Western defensible space debated

BRECKENRIDGE – With lodgepole pine trees in the area steadily turning more red and then gray, Breckenridge is now contemplating its next step in the bark beetle epidemic

The Town Council in June adopted a law that gives homeowners two years to remove trees within 30 feet of their homes to create firebreaks. Those who refuse can be billed $1,200 or more by the town.

But opponents have collected enough signatures to put the law before a community vote in November, unless the council rescinds the law. The council will consider its options July 28.

The story in Breckenridge illustrates the dilemmas of local governments across the West, as they attempt to deal with the belated recognition that they live in fire-dependent ecosystems.

In Breckenridge, however, many people see an issue of private vs. community rights.

TheLos Angeles Times quotes one homeowner, Ed Nolan, 65, who accuses the Breckenridge government of trampling on property rights by forcing him to cut down 37 trees. “It’s a sacred thing,” he says of property rights.

But another homeowner believes that government has responsibility to the community. John Quigley, 59, told the same newspaper that he had hired crews to thin his property, in part because it might save the life of a firefighter.

The town had originally required only that trees infected by bark beetles be cut down. Fire officials, however, asked for greater islands. If the threat of fire will remain, the chances of a major conflagration will decline, they say.

Such protective measures have become more common in recent years. In 2002, nearby Eagle County adopted a law mandating 30 to 100 feet of defensible space around new buildings and those with major remodels. This does not affect individual towns in the county, such as Vail.

Grand Lake, at the west entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, also requires defensible space around homes. Mike Long, the fire chief, toldPlanning Magazine last winter that homeowners who refuse to comply have been told that their homes will be the last to receive efforts of firefighters.

Long also told the magazine that he sees the bark beetle epidemic as good, in that the dead trees serve to remind people of the potential for fire that existed all along. Forests of green trees, if perhaps not as easily ignited as those with red needles, can burn even more hotly.

however, Thomas Veblen, a geography professor at the University of Colorado, tellsForest Magazine that his study of forests over the last 500 years shows that weather and climate are much more important determinants of fire than is fuel conditions. “Weather conditions are the overriding factor in terms of fire risk and fire hazard,” he says.

Fires were more scarce during the 20th century, but because of climatic reasons, not because of fire suppression, he contends.

Connecting these and other dots, theSummit Daily News notes the birth of a new reality in Summit County and much of the intermountain West. “It’s no longer business as usual, and creation of defensible space is just part of the equation we need to apply to protect our homes and property.”

Bear problems in Crested Butte

CRESTED BUTTE – After increasing problems with bears, Crested Butte last year passed an ordinance requiring efforts to make it difficult for bears to get into garbage containers.

However, now the bears have left the alleys behind and started crawling into cars and windows. One bear even recently strolled into the lobby of the local cop shop.

TheCrested Butte News reports that one bear got in a car, where it was quite the oaf before setting off a car alarm. This was at 2 a.m., and when the car owner went to investigate, he encountered the bear, much to the surprise of both.

Also surprising, says the newspaper, was circumstantial evidence that the bear had opened the car’s door, which was believed to have been shut.

Bill Heicher, a retired wildlife biologist from Eagle, says it’s not particularly surprising that a bear figured out how to get into a car. “You have to remember that a bear has a lot of time,” he says. “A bear is basically driven by two things: food and mating. If it has a good idea something has food in it, it will spend a lot of time trying to get the food.”

Bears will spend hours raking serviceberry bushes in late summer, combing the branches for relatively small amounts of food, he points out.

As for the challenge of a car door, he indicates that it’s not beyond the means of a bear. Because of that reason, bear-proof refuse containers in national parks, for example, have latches that bears, because of the shape of their paws, would find almost impossible to open.

Most car doors, in contrast, aren’t all that difficult. “Animals are patient by nature,” says Heicher. “They have to be. They don’t get easily frustrated and leave.”

Colorado’s backcountry this year seems to have plenty of food for bears, even if the berry crop has not yet ripened. But bears accustomed to human food don’t easily go back to grubbing for insects. That, according to Chris Martin, a state wildlife manager, is the case in the Crested Butte area. He expects some bears will likely be killed this summer, because they have become unafraid of people.

That’s also the story in the Eagle Valley, where a 125-pound female bear was killed because wildlife officers considered it a human safety risk.The Vail Daily reports that one bear broke through a screen door and into a kitchen where a person was cooking.

A-Basin enjoys surprising success

DILLON – Founded in 1946, one of Colorado’s earliest ski areas, Arapahoe Basin constituted little more than chump change in the Colorado ski industry by the 1990s.

But what a difference just 10 years can make. The Summit Daily News reports that for the second consecutive winter, A-Basin surpassed 400,000 skier days, this year hitting 409,000. Last year there were 431,000.

Those numbers say nothing about income for the ski area operator, as many customers use low-priced season passes. But there were likely more customers than were recorded at three of the Aspen Skiing Co.’s four ski areas and a great many other ski areas in the West.

By comparison, A-Basin a decade ago was notching 200,000 to 300,000 skier days a winter, but just 150,000 in the perilously dry winter of 2001-02.

How did A-Basin get this traction? The story starts in the mid-1990s, when Vail Associates, then with two ski areas, purchased Breckenridge, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin. Competitors cried foul, arguing that the purchases tripped the federal anti-trust regulations. In time, the U.S. government agreed, and ordered the enlarged company, which called itself Vail Resorts, to sell one of its ski areas.

In a deal that many critics believed barely survived the arm’s-length ruling, Vail sold A-Basin, the smallest of the operations, to a Canadian firm, Dundee Realty, which was based at Beaver Creek, then a short distance from Vail corporate headquarters.

But if independently owned, A-Basin and Vail Resorts work cooperatively. A-Basin is included in the Vail Resorts low-priced deals. Sources also say A-Basin has contracted with Vail for some basic operational services.

The new owners have invested significantly into A-Basin. At the time of the purchase, the ski area barely nudged 200,000 skier days per year. One of just three ski areas in Colorado without snowmaking, it sometimes it often did not open until December, sometimes even January.

With this snowmaking, A-Basin opens reliably in October, often the first ski area in the United States. Two winters ago it opened a major new backside bowl called Montezuma and this past winter it unveiled a nice sit-down restaurant at mid-mountain, which offers fancy evening meals. It also has new parking lots to accommodate the larger crowds.

Climber survives summer slide

JACKSON, Wyo. – Most people think of avalanches as a phenomenon of winter. But as Mark Wilcox attested in a recent report of a climbing trip, they can also pose a peril to climbers during summer.

Wilcox, writing in theJackson Hole News & Guide, tells of climbing up the chute on Teewinot Mountain, the sixth highest peak in the Teton Range. One climber was swept down the chute in an avalanche. The slide was small enough that, by frantically digging in with his ice ax, he was able to avoid being swept over a small cliff.

But the troubles weren’t over. Just as it will in winter, the moving snow, once it stopped, set up like plaster around his leg. “He was stuck, nearly hypothermic and, above all, scared,” Wilcox wrote in a column called “Excursion.”

Then, a larger and more violent avalanche churned down the chute. The victim’s companions fearfully shouted a warning, and the victim furiously swung his ice ax in an attempt to dislodge the snow that encased his leg. It was just too much.

His horrified companions watched as the wall of snow pounded his back and then covered him entirely.

This time, luck was with him. His imprisoned leg served as an anchor, preventing the second avalanche from sweeping him over the cliff. The snow pummeled but did not seriously injure him.

Reaching the bottom of their climb that day, leaving snow behind, the victim kissed the ground. “I know someone was looking out for us on that mountain,” writes Wilcox.

– Allen Best

In this week's issue...

July 21, 2022
Wildlife success or deal with the devil?

Land swap approved in Southwest Colorado, but not without detractors

July 21, 2022
Tapping out

The latest strategy to save the San Luis Valley's shrinking aquifer: paying farmers not to farm

July 14, 2022
Hey, good environmental news

Despite SCOTUS ruling, San Juan Generating Station plans to shut down