Thinning takes off across West

LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Across the West, land managers have started thinning forests adjacent to towns or in watersheds from which towns and cities draw their water.

The general thinking is that it’s none too wise to have giant forest fires that might spread into towns. But there’s a second need, to prevent reservoirs and lakes from filling with sediment.

That’s certainly a worry in Colorado, where an epidemic of bark beetles is on its way to killing 90 percent of the lodgepole pine that dominate mid-elevation forests.

Some of this worry stems from the aftereffects of several giant fires southwest of Denver, particularly the Hayman Fire of 2002. Those fires blackened hillsides for miles amid terrain where Denver has several major reservoirs. The heat was so intense it charred and hardened the soil, which prevented regeneration and moisture absorption. The result was downpours causing massive erosion that required dredging reservoirs at a cost of millions.

To reduce the likelihood of that happening again, the U.S. Forest Service and the Denver Water Department have joined in a $33 million tree-thinning effort upstream of the reservoirs. Some of the thinning will hit Summit County, home to Dillon Reservoir, one of Denver’s largest impoundments.

The effort hopes to prevent something along the lines of the Angora Fire, which in 2007 blazed in the Lake Tahoe Basin, nnear the Heavenly ski area. But for whatever reason, the 2007 fire had no significant impact on the famed clarity of Lake Tahoe, according to a recent report.

But if the Angora Fire didn’t muddy Lake Tahoe appreciably, it did open the door to increased thinning operations. Some people in the basin are still skeptical of why land managers want to cut trees, the Sierra Sun reports. A few have even argued that land managers are selling trees to make money, a charge stoutly denied by land managers.

The fundamental problem, says Ray Lacey, deputy director of the California Tahoe Conservancy, is that fires were suppressed for decades, resulting in forests that today are seven to 12 times denser than historic conditions. Periodic, low-intensity fires would have precluded the unnaturally dense situations.

In British Columbia, with memories fresh of the thick smoke of last year, managers of the community forest adjacent to Whistler have authorized thinning. Dense forests that have reappeared after the clearcutting in the 1970s or before that in the 1930s will be targeted. In these new rounds of cutting, smaller trees will be cut while larger trees will be spared.

Adjacent to Whistler, cutting practices in the Cheakamus Community Forest have become controversial. Here, some 90 percent of old-growth trees will be spared. It’s just the opposite in the telling of some opponents, who charge that 80 percent of the old growth will be cut. Pique Newsmagazine reports that such charges have led to condemnations from across Canada and even from the Czech Republic.

Old Faithful center mixes opinions

WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. – A new visitor’s center opened in late August at Old Faithful, the iconic geyser near the center of Yellowstone National Park. The new 26,000-square-foot building is iconic in its own right, costing $27 million and achieving a high level of green building certification.

Yet there’s friction in this setting, as described by two different newspapers. The Jackson Hole News&Guide describes how needs of automobile transportation dominate the setting. The main attraction – the geyser – almost is stumbled upon, as if by accident, says writer Thomas Dewell.

A writer for the New York Times seemingly takes the opposite tack in his review of the new building. “Homage is being paid,” observes Edward Rothstein. “The geyser is the center of attention ... .”

But Rothstein also notes “tension of the park experience” on display at Old Faithful, which draws 80 percent of all visitors to Yellowstone, the first and most famous national park in the world. That tension is evident in the new building, with its many warnings about the dangers found in the hot springs, fumaroles and wildlife – all of which have claimed lives.

As for Old Faithful, more than a few park visitors have been somewhat disappointed in the scalding torrents. Although the hot water can spout to heights of 180 feet, Old Faithful’s main claim to fame is its reliability, every 90 minutes.

But Rothstein says it best: “As the symbol of one of the country’s most visited national parks, Old Faithful actually seems least faithful — least suggestive of untrammeled nature. From its measured eruptions to its paved surroundings, it can seem a manufactured extravaganza. Three hotels have grown around it, the most famous of which, the 1904 Old Faithful Inn, probably inspires far more gasps, with its fanciful, rustic, pine-log construction, than the famed geyser’s jets of water. And as for spectacle, the Bellagio’s Las Vegas fountains outdo nature, at least in this case.”

Banff helps wolverines cross highways

BANFF, Alberta – The widening of the TransCanada Highway through Banff National Park continues. The work now under way will yield four lanes in the segment between Lake Louise and the Continental Divide, on the Alberta-British Columbia border.

But just what effect this widening will have on wide-ranging wolves, bears and other carnivores is only imperfectly understood.

Banff has led the world in building safe wildlife crossings on highways. This new segment of 6.2 kilometres (3.8 miles) will have one crossing and two underpasses designed specifically for wildlife. This is in addition to many others previously built between Canmore and Lake Louise.

Meanwhile, a five-year study now under way seeks to get a better handle on the needs and activities of the reclusive but ferocious wolverine.

“They roam huge territories along the spine of the Rocky Mountain cordillera, taking on cliffs, summits and icefalls, all through some of the worst weather nature can create,” says Dave Clevenger, a biologist who has long worked on the Banff crossings. Some people, he noted, consider the wolverine the toughest animal in the world. Like other carnivores, wolverines have become far more rare today.

The study attempts to assess the effects of the Trans-Canada Highway wildlife crossings on the needs of wolverine for big, secure and well-connected landscapes.

Montana State University’s Western Transportation Institute is conducting the study, along with Parks Canada and the University of Calgary’s Miistakis Institute.

Summer sales pop in mountain towns

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – Mountain towns broadly enjoyed an uptick in business during July. It’s not all that much, but it’s moving in the right direction.

At Sun Valley, Idaho, the ski area operator reported a strong summer and expectations of “substantially” more business in August and September.

In Colorado, Mt. Crested Butte had 24 percent more sales tax collections for July as compared to the same month last year. The ski area’s new attractions of mini golf and the Evolution Bike Park were probably crucial to that enormous spike.

Perhaps more broadly revealing was the story in Steamboat Springs, where collections of taxes on sales rose 1.7 percent compared with July 2009. It was the first monthly increase compared to the year prior since August 2008, just before the national economy began its free-fall.

For the year, though, Steamboat’s tax collections were down 3.3 percent compared to last year. Clearly, this economic recovery remains very much on the fence.

Aspen labor force takes a 10% slide

ASPEN – Taking stock of labor statistics on the national holiday called Labor Day, The Aspen Times finds fewer people laboring in Aspen and Pitkin County and getting lower wages when they do.

The statistics were somewhat dated, going back to the last quarter of 2009, the most recent available. At that time, a state agency had found 10 percent fewer wage earners in Aspen and Pitkin County. Wages had declined 5 percent.

– Allen Best

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