Outdoor retailers continue fight to keep public lands in public hands

CEdar Mesa pictographs BLM

The 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah protects one of most significant cultural landscapes in the United States. Photo: Bob Wick, BLM

As the Trump administration continues its push to reduce or eliminate 26 national monuments, a move viewed by outdoors enthusiasts as a blow against all public lands, many outdoor products companies are taking a stand in defense of the monuments and  voicing support for public lands. Read the story here.

And don’t forget to enjoy your public heritage Saturday, Sept. 30, on National Public Lands Day. It’s a free days at federal recreation sites and many state sites. If you want to take an active role in your lands, many private, state and federal organizations are sponsoring demonstrations and volunteer on-the-ground work days. Call your favorite group or check the National Environmental Education Foundation website for a list of opportunites.

Among those groups getting dirty on Sept. 30 is the Grand Mesa Nordic Council, which

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One of the new trail signs gracing  the Grand Mesa Nordic trails. Photo: GMNC

recently received a $6,000 grant from the Grand Junction REI store as part of the partnership between the two. Some of the grant is paying for the dozens of new signs marking trailheads and trail junctions along the estimated 31 miles of trails and part of the money will help pay for ski-trail grooming, said GMNC president Winslow Robertson.

“REI has been a great to work with and this grant will help us to continue to improve the skiing experience,” Robertson said. “It costs us about $4,000 per week during the season to groom the trails and this will augment the money from GMNC members.”

The Grand Mesa Nordic system is one of the few in the U.S. not charging a use fee.

The Nordic Council and REI are collaborating for a trail work day Sept. 30 on Grand Mesa to mark National Public Lands Day. Volunteers will be putting put up new trails signs and clearing trails of branches, rocks and debris. Information is available here.

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Four named to state wildlife commission; funding tops the list

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Wildlife management has many facets and none of it is free. Hunting and fishing licenses still pay two-thirds of the bills for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. 

Gov. John Hickenlooper has added four new members, three from the Western Slope, to the Colorado Wildlife Commission.

Among the newest members of the 11-person panel are former Grand Junction mayor Jim Spehar; Carrie Besnette Hauser, president and CEO of Colorado Community College in Glenwood Springs; Marie E. Haskett, owner of JML Outfitters near Meeker, the 2016 COA Outfitter of the Year; and Xcel Energy vice-president Marvin Edward McDaniel of Sedalia. Read the entire news release here.

The biggest challenge facing the wildlife commission is what the agency terms “the uncertain outlook for hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation in the face of severe funding challenges.”

It’s not just fewer fish stocked in lakes and streams or the possible loss of access to walk-in hunting and fishing areas or maybe curtailing or closing state parks. It’s what Northwest Regional Manager JT Romatzke described as the potential loss of  “a critical part of Colorado’s heritage.”

This summer, CPW leadership has been hosting a series of meeting statewide to discuss funding options after a proposal to increase the cost of hunting and fishing license and raise park fees was killed last May in the Senate Finance Committee.

It’s no secret Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which has not had a fee increase in 12 years, is operating on a deficit and since 2009 has lost 50 positions and cut $40 million from its operating budget.

“Operating with a strained budget is not just a problem for the agency, it’s a problem for everyone in this state, whether you hunt, hike, fish, camp or boat, or depend on the revenue these activities generate for businesses and the state’s economy,” Katie Lanter,  Policy and Planning Supervisor for Parks and Wildlife, said in a CPW statement. “The public will need to be heavily involved and help decide how the management of some of Colorado’s most important natural resources will be funded so they will be available for future generations.”

The agency gets no general-fund tax dollars. Funding comes mostly from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and a smaller portion a share of the lottery and restricted federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment.

Lanter said that funding “is only one natural resource management challenge” facing the CPW. There also is the prospect that Colorado’s population may grow by 25 million people in the next 25 years, adding to the pressure already felt by wildlife and state recreation areas. And of that population growth, it’s expected that by 2040 three times as many Coloradans will be 65 or over and potentially not buying fishing or hunting licenses.

“The public will have to decide what’s important to them in terms of wildlife and parks management – more cuts and less opportunity, or find a way to increase operating revenue so that we can manage at the level expected by Coloradans.” said Northwest Regional Manager JT Romatzke. “I can say that this agency has had to undergo severe belt-tightening and there is little room for more without severely crimping it’s mission.

“We are at a crossroads and we need to find an effective solution quickly, or risk losing a critical part of Colorado’s heritage,” Romatzke said.

 

 

The battle over the future of a land of water and wilderness

BWCA fishing time

Lukas Leaf, far right, settles into his canoe as he and other anglers head out for an evening fishing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. Leaf is the outreach coordinator for Sportsmen for the Boundary waters, a group campaigning against a proposed copper/nickel mine near the BWCA border. Photo and story by Dave Buchanan

Tim Barton, a guide and outfitter for Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely, Minn., likely knows as well as anyone the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a 1.09-million-acre gem of public land in far-north Minnesota that stretches for 150 miles along the U.S./Canada border.

Barton, 31, has been journeying through the Boundary Waters since he was “6 or 7, I guess,” he said. ““By the time I was 13 I was guiding trips for my dad.”

This is a land that’s mostly water, where most of the estimated 1,100 lakes, spruce-dotted islands and rivers with white-water falls are accessible only by paddle or portage.

It’s also a land of contrasts. At night, an immense bowl of sky showers you with a king’s ransom of stars dancing across dark skies like a million candles to light your way, and in the day that expanse of sky cradles endless expanses of pristine water and an ever-changing vista of every imaginable shade of green, this month sprinkled with red, carmine and gold, the first changing of the leaves.

You hear the wind in the spruce, a loon’s distant whistle, the grunt of moose, maybe even the howl of a wolf.

Barton tried living in Colorado for a while but found irresistible the lure of the north woods.

“I couldn’t live anywhere else,” he said.

Last week, thanks to the efforts of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Barton and fellow guide (and forager par excellence) Lukas Leaf, outreach coordinator for Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters, herded four writers and photographers on a four-day trip into the bones of the BWCAW.

Thee, with a captive/receptive audience, Barton and Leaf preached the gospel of what the Boundary Waters means to the area’s estimated quarter-million annual visitors and the importance of saving this wilderness from the threat of a sulfide-ore copper/nickel mine proposed to be dug in the Boundary Waters watershed.

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Split emotions are evident during a recent hearing about an underground mine proposed near the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area. Courtesy Minnesota Public Radio.

Northern Minnesota is mining country, its past forged with a complex history and the millions of tons of iron ore dug from the ground and shipped to mills and foundries, many of them on the shores of Lake Superior less than 100 miles to the southeast. Many of those mines have closed, often due to competition from foreign ores and depressed national markets.

There still are many people in Ely and elsewhere who dream of the return of well-paying mining jobs.They are well-meaning and serious about what the mine could provide mean to the economic future of the area and their families.

But mining iron ore isn’t the same as mining copper ore with its sulfurous residue, Leaf said one night as the campfire burned low. One rusts, the other acidifies, and a spill into a river can quickly change a vibrant river into a lifeless stream.

And I’ve seen the destruction a failed acid-leach mine tailing pile can wreak on an environment. Colorado’s mining history (e.g., Leadville, Del Norte, Silverton) is replete with what happens when a tailing dam fails or acid drainage leaches into a nearby stream or river.

“Over time, the structural integrity and the general competency of all tunnels and underground mine workings will continue to deteriorate without regular maintenance,” states an Environmental Protection Agency handout written about the Leadville acid mining drainage.

Today, tourism, mostly the year-round lure of the Boundary Waters and adjacent Quetico Provincial Park in Canada, is the one of region’s leading economic drivers albeit less (by about a third) of mining’s economic impact.

In 2016, the federal government said it would not renew two key mineral leases which had expired in 2013, saying the proposed mine posed too great a threat to the Boundary Waters.

But that was before the Trump administration came to power. Now, Twin Metals Mining has renewed its fight to have the leases renewed, feeling the chances are better with the de-regulation attitude popular in Washington, D.C.

Currently, the leases are being reviewed. The public comment period closed last month.

Green Mtn. Reservoir latest to reach the “suspect” list for invasive mussels.

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The Heeney Marina on Green Mountain Reservoir near Silverthorne. Photo courtesy Heeney Marina.

The battle continues. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has listed Green Mountain Reservoir north of Silverthorne as “suspect” for invasive aquatic mussels.

Read the press release here and the Denver Post article here.

Winter’s unlikely weather may be new norm for water forecasters

Neversink 2017

Neversink was a popular fishing resort on the Gunnison River below Gunnison before Blue Mesa Dam backed up the river to nine miles west of Gunnison. Photo and story by Dave Buchanan.

This past spring year was particularly mettlesome for water managers seeking to balance water supplies and demand in the Upper Gunnison River Basin.

Although there currently are no shortages of water this year, the vagaries of last winter, from unseasonably warm to unseasonably cold, may hold some warning about future water forecasting for regional hydrologists, cautioned Greg Smith, Senior Hydrologist for NOAA’s Colorado River Basin Forecasting Center in Salt Lake.

The art of forecasting water supplies has as one of its main tools historical data and the rapidity of changes in the Earth’s climate recently has been handcuffing the best efforts of forecasters, said Smith during the last week’s Aspinall Unit Operations meeting in Grand Junction.

The quarterly meetings, sponsored by the Western Colorado Area Office of the Bureau of Reclamation, offer a look at what hydrologists and weather forecasters portend for future water supplies in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

“2017 was challenging,” Smith said when addressing the year’s weather. “When we go from one (weather) extreme to the other, as we have seen this year, that makes our job even more difficult.”

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The Beartown SNOTEL site in Mineral County gets some summer maintenance from Zach Wilson. This winter, similar remote-sensing sites were buried by snow. Photo by Mike Ardison.

A pair of linked examples was the unusual warming in March, which caused some very early low-elevation melting and ensuing runoff, followed by an unseasonably cold May (“February-like temperatures,” Smith said) which drastically slowed that runoff and caused concern among water managers wondering when and if the runoff would begin anew.

All this was tied to the near-record snows of late December and January, which overwhelmed some of the region’s remote-sensing SNOTEL sites.

“Several sites quit reporting and we thought they had broken but in reality they had been completely buried by the snow,” Smith said. “In March, a lot of the sites (in the Upper Gunnison Basin) recorded their highest totals on record … some of which go back 39 years.”

Are the aberrant weather patterns of last winter just that or are they indications of a new normal that eventually will become part of the historical data?

Smith isn’t sure.

“Well, we try to use long-term records in making our (water-supply) forecasts, at least 20 years or more,” Smith said. “So even these recent weather patterns will take a while to become part of the permanent record.

“And we’re certainly aware of weather changes. Even a few degrees one way or the other affects snowmelt and eventually water supplies.”

Water managers face unusual dilemma: Too much water

Blue Mesa full 2017

A summer storm over Blue Mesa Reservoir west of Gunnison. At this writing, the reservoir was more than 98 percent full. Story and photo by Dave Buchanan.

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. It’s better to be rich.” – Gertrude Stein, American novelist.

Farmers, ranchers and domestic water managers all agree with Ms. Stein when it comes to matters of water. Rich is much better than poor.

And water-rich is what the Upper Gunnison Basin finds itself this year.

So much so, the Bureau of Reclamation faces some timing decisions later this summer and fall in emptying swollen reservoirs along the Gunnison River.

“It’s going to take a lot of work” to reach the winter operating level at Blue Mesa Reservoir, said Erik Knight, lead hydrologist for the Bureau’s Western Colorado Area Office in Grand Junction.

Speaking at Thursday’s quarterly Aspinall Unit Operations meeting, Knight said the reservoir, which Saturday was 98.5 percent full with 817,000 acre feet of water, needs to reach 7,490 elevation by the end of December to avoid icing problems upstream.

The current elevation is 7,518 feet elevation.

“We’re going to be running a lot of water (through Blue Mesa) to meet the Dec. 31 deadline,” Knight said. “But right now our lower reservoirs also are full and Crystal (Dam) is at full power plant release.”

The reason anglers, recreationists and Chamber of Commerce folks have a bank-to-bank Blue Mesa is the result of the late-season storms that blanketed the Upper Gunnison Basin and a cooler-than-normal spring that delayed the runoff.

At last count, inflows into Blue Mesa this year are around 136 percent of normal, and recent rains have continued the inflows.

Also brimming are Crystal Reservoir (88 percent) and Morrow Point Reservoir (98 percent).

Knight said releases out of Crystal are around 1,900 cfs, which is the most possible without spilling the reservoir.

“We have no plans to spill Crystal,” he said.

One beneficiary of all that water is Lake Powell, which currently is 67 feet down or 62 percent full. That level is 17 feet higher than the same time last year but don’t expect Powell to fill much more this year.

Most of the water released by Upper Basin states will be passing through to Lake Mead and then downstream to the Lower Basin and Mexico.

Around 9 million acre-feet of water is expected to be released this summer, more than the 8.25-million acre feet required by the Colorado River Compact and enough to delay concerns about water shortages in Lake Mead.

 

 

Sale of Steamboat ski area marks more change in state industry

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Steamboat Ski Area has new owners and now is part of a 12-resort package, which includes Mammoth Mountain and Squaw Valley plus the heli-ski operation, Canadian Mountain Holidays. Photo – Marty Foubister, Creative Commons 

The announcement Monday of the sale of Steamboat Ski Area, one of this state’s iconic (can I say that? It’s terribly over-used but in this case actually means something) ) resorts brings yet another major player into the ski biz in Colorado.

It also contributes to the rapid extinction of locally owned ski areas in the state.

The sale to the joint venture of KSL Capital Partners and an affiliate of Henry Crown and Company, along with the completion by the joint venture of the purchase of Mammoth Resorts in California, combines 12 mountain resorts, among them Winter Park, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows and the four Mammoth Mountain resorts plus other holdings, and an estimated 6 million annual skier visits. That’s a bunch o’ skiers, boarders and winter users.

Henry Crown and the Crown family, as you may or may not know, is the owner of Aspen Skiing Company, which includes Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk. But don’t expect your Steamboat pass to get you onto Aspen slopes, at least not this winter. A report on the Steamboat website said the Aspen/Snowmass resorts and properties will remain separate from the latest dealings.

It’s not like the Steamboat or Mammoth sales were unexpected; many of the preliminary details of the pending purchases of Intrawest and Mammoth Resorts were made public in April. Nor was Steamboat sold because the resort is hurting financially or standing still in its quest to meet skiers’ wants. In fact, with an expansion planned for the Pioneer Ridge area and hopes for a new gondola into Bashor Bowl, Steamboat seems ripe for a new owner with deep pockets.

What remains are concerns as to how being owned by another aggressive investment company will affect Steamboat, meaning not only the resort but Steamboat Springs the city as well.  Intrawest Resorts Holdings, Inc., the former owner of Steamboat, wouldn’t have sold had it not thought the sale would bring a profit, which is how investment funds work.

Which means more changes at Steamboat should be expected.

Last May KSL joined with Crown in plans to acquire Intrawest Resorts Holdings, Inc., Steamboat’s now-former owner and the purchase of Mammoth Resorts, the owner of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, Snow Summit, Bear Mountain and June Mountain, all in California. Monday’s announcement finalized all the dealings.

All of which makes the whole ski world become that much more corporate.