a tourist town, in the traditional sense.

“We are not like Banff. We are different,” he said. “Here, the tourists own the property.”

He pointed to a recent economic development report that described tourism as the primary industry within Canmore. “Are we really a tourist town? Is that the major economic driver in the community, or is it recreational property, or quality of life.”

Casey said the distinction does matter. How Canmore sees itself will alter its plan for development and where that development should occur. In his speech, Casey alluded to tensions with the second-home owners. Canmore, he noted, has not yet engaged second-home owners in local issues. Susan Barry, who represents the development community, said the town and its government must pay more than lip service into being an inclusive community.

Canmore seems to be looking at the experience of Jackson Hole in understanding its own situation and what it should be doing.

Crested Butte marks slow economy

CRESTED BUTTE – There are indications that the softened economy is affecting Crested Butte and Gunnison. At a recent forum, there were reports that airport business was down, indicating sluggishness in the tourism economy, despite abundant snow. As well, reports theCrested Butte News, there was testimony that the real estate market has softened.

The conventional wisdom is that the more high-end the market, the more insulated it is to economic swings. That may be true, but real-estate developer Dan Fitchett sees people holding property they’d rather not be holding onto. “The problem with the Crested Butte market is a lot of people were speculating after the ski area changed hands (in 2004),” he said.

– Allen Best

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