Slumping hillsides & natural hazards

JACKSON, Wyo. – While the devastation and loss of human life from the mudslide in Washington state has been exceptional, mudslides in mountain areas are common enough.

So are avalanches, floods and rolling rocks.

After two big winters of heavy snows in the early 1980s, water-saturated soils in Colorado began sliding. Homes were mostly spared, but narrowly, at an old mining town called Red Cliff. Downstream on the Eagle River, a hummocky hill called Meadow Mountain belched mud onto Interstate 70, closing the highway for the better part of a week.

At nearby Vail, destabilized boulders tumbled into a house in that city’s Booth Creek neighborhood. At another neighborhood, Potato Patch, one house slid into another.

Jackson Hole doesn’t have to look back several decades for muddy precedents. Three years ago, a mudslide blocked the highway that hugs the Snake River for three days. Workers commuting from the exurban areas of Alpine had to take an hour-long detour.

Now comes geological instability within the town of Jackson: a crack in the town’s butte. On one side, East Gros Ventre Butte defines the town, and a resident there in December noticed the wide crack in the soil.

Last week, after new evidence of movement, the town ordered evacuation of 60 residents. As well, two restaurants, a liquor store and a Walgreens were vacated on the slim chance that the hillside would let loose. Cracks were visible in the hillside and the movement stretched power lines and buckled pavement in a parking lot.

The Jackson Hole News&Guide reports that a landslide specialist from Oregon concluded there was a relatively small chance that the soil would “lurch” and fall onto the Walgreens below. “I can’t rule out that there will be a big lurch, but it’s not likely,” said George Machan, of Landslide Technology.

Machan pointed to several possible causes, but town officials as of the weekend were still trying to get their arms around the cause and scale of their problem. On Monday, they decided to spend $700,000 to create what the News&Guide described as a “massive weight” in the parking lot at Walgreens, to temporarily counter the force of the slow-motion earthen slide.

Of greatest concern to Jackson officials is potential rupture of a waterline that delivers one-third of the water to the city of 10,000 people. If broken, it would flood the town with 2 million gallons of water in 30 or 40 minutes, said Larry Pardee, public works director.

Not all mountain areas pose the same mudslide potential, according to Spenser Havlick, a semi-retired professor at the University of Colorado. Soil compositions are different, and so are precipitation levels.

That’s not to say interior mountain ranges are without dangers. Anytime you cut into the toe of a mudslide area, as is often done for highways and even residential development, it elevates the risk.

In general, it’s best to leave room for nature to do what it will, he tells students in his course, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” a phrase taken from Sand County Almanac, the seminal book by Aldo Leopold.

He lives in Boulder, which was swamped by last September’s rains. While well away from creeks, the basement of his house still flooded. But it could have been worse – and might have been if Boulder had it not limited development in known waterways.

The Wilderness Act 50 years later

TELLURIDE – Amid passing landmark civil rights legislation and Vietnam, the U.S. Congress 50 years ago passed the Wilderness Act.

The law specifically designated 9.2 million acres of public lands as “untrammeled by man” and created a way for the further designations. Moving Mountains, the symposium held in conjunction with the Mountainfilm in Telluride film festival, has a highly regarded lineup of speakers focusing on that topic.

Douglas Brinkley, the well-known historian frequently seen on television, will be there to talk about his various books, including The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America. He has also written about the preservation of wilderness in Alaska.

Jared Diamond, whose Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997, will also speak.

Cheryl Strayed will be there, too, to tell about her experiences. While in her early 20s, she set out on a 1,000-mile backpack trip along the Pacific Crest Trail, knowing almost nothing about backpacking but hoping the experience would give her some insights into her troubled life. It seems to have, because her book, Wild, has won rave reviews and broad attention.

David Holbrooke, the festival director, tells The Telluride Watch that he believes the “untrammeled by man” definition must be extended beyond the 109.5 million acres of federally owned lands now designated as wilderness – roughly 50 percent of it in Alaska – to the oceans.

The definition of wilderness has always been tricky. As many commentators have noted, there is plenty of evidence of people within formally designated wilderness. You can, for example, see a lot of old mines, occasionally cabins.

And as William Cronon, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, has noted, the whole idea of wilderness may be false. It supposes a landscape untouched by human hands. But the fact that humans are now having an impact as never before is clear enough to even the most myopic among us.

Holbrooke told the Watch that he himself has no pithy answer. “We need a definition that has universal meaning, yet individual meaning,” he said.

Also commentating about wilderness at the festival will be Katie Lee, regarded as the grande dame of Western songs (and a notable river runner, too) and Dave Foreman, a cofounder of EarthFirst.

Taos sets out on 10-year base remodel

TAOS, N.M. – While nobody really questions the value of the mountain’s terrain, the Taos Ski Valley is setting out on a 10-year project to reinvent its base area to become more competitive with other resorts.

“Most people recognize that it’s been a long time since Taos Ski Valley has done a significant upgrade,” says Gordon Briner, chief operations officer.

The Taos News also talked with Ken Gallard, who lived in a cabin with no running water when he moved to Taos. “We need to get back on the radar,” he said, presumably referring to recognition as a top ski area. “We’ve got about 60 years of Band-Aids up here.”

The family of Ernie Blake, the founder of Taos Ski Valley, earlier this year sold the ski area to Louis Bacon, a hedge-fund manager from the East Coast. Bacon has purchased extensive real estate in southern Colorado in recent years along the spine of the Sangre de Cristo Range. Taos is at the southern terminus of the range.

Park City not quite business as usual

PARK CITY, Utah – While a spokeswoman for Park City Mountain Resort predicted “business as usual” for the next ski season, the Park Record notes a subtle shift in the packaging of pre-season ski passes that reflects a heating legal battle over use of the ski area.

Powdr Corp., owner of the ski area but not the land on which it operates, has been tussling for several years with Talisker, owner of the land as well as the nearby Canyons Resort. Talisker says Powdr failed to renew the lease for the land, described as extremely favorable to Powdr, and is now wrestling in the courtroom to control the land and hence the ski area.

Previous season passes were sold with the proviso that passes would be refunded on a prorated basis if the resort is shut down for all or part of the season. For the previous two years, pass holders were also advised that Talisker had stated that it would not interfere with the ability of Park City to operate.

That last sentence is absent this year – and small wonder. Talisker Land Holdings, now represented by Vail Resorts, last August served an eviction notice. Park City, meanwhile, has indicated in court that it will dismantle and remove most of its ski lifts if forced off the land.

Meanwhile, a delegation from Vail visited Park City, and Vail Daily editor Don Rogers returned home to confide to his readers that it looks like Vail Resorts has the better hand.

Powdr, he says, “sounds a bit desperate to my not quite unbiased ear. CEO John Cumming comes across like he arrived at a chess match thinking he’s playing a particularly blustery form of checkers.”

Rogers say that Powdr’s threat to remove chairlifts and other plans, should it lose the court case, has handed the figurative high ground to Vail Resorts.

“They get to give comparatively mild responses that such tough talk is not constructive to resolving the issue, and golly gee it’s not our fault you didn’t renew your lease on time, and oh by the way we’ll pay fair market value for that base area. Let’s be reasonable here.”

Anemic runoff expected in rivers of Southwest

TAOS, N.M. – It’s another cracked-lips spring in northern New Mexico. Rivers and creeks in the Taos area are expected to be flowing at one-third of normal this year. One of them, the Rio Pueblo de Taos, is predicted to have a streamflow of just 10 percent of average between April and July, reports the Taos News.

Farther north in the Rocky Mountains, the snowfall was heavier, but there’s an anomaly. In the Weber River Basin, where Park City is found, snowpack is 11 percent of normal. With that in mind, local emergency managers tell the Park Record that they expect a “normal” wildfire season.

Until two or three years ago, wildfire managers weren’t particularly alarmed about the potential for wildfire in the Park City area. A major fire along the Wasatch Range two years ago, plus some smaller fires, have fully gained their attention.

Two steps forward and its back you go

TELLURIDE – Mary Chapin Carpenter, who has played at Telluride Bluegrass many times, has a song about “it’s two steps forward and then it’s back you go.”

That song comes to mind in connection with the energy report for Telluride given by the town’s project manager, Karen Guglielmone. In 2009, the town set a high goal for reducing its complicity in greenhouse gas emissions. Compared to a 2005 baseline, it wanted to reduce emissions 20 percent by 2020.

How are things going? Strictly by the numbers, well, it’s back you go. Emissions have actually grown 6.7 percent, owing to an increase in use of electricity, natural gas and transportation. Growth in the volume of treated water was one cause, as was longer operating hours of a park’s facility.

But this growth has been partially offset by an increase in renewable energy in the town government’s portfolio. Municipal operations account for about 6 percent of energy use in Telluride.

Coal digging slides in Steamboat area

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – Steamboat Springs was never a coal-mining town, but there were coal mines both south and west. One giant coal mine continues to operate at Twentymile Park, which is located at about that distance from Steamboat.

Steamboat Today reports that production at the mine last year was down 10 percent. That fits in with state and national trends. Natural gas has been cheaper and, because of its lower carbon content, a preferred choice.

But Twentymile Coal Co. is the largest taxpayer in Routt County and the second-largest employer, with 400 employees.

California river trumps Colorado

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – California, with its continued drought, trumped Colorado this year in the American Rivers’ annual listing of the nation’s most endangered river.

In announcing its list, American Rivers said the San Joaquin River was threatened by outdated water management and excessive diversions.

But for at least a decade, the organization has been raising alarms about further transmountain diversions from the headwaters of the Colorado River and its tributaries. Most of Colorado’s best-known ski resorts – from Steamboat to Winter Park, Breckenridge to Vail, Aspen to Crested Butte – are located in this arc of headwaters.

Several of these creeks and rivers are already heavily plumbed, to draw water across, under and through the Continental Divide to cities on the Front Range.

Could Colorado’s cities get one more major transmountain diversion? That’s been the underlying tension in Colorado since the 1980s. It remains the quiet aspiration of some water developers even as it becomes more clear that very little water may remain in the Colorado River for development.

“It’s not that we’re being stingy about sharing our water,” says Ken Neubecker, of American Rivers. “Quite frankly, there’s not much water left to share.”

Still, the Yampa River presents an inviting target. In theory, it still has unclaimed water – at least as Colorado meets commitments to California and Arizona. The river originates in the Flat Tops Wilderness and flows through Steamboat on its way to Dinosaur National Monument and ultimately Lake Powell.

“There are very powerful water interests that really want a new trans-basin diversion,” Matt Rice, of American Rivers, tells the Steamboat Today. “A multibillion dollar project is hard to comprehend in this economic climate, but as long as the Yampa has ample water in it, I would suggest it’s going to be a threat.”

– Allen Best For more, go to

In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows