Minturn embraces development

MINTURN – Despite being sandwiched by two of the nation’s glossiest, most affluent mountain resorts, Vail and Beaver Creek, the community of Minturn still has an element of the grime accumulated from its 90 years as a railroad and mining center.

Soon, there may be gloss in a third direction. Town residents, by a margin of 87 percent to 13 percent, last week affirmed the annexation and approved development proposed by Ginn Resorts, a Florida-based company.

This is the company’s first foray into the Rocky Mountains – but it is a very big one. Tentatively approved are 1,700 homes, from condominiums located in a former Superfund mining area along the Eagle River, to mansions that are high-end in both the economic and literal elevational sense. Connecting the two will be a gondola. There will also be a semi-private ski area and a golf course built atop mine tailings.

Although housing prices in Minturn have inflated relative to those of the nearby resorts, it remains a small town. Ginn never pretended that there would be no impacts. Traffic will get worse. Housing prices are likely to rise. But the company also contracted, in its annexation agreement, to build a recreation center, create sidewalks, and do other things that Minturn, with its thin sales tax base, could not afford to do.

Helping boost his company’s image was Bobby Ginn, the company’s drawling, cowboy-boot-wearing principal. The 59-year-old Ginn was in town two weeks ago, and helped hump trash at the town’s community cleanup. After the vote, Ginn paid for the drinks at a local bar until the booze was completely gone.

Elsewhere in the Eagle Valley, the vote was seen as no reason for celebration. One blogger on theVail Daily website charged that it will turn Minturn “into a rich man’s paradise at the expense of regular folks.” Another bemoaned increased traffic on the town’s thin-as-a-whisp (and with no alternative routes) main street:  “You made your bed Minturn, now lie in it,”

But another blogger took a longer perspective, writing that Minturn had waited too many years to institute changes and actively embrace economic changes. “There should have been a balance. Instead there was a void ... and a savior has come to Minturn. Hopefully it will work out as the voters planned.”

Aspen pushes for renewables

ASPEN —The Aspen Skiing Co. is now broadly advancing its environmental agenda, taking sides in the election of directors of the local electrical utility that serves the Roaring Fork and Eagle valleys.

Aspen, worried about continued growth in greenhouse gases, wants to see a greater push for renewable energy sources. Of the electricity distributed by Glenwood Springs-based Holy Cross Energy, 94 percent is produced by burning either coal or natural gas. While it is considered progressive as compared to most rural electrical co-coops, Aspen Skiing feels a sense of urgency to take sides and prod production of electricity from renewable sources.

As such, it is endorsing two candidates who are opposing incumbents from the Vail-dominated Eagle Valley. “We want to see more, faster,” said Auden Schendler, the company’s executive director of community and environmental responsibility.

Schendler said Aspen Skiing was dismayed by Holy Cross’s investment in a new coal-fired power plant at Pueblo.

Meanwhile, Vail Resorts has launched an effort to reduce energy use by 10 percent during the next two years at its ski areas, hotels, restaurants and other operations. Rob Katz, the chief executive officer, calls it an “energy layoff” and predicts that it will become the norm for businesses that want to stay profitable and environmentally sustainable.

The company last November launched an energy belt-tightening program called “Use Less. Do More.” But a broader, more urgent program was necessitated by what Katz called “a perfect storm, so to speak.” He cited a trio of reasons: the slowed economy, the rising price of oil, and the continued need to reduce global-warming carbon emissions.

Katz called for the company to reduce energy use by 5 percent during fiscal 2009, and then another 5 percent the following year.

“Everything is on the table,” he wrote. He said that many day-to-day practices were instituted when gasoline cost 90 cents a gallon, and the increased fuel costs may justify different investments. “With oil over $130 per barrel, projects that may have been ‘iffy’ before may be very compelling today,” he said in the memo.

Loggers embrace warming trend

AMADOR, Calif. – Logging companies see a silver lining in global warming. If accumulations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are truly a serious problem, they say, then efforts to keep forests young and gulping in carbon should be rewarded. That would mean frequent cuttings, what the industry calls intensive forest management.

That’s the gist of a four-year study produced on behalf of Sierra Pacific Industries, which owns 1.6 million acres of forests in California. The study, reports the Amador Ledger Dispatch, claims that California forests are “undermanaged” with the result of unnaturally large buildup in the forests.

“By following intensive management practices to harvest and replant most of our lands over the course of 80 to 100 years, we found we can actually increase the ability of our forests to store carbon by about 150 percent,” said Cajun James, the company’s research and monitoring managers.

The study examined four scenarios, and found that the intensive model of harvesting and replanting about 1.25 percent of forest lands each year most successfully sequestered carbon.

Environmental groups think the science justifying these conclusions is, at best, sloppy. Chris Wright, executive director of the Foothills Conservancy, said the study only concentrates on carbon in trees, and overlooks how much carbon is emitted into the atmosphere while transporting workers, harvesting the wood, and hauling the felled trees.

A group called ForestWatch, which produced its own study, asks builders to steer clear of Sierra Pacific Industry products until the company reforms its forest management polices. The company last year paid a fine of $13 million for falsifying emission reports and tampering with monitoring equipment. “Bottom line is that it is a flawed study and a transparent effort by SPI to justify its economically, socially and environmentally unsustainable clearcutting timber practices,” said Wright.

Drug testing lands at Vail school

AVON – Students at Battle Mountain High School who participate in extracurricular activities next year will be subjected to random drug and alcohol testing. More than 75 percent of students are involved in after-school activities such as sports, music and speech.

The school is located between Vail and Avon. Officials with the Eagle County School District say they believe there is stronger peer pressure in a resort area to drink alcohol and smoke marijuana. While most of it is confined to weekends, some of it is spilling into the school week, including the high school itself, said Mike Gass, executive director of secondary education. Officials are also seeing increased incidence as revealed by the number of minors caught possessing alcohol, for example.

“We are not seeing improvement. This is an attempt to change that,” said Gass.

The new policy was instigated partly by parents, some of whom have designated their homes as “safe” zones, where alcohol will not be provided.

The program will not be unique. One other high school in Colorado, Ignacio’s, has had drug and alcohol testing for 10 years. Eagle County school officials have also communicated with counterparts at schools in Georgia.

Because of its proximity to the Vail and Beaver Creek-based tourism economy, Battle Mountain has long had a reputation as a place of greater drug and alcohol use. Greater transience is also part of the story, says Gass.

Hyperbaric chamber in Basalt

BASALT – Just how much money is going into health care in the ski-anchored mountain valleys of the West is revealed in a story from Aspen. A story inThe Aspen Times tells about the Win HBO Rapid Healing Center, a new operation in Basalt, 18 miles down-valley from Aspen.

Among other advanced medical equipment, the center is to have the first hyperbaric oxygen chamber between Denver and Salt Lake City.

Most ski towns in the thin-aired Rocky Mountains have the somewhat simpler hyperbaric chambers that allow people with high-altitude pulmonary edema to be treated by, in effect, reducing the atmospheric pressure to between sea level and 5,000 feet.

The hyperbaric oxygen chamber, however, can increase the oxygen to pressures found at below sea level. David Jensen, cofounder of the Win Institute, toldThe Times that such chambers are used for treatment of sports-specific rehabilitation, anti-aging and multiple sclerosis.

 – Allen Best