Oil begins to shake up tourism

DENVER – Unprecedented oil prices were cited as a key factor in last week’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection filing by Denver-based discount airline Frontier.

Although Chapter 11 suggests cash flow problems that are fixable, there was understandable concern in ski towns of the Rocky Mountains. Frontier’s new Lynx Aviation division is to begin flights from Denver International to Durango and then Aspen next week, followed in May by Jackson Hole. Frontier representatives said the bankruptcy filing will not affect the ski town flights.

Frontier’s problems had been months, probably years in the making. There were some unprofitable routes to Mexico. More recently, oil prices surged past $110 a barrel, more than triple the cost of only two years ago.

Sean Mencke, the president and chief executive of Frontier, seemed to be alluding to these background problems when he announced the flights to the ski valleys in February.

“People have been asking if this is the right time to start a project like this,” he said then. “To me, it’s the perfect time. We can move into markets with less competition and have more opportunity to feed connecting traffic through our hub – all with a very fuel-efficient aircraft that burns 30 percent less fuel than a comparably sized regional jet. We believe Lynx will be a critical component as we focus on the long-term profitability of this company.”

What tripped the company into the bankruptcy was what seems like a panicky demand from a credit-card processor. The company, worried about getting stung, wanted more rapid payment of money from transactions. Ironically, the demand may have had the opposite effect of what was intended, resulting in the bankruptcy filing.

Just days before the filing, one of Frontier’s Bombardier’s Q400 turboprops flew a trial route from Denver to Aspen. The plane accommodates 74 passengers.The Aspen Times noted that the test plane passed a jet from United Express on the way to Aspen – an unintended symbolic act.

Certainly, higher fuel prices have not stopped tourism and investment in vacation homes in mountain towns. But even those resorts that cater to the most wealthy people have price thresholds. Some of the talk in Aspen in recent months had been about how the new Lynx flights could force competing airlines to drop their costs.

Will higher oil prices eventually effect the tourism and real-estate development of mountain towns? That’s the $110-per-barrel question.

Randy Udall, an energy analyst in the Aspen area, last year returned from a conference about peak oil convinced that mountain towns soon will be hit by the impacts of higher oil prices long before concerns over global warming cause changes in energy use.


Bears make early emergences

CRESTED BUTTE – The bears are out all over the West. From Jackson Hole to Vail and on to Crested Butte come many sightings. And while it has always been common for bears to turn out in March and April, there are reports of grizzly bears emerging earlier, perhaps a response to the warming climate.

At the Crested Butte ski area, a black bear sow and her two cubs pushed through the snow from their den, right in the middle of a popular ski run.

There was plenty of curiosity from skiers – perhaps unwisely so. “We heard there were people poking their heads right in the hole,” said Randy Barrett, general manager of the ski area. That portion of the ski trail was closed.

In the Yellowstone area of Wyoming and adjacent states, scientists are studying how the changing climate may be affecting the 500 to 600 grizzly bears there.

The researchers have noticed that adult male bears have been entering their dens later. This is concurrent with a trend of warmer minimum temperatures during November from 1975 to 1999, notes theRocky Mountain Outlook, a newspaper based in Canmore, Alberta.

“We’ve got some correlations with temperature and snowfall to suggest they’re probably staying out later in the fall because winter is coming later,” said grizzly bear expert Chuck Schwartz. “It appears they are also coming out a bit earlier in the spring as well.”

Schwartz, the leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, told the newspaper his group is seeking funding for a more thorough analysis. “We want to look at the potential impact of warming temperatures and snowmelt on the timing of grizzly den emergence and entry times,” he said.

The Outlook notes an interesting wrinkle in spring: females are typically out of their dens by the first week in March, while for males it’s the fourth week of April.

In Banff National Park, reseachers have noticed bears out both later in winter and earlier in spring.


Highway sand plaguing rivers

WINTER PARK – In the late 1980s, sand from Interstate 70 on the west side of the Eisenhower Tunnel became an issue in Straight Creek. In the late 1990s, it similarly became an issue in Gore Creek, on the west side of Vail Pass.

The practice of highway sanding also has become a source of controversy in recent years on the west side of Berthoud Pass. Originating near the Winter Park ski area, the Fraser River was already an underwhelming river, owing to the diversion of much of its flows to Denver.

While half the sand spread on Highway 40 is retrieved, some of it ends up in the river. Now, with state grants totaling $247,000, some of that sand will be removed and deposited in a gravel pit.

The purpose, explained Kirk Klancke, a local water official and avid fisherman, is to improve the aquatic habitat. “You just can’t cover a habitat without killing everything in that habitat,” he told theSky-Hi Daily news. “Trout won’t lay eggs in anything but gravel.”

Another local waterway, St. Louis Creek, where former President Dwight Eisenhower once fished sometimes with a young Dick Nixon at his side, is a similar stream. However, it has 10 times the fish. The difference: no traction sand.


Big boxes proliferate along I-70

SILVERTHORNE – The retail options in mountain valleys of the Interstate 70 corridor continue to expand.

In Silverthorne, The Home Depot is back with revised plans for a 100,000-square-foot building.

If there once was a cry about franchises that made mountain valleys seem like everywhere else, that argument seems over. Most mountain valleys got McDonalds decades ago, and more recently they have gained the big and bigger-yet boxes: Target, Wal-Mart and Costco.

Nor is the franchising of mountain valleys over. “I think that’s an inevitability,” said Don Cohen, executive director of the Economic Council of Eagle County. “They blanketed America in the metro area, and now they’re moving into smaller areas.”

As the county’s full-time population grows, its retail landscape is moving from boutique stores and tourist-targeted retail to “everyday retail,” he told theVail Daily.

But the expansion is not limited to low-cost, big-box goods. In Vail, developer Mark Masinter is looking at what to install in his 90,000 square feet of retail space near the base of the ski slopes.

“Women, especially, have told me when they have to do better-end shopping, they have to either drive to Cherry Creek Mall or Park Meadows Mall in Denver or drive to Aspen,” Masinter said the newspaper. He’s also looking at the potential for high-end sushi and Asian-fusion restaurants.


Alternative energy farms in works

SUMMIT COUNTY – A new group has been formed in Summit County with the goal of promoting development of renewable energy. Called RISE, as in Renewables in the Summit Environment, the group is calling for study of a potential energy farm in conjunction with expansion of a small reservoir being planned by several local governments. The group, reports theSummit Daily News, foresees electricity being generated from water released at the reservoir, as well as from wind and solar sources.

In Gypsum, plans are afoot for a major array of photovoltaic collectors at Eagle County Regional Airport.

The solar collectors being considered would cost $6 million to $7 million and would provide up to one megawatt of electricity, or enough to power about 250 homes. In contrast, a solar farm able to produce two megawatts is being built at Denver International Airport. If the solar farm at Eagle County is completed, it would provide for the annual electrical needs of the airport.


Jackson ski resorts ban smoking

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. – Both of the ski areas in Jackson Hole are now officially smoke-free, except in designated areas. A lobbying group called Teton County Tobacco Prevention, got the resorts to ban smoking from all ski trails and parking lots. Smoking had previously been banned in lift lines and on lifts at the Snow King and Jackson Hole Mountain resorts.The Jackson Hole News&Guide reported that Grand Targhee Resort, located on the west side of the Teton Range, is also banning smoking in all places, including the resort’s annual bluegrass festival.

– Allen Best