Preserving the dark skies of a Colorado mountain valley

Will Wet Mountain Valley become the first to attain new dark-sky status?

A barn near Westcliffe in Colorado’s Wet Mountain Valley. Photo/Mike Pach of

by Allen Best

WESTCLIFFE, Colo. – Custer County veers libertarian in its politics, reliably voting Republican and, in a general way, shunning regulation.

But in outdoor lighting restrictions, it’s exceptional. Two of the county’s three small towns—located in the Wet Mountain Valley about three hours southwest of Denver— have ordinances that sharply limit light pollution and light trespass. That work has made the towns a destination for people who want specifically to see a sky of glittering stars, including something no longer attainable in most urban areas: a view of the Milky Way.

Now, dark sky proponents are seeking similar regulations to govern unincorporated areas and possibly enabling the valley to become the first international dark sky reserve in the United States. In Idaho, the communities of Ketchum, Sun Valley and Blaine County are similarly seeking that same distinction offered by the International Dark-Sky Association.

Already, some of the familiar arguments have been raised. At a recent meeting of county commissioners covered by the Wet Mountain Tribune, one rancher said he needed the light in his yard to serve as a beacon when it was snowing.

Jim Bradburn, the president of the non-profit Dark Skies of the Wet Mountain Valley tells Mountain Town News that he thinks he and other advocates will prevail over coming months despite such objections and now a recall election of the three county commissioners in which regulation of lights has become an issue.

“It will happen,’ he sasy of the regulations,” because I have more and more support in the valley to do this.” But it will take more time than he thought before.

Bradburn expects to win because there are too many upsides. The local tourist industry gains with its expanded claim for dark skies, Ranchers will get more lumens on the ground, where they are useful, and not in the sky. And the local electrical co-operative, San Isabel Electric, can get more efficient use of its product.

You have to want to go to the Wet Mountain Valley to get there. It’s an hour from an interstate highway. The low-rising Wet Mountains define the valley’s eastern flanks, and to the west the Sangre de Cristo Range rises sharply to 14,000 feet and above.

Westcliffe, the county seat, and Silver Cliff sit cheek by jowl, together boasting 1,200 residents. Outlying are ranch lands. If the valley were closer to a city or a major highway, it probably would have been subdivided long ago.

But ranchers themselves in the 1970s chose to make subdividing into ranchettes just a little harder than elsewhere in Colorado. The minimum size is 80 acres on the valley floor—more than double what is allowed in most of rural Colorado—and 50 acres in the more wooded Wet Mountains. It was an agricultural valley that remains agricultural. The result is that lights don’t dominate the landscape, blotting out the stars.

“It’s pretty amazing when you see it for the first time,” says Bradburn of the night sky. “When people come here, they are just flabbergasted by the Milky Way.”

A retired architect, Bradburn and his wife, Gayle, moved to the Wet Mountain Valley in 2004 because of its proximity to the Sangre de Cristo Range. Bradburn has climbed all the 14,000-foot peaks in the range and all the others in Colorado, too. He also climbed Denali and Aconcagua, the highest peaks respectively in north and South America, and some other notable peaks.

Jim Bradburn came up with the idea of the iconic tents at Denver International Airport.

In his professional career, Bradburn is best known for his design of the tent-like terminal at Denver international airport. As recounted in a 2014 article in Colorado Central magazine, Bradburn had come to Colorado to oversee the construction of the Helen Bonfils Theater Complex in downtown Denver. Later, at Fentress Bradburn, he was responsible for turn the design of a New Orleans architect into reality at the new airport. But that design was $54 million over budget. Thinking of native Americans of the Great Plains, Bradburn sketched a design mimicking tents. It became the reality, although the official story was changed to the idea that the structure was meant to replicate the Rocky Mountains.

Later in his career, Bradburn was also involved in designing the 51,000-square-foot National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyo.

The National Museum of Wildlife Art at Jackson, Wyo.

In the Wet Mountain Valley, he and his wife live on a 447-acre property, where he designed a solar heated green house and an observatory. Astronomy, according to the Colorado Central story, is among his passions.

Bradburn’s organization first took aim at the two towns. It took about seven years from the start when, he says, the common reaction was: “Don’t tell me what to do.”

Instead of arguing the impact to neighbors who wanted to see the dark sky, he made an economic argument: Do this, and we can get designated as a dark sky community—which will lead to a more tourists.

“Which is exactly what has happened,” says Bradburn.

Motel and bed-and-breakfast operators have plentiful anecdotal evidence from customers that they came to see at night what they can’t at home.

The dark sky business has been helped by a host of national and regional reports. Westcliffe and Silver Cliff were in the New York Times and USA Today as well as CNN and NBC, among many others.

The sun sets and the stars come out over Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Range. Photo/Mike Pach of

Smoothing the way in the two towns was an offer by Dark Skies Inc. to help pay for the switching out of offending lights that pointed skyward. Contributions augmented by a 10 percent match from a community fund have yielded $23,000 in the last two years. The money is used to defray implementation costs such as a light fixture on a school that was replaced with a hooded fixture, to spread the light to the ground.

One of Bradburn’s arguments seeks to leverage the support of San Isabel Electric, the electrical provider, which actually owns the lights on the ranches. If lower-energy LED lights can be installed and the light deployed effectively to the ground, not the sky, less power will be needed. That means the electrical co-operative can serve more customers (technically co-op members) with the same amount of electricity. That means it spends less on upgrading infrastructure to handle larger volume of electricity.

This would produce more profit to the electrical co-op and its members, including the ranchers, more useful light for the ranchers, and less light pollution to sully the dark sky, he says.

For now, it’s a waiting game. The county planning commission is await the outcome of the November recall election before issuing its recommendation, but Bradburn remains confident he will prevail. “Time is on our side,” he says.

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Renaming of Gore Range gathers local support

Why some people argue we should find another name for Gore Range

A May excursion climbing Mt. Powell, the highest peak in the Gore Range. Photo/Allen Best

by Allen Best

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. – Might less Gore be more in north-central Colorado? That’s the proposal from Summit County, where part of the county line is defined by the range of 13,000-foot peaks. It’s called the Gore Range.

There’s a Gore Creek that flows through Vail and then farther north, a Gore Canyon, where the Colorado River thrashes its way through the range, the steepest three or four miles of descent in the river’s 1,450 mile journey. There’s also a crossing, Gore Pass, and a brass plaque is affixed to a granite boulder remembers an Irish baronet after whom all these Gores are named.

The baronet, Sir St. George Gore, traveled to the United States in 1854 and hired Jim Bridger, the famous mountain man and guide, to show him the sights and lead him to rich hunting grounds.

It was an extravagant expedition. His entourage included a valet, an expert at tying flies, a dog-handler, 20 greyhounds and foxhounds, 100 horses, 20 yoke of oxen, and 4 Conestoga wagons, each pulled by 6 mules.

Jeff Mitton, a professor at the University of Colorado, in a 2010 op-ed in the Vail Daily, further noted that Gore had an arsenal of 75 rifles, a dozens shotguns and many pistols.

There were also abundant creature comforts: a carpet, a brass bedstead, a carved marble washstand, and a big bathtub. There were also enough men, 40 altogether, to create the hot water needed to make a bath in the wilderness, a luxury.

If Lord Gore, as he was remembered colloquially, suffered few wilderness discomforts, he caused great pain to the wildlife that came within range of his armory during his three years in the West. He claimed to have killed 2,000 bison, 1,600 deer and elk, and 105 bears.

In his first summer, he ventured as far as today’s Kremmling, but then spent the next two years in Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas before returning across the Atlantic Ocean.

Shouldn’t this princely geography be named for somebody more deserving? Or maybe something altogether, perhaps a name given it by the Utes who lived there?

(Although it should be noted that when John Fremont traveled through the Blue River Valley in June 1844, he saw much evidence of Arapahoe Indians, too, and a few miles away, in South Park, turned down an invitation from the Utes to join in a battle with the Arapahoes).

Mitton, in his 2010 op-ed, proposed keeping the same name—but to honor a different Gore, as in the former U.S. vice president named Al, a Nobel Peace Prize winner for his efforts to heighten public awareness about climate change.

“All that we have to do is to mountain a new plaque on the granite boulder on Gore Pass,” he said.

Now comes the efforts of Summit County resident Leon Joseph Littlebird, who has persuaded county officials to take up the cause.

“It’s one of the most beautiful and spectacular areas we have,” Littlebird recently told the Summit Daily News. “Considering Lord Gore was a pretty bad dude —the stories are really horrible, really scary —it would be great to see it recognized as what it really is, instead of for a guy like that.”

Summit County has adopted a resolution seeking a name change. It has received support from the Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness, a local group, and the Colorado Mountain Club. A meeting was planned for Monday night to take public input, including ideas on what the range should be named.

The final arbiter in such matters is the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, an agency nested within the U.S. Geological Survey. John Wesley Powell was second director of that agency, from 1891 to 1894. His name lingers on Mt. Powell, which is the range’s highest peak, at 13,586 feet.

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Three reasons for optimism about climate change

Despite Trump, train has already left the station, says former Obama aide

BOULDER, Colo. — U.S. President Donald Trump has initiated steps to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement and end the Clean Power Plan. But a former advisor to President Barack Obama was anything but gloomy recently as he cited three major reasons for optimism.

Brian Deese said one reason was that economic growth has been decoupled from growth in carbon emissions. This was discovered as the United States emerged from the recession. Obama was in Hawaii when Deese informed him of the paradigm shift that had been observed.

Brian Deese

“I don’t believe you,” Obama said, according to the story Deese told in a forum on the University of Colorado campus that was sponsored by the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research.

Chastened, Deese double-checked his sources. He had been right. Always before, when the economy grew, so did greenhouse gas emissions. Now, the two have been decoupled. This decoupling blunts the old argument that you couldn’t have economic growth while tackling climate change. The new evidence is that you can have growth and reverse emissions.

The second reason for optimism, despite the U.S. exit from Paris, is that other countries have stepped up. Before, there was a battle between the developed countries, including the United States, and China, Indian and other still-developing countries. Those developing countries said they shouldn’t have to bear the same burden in emissions reductions.

But now, those same countries — Chna, India and others — want to keep going with emissions reductions even as the United States falters. They want to become the clean-energy superpowers.

“China, India and others are trying to become the global leaders in climate change. They see this as enhancing their economic and political interests,” he said. “They want to win the race.”

That same day, the Wall Street Journal reported in a front-page story that China plans to force automakers to accelerate production of electric vehicles by 2019. The move, said the newspaper, is the “latest signal that officials across the globe are determined to phase out traditional internal combustion engines that use gasoline and diesel fuels in favor of environmentally friendly vehicles powered by batteries, despite consumer reservations.”

The story went on to note that India has a goal to sell only electric vehicles by 2030 while the U.K. and France are aiming to end sales of gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2040.

In the telling of the change Deese said this shift came about at least partly as the result of an unintended action — and, ironically, one by the United States. Because of China’s fouled air, the U.S. embassy in Beijing and other diplomatic offices in China had installed air quality monitors, to guide U.S. personnel in decisions regarding their own health.

Enter the smart phone, which became ubiquitous in China around 2011 to 2012. The Chinese became aware of a simple app that could be downloaded to gain access to the air quality information. In a short time, he said, tens and then hundreds of millions of Chinese began agitating about addressing globalized air pollution, including emissions that are warming the climate.

A third reason for optimism, said Deese, is that Trump’s blustery rhetoric has galvanized support for addressing climate change. Some 1,700 businesses, including Vail Resorts, have committed to changes and 244 cities, representing 143 million people, have also said they want to briskly move toward renewable energy generation.

To this, Deese would like to add the conservation community, by which he seemed to mean hunters and fishermen. “In the United States, we need to reach people where they are, and communicate to them how they are being affected by climate change,” he said.

He also thinks scientists need to step up to advocate. “Use your voice,” said Deese, now a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. “The rest of the world is there.”

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The vanishing pikas of Lake Tahoe

Some like it cold: Pikas are adapted to cold, but not for heat. Photo/Erik Beever, USGS.

As Bay Area sizzles, pika in mountains above Lake Tahoe are disappearing

LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Mark Twain is supposed to have said that the coldest winter he ever spent was in San Francisco. Actually, he probably said something like that about Paris, but not San Francisco.

No matter. San Francisco has been hot lately, 106 degrees on Sept. 1, the highest recording in almost 150 years of recordings.

To the east in the Sierra Nevada, it’s also been hot. But a new study published in August suggested the rising warmth may have already driven out a cold-loving critter, the hamster-size pika.

A six-year study in a 165-square-mile area of the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe found no recent evidence of pikas. The research team led by biologist Joseph Stewart had begun monitoring the area when the pika was petitioned for listing under the California and federal endangered species acts.

“When we found old pika poop in every talus field that we looked at along the Truckee River, which is super low elevation, we started scratching our heads. If there is old pika poop here, where did the pikas go? Are they at higher elevations?” Stewart told the Tahoe Daily Tribune. “The next six years we surveyed at progressively higher and higher elevations until we realized that, oh my god, pikas are extinct (extirpated) from this whole huge area.”

Pikas are adapted to surviving in cold, snowy winters. Pikas don’t hibernate. Their thick coats of fur and a high metabolic rate that acts as a furnace allow their survival in cold weather.

Those adaptations, so useful for surviving cold, make them vulnerable to overheating.

“There are thermal physiological studies that show their upper critical limit is only 3 degrees C above their resting body temperature,” Stewart explained. “So, they are very well adapted to surviving under the snow in the wintertime.”

Stewart believes the pikas in the study area may have died of hyperthermia from foraging in conditions that were too hot. Or, possibly, they did not collect enough food due to the warmer temperatures and ended up starving or not reproducing.

While pikas disappear from the mountains above Lake Tahoe, scientists continue to ponder how much wildfire risk is increased by rising temperatures.

This year’s weather will eventually become the norm, Michael Anderson, the California state climatologist, told the Sacramento Bee.

“We’ve had hot summers in the past, but as the world warms you spend more time above certain (temperature) thresholds,” Anderson said.

“There’s no one event that’s going to be a flashing sign saying, ‘Climate change did this.’ It’s just the background upon which these events start playing out. We’re in a warmer world than we were back in, say, 1991.”

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Real community fabric amid the plastic Bavaria of Vail

Bizarre bazar shows community fabric in place seen by some as threadbare

Nancy Nottingham, center, kept tabs on the money and all else at the Eagle Valley Rummage Sale in August. Photo/Allen Best

by Allen Best

A one-time high school near Vail was transformed on a recent Saturday into a crowded and sometimes bizarre bazaar of shoppers rummaging through thousands of discards: skis and sunglasses, pants and shirts, vacuum cleaners and TVs.

Outside, there were couches, lawnmowers, and baby strollers. The oddest object, though, was a macabre representation of a human body clad in blue jeans, sliced at the waist. It was, explained a volunteer from the Vail Mountain Rescue Group, part of a Halloween decoration from Minturn, the town in which the over-stuffed community garage sale was being held.

It was the penultimate Eagle Valley Rummage Sale, an affair that first began in 1964 in an effort to raise money for the first school in Vail. In time, the sale became an important way of raising money for all manner of local groups: eighth-grade school trips to Washington D.C. and efforts of the local chapter of the Humane Society, trips to China by young hockey players and activities of the Boy Scouts.

The sale is also tangible evidence of the community fabric. Outsiders have not always discerned that fabric. Vail has often been dismissed as “Plastic Bavaria.” Not a “real town,” they said.

To be sure, there’s not a Midwestern grid with a main street and Victorian false-fronted buildings. It’s a different place than the old gold, silver, and coal-mining towns that became the resort towns of Breckenridge, Aspen, and Crested Butte. The story of this community fabric is more complicated, but the rummage sale suggests it’s no less real.

The sale began in 1964, two years after the lifts started operating on Vail Mountain, held in one of the new lodges. The purpose then was to raise $50,000 for the first school in Vail. That goal was achieved by 1973. Over the years, it was moved to different locations: the old hospital, a school, and finally, 24 years ago, to its current site in Maloit Park, along where Cross Creek flows out of the Holy Cross Wilderness Area. Beaver Creek lies to the west, Vail to the east, and Interstate 70 is several miles away.

Items are donated throughout the year, but volunteers begin gathering in the old school regularly in May, working in the unheated building, typically donating about 14,000 hours during the next few months to sort through and price the items. Groups participating in the shared work of putting on the sale share in the benefits based on their work, up to $10,000 per group.

Nancy Nottingham is the current leader of the sale. She’s 82 and at this year’s sale was moving with aid of a walker. She’ll soon be getting total hip replacement surgery. She first got involved with the sale in 1968, soon after moving to Avon. Her husband, Mauri, comes from a family whose ranching ancestors had helped create the community of Avon, located down-valley at the base of Beaver Creek. In the early 1980s, he initiated the effort to get newspaper and other recycling off the ground. Recycling is a defining family trait.

The usual flotsam of books, trousers and lawnmowers can be found at the rummage sale, but also the oddities, like this relic of Halloweens past in Minturn.

The sale on two weekends this year raised $170,000 for grant applicants. School groups remain major recipients, but a relatively new group, Eagle Valley Horse Rescue, has become a significant beneficiary, she says.

But on the flip side are the buyers, the “families in the valley who really depend upon the sale for clothing of children and clothing for themselves,” she said. She herself outfitted her children with items from the rummage sale.

At the end of the first day of the sale, Nottingham sat by a door near the check-out line. There was a giant American flag behind her, and occasionally people would come to her to pay with credit cards. But volunteers also checked with her, among them Merv Lapin.

Lapin has been treasurer for the non-profit foundation that puts on the rummage sale since 1975. He also happens to be one of Vail’s most prominent residents. He’s been on the Vail Town Council and owns a home along Gore Creek between the library and the hospital and across from Dobson Arena, an ice skating venue. He also owns a large ranch in a scenic area of adjoining Routt County. He has shown a keen skill over the years at making money. But he also has an abiding interest in both local hockey and in China. He combines the passions by taking members of a local youth hockey club to China every three years. His work at the rummage sale and those of other volunteers help pay the expenses.

Another volunteer was David Mott, who arrived in the valley to supervise construction of Beaver Creek in the late 1970s and stuck around to become a county commissioner. His wife, Sue Mott, has been among the steadiest of volunteers.

There were more like him. That first day of the sale, which cost $1 to get in, there were about 3,000 shoppers.

But absent this year was the vivacious presence of Vi Brown. Assisted by her husband, Byron, she was for many years the face of the sale. She gave up the reins this year, though, as Byron’s health has deteriorated.(He passed away shortly before this article was published).  Some said his deterioration was partly the result of a refrigerator falling on him.

The sale is likely also on its last legs. The old high school will be razed after next year’s sale. The local school district, working with Eagle County, plans some type of housing for the permanent, local work force. Particulars have not yet been worked out. But the proceeds from the sale have been dropping anyway. Nottingham thinks it’s because of Craigslist and e-Bay. The big-ticket items that used to be donated haven’t been showing up.

Too, there’s the aging factor. The faces of volunteers are distinctly older. Vail’s first and even its second generation have a lot of gray and now whitening hair and some, like Nottingham, need walkers or motorized chairs.

The loss will be to the groups who have made money over the years but also the shoppers, many from other communities, like Leadville, “who depended upon being able to buy $2 jeans for their kids and 50 cents shirts,” says Nottingham. “That’s a lot less expensive than the local thrift stores.”

But even when the sale ends, the lingering lesson is that a town need not look like Mayberry to have community fabric.

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Colorado’s tools for accelerating greenhouse reductions

How Colorado can get real serious about reducing its carbon footprint

by Allen Best

In Colorado, as elsewhere, recent polling by Yale University shows strong recognition that climate change is real, the result of human activity, and something that we must address.

But do it now? Really shake things up? Well, maybe it can wait. It ranks very low on the list of priorities for most people. Kick that can down the road.

A report released today by Western Resource Advocates and Conservation Colorado called Colorado’s Climate Blueprint argues that Colorado must seize very tool available to do its part in holding temperature increases to no more than 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius.

“We need to reduce our carbon pollution very quickly,” says Stacy Tellinghuisen, a co-author of the report. “We can’t wait for the federal government to take action. So we have laid out a blueprint for a three-legged stool of action.”

Colorado has been doing things. Emissions in the electrical sector has fallen, since 2007, the result of switching from coal-fired generation to cleaner-burning natural gas but also as a result of the deepening penetration of renewables. Transportation sector emissions have also declined.

But the growing evidence uncovered by scientists argues that, if anything, their assessment of the risk has been conservative. Temperatures are rising, and so are sea levels. Coral reef is disappearing. If the hurricanes and bark beetle epidemics are not directly a result of the warming climate, their severity may well be exacerbated.

And if they’ve tended toward conservative predictions, what does that say about when they believe the spit really hits the fan within a few decades?

All of this argues for rapid reduction, not just stabilizing, of emissions.

Gov. John Hickenlooper in July announced a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent by 2025 as compared to 2005 base levels. He did not, however, identify exactly how to achieve this, as I wrote in an article for the Colorado Independent. See: “What will it take to reach the climate change goals set by Gov. Hickenlooper?”

Colorado has led the way on regulations designed to limit emissions of methane.  Photo/Allen Best

These two groups, arguably Colorado’s most influential environmental organizations, want significant reductions beyond Hickenlooper’s 2025 goals. By 2030, as compared to 2005 levels, they want a goal of 45 percent reduction in emissions and a 90 percent reduction by mid-century.

Unlike Hickenlooper’s order, they go into depth. Some are the  the usual suspects. For example, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission can  push the shift already underway from coal, in particular, to renewable sources. Colorado legislators need to ensure new buildings better maximize energy efficiency.

But the report points to several levers that the Air Quality Control Commission can pull to achieve action. One is advanced regulations that reduce the venting and flaring of methane, as is commonly done in the Wattenberg and other natural gas fields.

Tellinghuisen says the gasfield emissions of methane are among the most difficult areas for regulation. In 2010, they represented almost 8 percent of Colorado’s total carbon pollution. Colorado subsequently became a national leader in its regulation of methane emissions after the state’s two largest operators, Anadarko and Noble, working with the Environmental Defense Fund, emerged with an agreement. But more methane, the primary constituent of natural gas, remains to be captured instead of being allowed to be wasted. If prices of natural gas were higher, producers would have more incentive to attend to leaks and capture what is now being flared. Methane has 22 to 28 times the heat-trapping properties of carbon dioxide.

The two groups would also like to see more stringent fuel economy standards for vehicles, similar to what California and 10 other states have adopted. Colorado, they say, should adopt policies that yield one million electric cars by 2030. It ranked 12th in the nation in sales of EVs from 2011 through 2016.

What may be most notable about the report is the embrace of market-based solutions. The power of markets has been proven frequently in solving environmental problems. Markets, by definition, must have incentives, in this case a price on carbon in this case. This could be achieved through a cap-and-trade regime or the more straight-forward carbon tax.

California has adopted a cap-and-trade system, and several states in the northeast have cap-and-trade as it applies to electrical production. British Columbia has a carbon tax. That province adopted a tax of 410 in 2008 and, as previously planned, elevated it to $30 in 2012. As the New York Times noted in a March 2016 story, that was then the equivalent of $22.20 in U.S. dollars. Economists at Duke University and the University of Ottawa in a 2015 study concluded that the carbon tax had reduced emission by 5 to 15 percent with “negligible effects on aggregate economic performance.”

The tax proceeds are rebated to the public in the form of other tax reductions. A group called Citizens’ Climate Lobby advocates the same revenue-neutral approach in advocating for what it calls a carbon fee and dividend.

From her study, Tellinghuisen believes a higher tax is needed to motivate changes in the transportation and other sectors. A tax of $20 per ton of CO2 emissions would result in a price increase of only 20 cents per gallon on gasoline. That, Tellinghuisen points out, would likely be lost in the noise of price fluctuations at the gas pump. It’s not enough to motivate changes such as, for example, cause people to ride light rail.

A constitutional provision in Colorado would also pose a challenge to automatic price increases in carbon prices if Colorado should follow the British Columbia model. The Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, or TABOR, requires specific voter approval for many specific tax increases.

Many economists say the minimum starting price for a carbon tax would be $40, if it is to produce significant changes, elevating to about $75 a ton.

Voters in Washington state, belying their reputation for liberal instincts, rejected a proposed carbon tax there last November. Among the arguments was that the tax is regressive, hurting poor people more than other sectors of society.

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Loveliest sight is actually overhead at the Black Canyon

The Gunnison River in the Black Canyon. Photo/Greg Owens at

Why should we have to go to national parks to see what the ancients saw?

by Allen Best

MONTROSE, Colo. – On a  night in late June, about 100 people gathered in an amphitheater located on the south rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River, but not to talk about the nearby chasm.

The canyon, the center piece of a national park, cuts through Precambrian rock  in western Colorado that is nearly two billion years old. It’s 2,722 feet deep at its maximum. One rock face, Painted Wall, a magnet to climbers, is 2,250 feet high, or more than three times higher than the tallest building in downtown Denver. The narrowness of the chasm results in some portions of the canyon floor getting an average of only 33 minutes of sunshine per day.

But this crowd was drawn to look up to study the night sky. The International Dark-Sky Association says that nearly two-thirds of the world’s people can no longer see the Milky Way, the galaxy in which the Earth is located. People in cities have it worst, unable to see light years in transit because of lights close at hand, not even seconds away.

Even in more rural areas, the sparkle of a night sky has eroded as cheap outdoor lighting has too often been thoughtlessly deployed with the industrial scale of a corporate warehouse. The moderns have discarded as unimportant what enchanted the ancients.

As a few stars emerged in the evening gloom over the nearby West Elk Mountains, a tall woman in her 20s named Bettymaya Foott took the microphone. She had a PowerPoint, virtually the only light, to document the decline during the lifetimes of most baby boomers.

In the late 1950s, patches of green indicated artificial night sky brightness due to light pollution mostly confined to coastal areas and along the Great Lakes. By 1997, nearly all of the United States east of the Mississippi River was green with blotches of red and orange, indicating even higher levels of light pollution.

In a paper released in 2001, researchers from Italy and the United States projected only a few areas of dark sky remaining by 2025. Those few areas, they said, would lie mostly between the Great Plains and the two defining mountain ranges of the West coast, the Sierra Nevada and the Cascades.

As glow on the western horizon receded, Foott began describing various kinds of light pollution: sky glow, such as you would see over Denver or Los Angeles; glare such as you might experience when a neighbor has a bright light mounted on a garage that blinds you; and then light trespass, such as that neighbor’s light flooding your backyard.

Light pollution is not inevitable, she said. Rather, pollution is a matter of poor design, such as unshielded lights or lights aimed upward instead of to the ground, where the light is useful. Too, many people erect lights in the mistaken belief that more light flooding a landscape delivers greater security. Less lighting can actually be safer. Placement matters entirely. Foott showed how glare from a lighting fixture mounted on a building’s exterior made it impossible to see the man that was in plain sight once the light was shielded.

By then, the eastern sky over Crested Butte, 40 miles away (but 90 miles by car) was inky dark as Foott laid out the medical case for dark skies. Light pollution has been linked to depression, insomnia, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer, she said. A 2016 report by the American Medical Association recommended fully shielding all light fixtures and only using lighting at color temperatures of 3,000 Kelvin or less.

Lights higher on the Kelvin scale produce icy white and blue lights, unlike the warmer yellows and golds of incandescent and high-pressure sodium lights. The latter are still commonly found at street corners. New, LED lights are vastly more energy efficient, but early, high-Kelvin types produce the more intense, icy white color.

Much of that more abundant light is wasted. Foott said a third of all lighting gets wasted, because it is directed upward. That’s $3 billion of waste annually and the production of 21 million tons of carbon dioxide.

Foott is new to the lecture circuit. Her presentation was notable for its lack of polish and abundance of enthusiasm. She grew up in Moab, Utah, a desert town located about three hours by highway from Black Canyon. While earning a degree at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, she watched a film called “The Dark City.” Seeing it, a light went on in her mind. Before then, she had never paused to puzzle through why she could see stars in Moab but not Salt Lake City.

But even the glow of Moab can be seen from the nearby state and national parks, including Arches and Canyonlands. Now, working with the University of Utah’s new Consortium of Dark Skies Studies, she is directing an effort to preserve skies in the Colorado Plateau. The plateau is located only partly in Colorado. Think instead of Zion, Bryce, and other national parks, and Lake Powell, too.

The consortium has worked with city and county officials in Moab, Kanab, and Helper, all in Utah, as well as Page, Ariz., located near the Grand Canyon, to enact ordinances to restrict the erosion of the night sky. Moab, she said, this year has integrated dark skies education into its annual arts festival. Flagstaff, Ariz., which has two observatories and one of the nation’s best lighting ordinances, has an annual dark sky-themed arts show, called NightVisions.

If the Colorado Plateau has large expanses of dark, it has glittering metropolises, too. Lights of Las Vegas can be detected up to 200 miles away.

Concluding her presentation, Foott asked her audience to use artificial light sparingly, if at all, as they made their way to the half-dozen telescopes that had been set up adjacent to the nearby campground.

As the sun sets, she explained, we go through a process called dark adaptation where the eye gradually becomes sensitive to less and less light. The entire process takes about 45 minutes. An artificial light can eliminate that adaptation.

The visitors made their way in the dark, most without lights, to a parking lot where eight large telescopes had been set up to see the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter. Nobody had a smartphone out to check Facebook postings. Instead, they marveled at what the Milky Way and the other sparkling objects in the sky said to them, just as people of antiquity had.

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A life well lived and an exceptional death

Author, musician died in the same way he lived: exceptionally

JACKSON, Wyo. – John Byrne Cooke died, and that’s too bad for the written word. He was a writer, and a good one. He was a musician, too, and as he died he was surrounded by the music of his friends.

The son of Alistair Cooke, the long-time host of “Masterpiece Theater,” Cooke lived in Jackson Hole, where he had moved in 1982 after bucking hay bales one summer on a nearby ranch.

John Byrne Cook

The Jackson Hole News&Guide explains that he  had grown up in New York City listening obsessively to Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Burl Ives. Later, studying romance languages at Harvard, he joined a band as a guitar player and singer. That led to engagements at a famous folk club in Cambridge, where he began photographing Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and other emerging stars on the folk circuit, which in turn put him at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967. That’s where he first heard Janis Joplin.

“I was just drop-jawed from astonishment at this woman’s vocal power,” he told an interviewer many years later. He became her road manager and, in 1970, was the person who found her dead of an overdose in her hotel room in Los Angeles.

His writing had great span. One of his books, “Snowblind Moon,” was a novel framed in the mountain man era of the northern Rockies. He also wrote about his work with Janis Joplin. One of the members of her back-up band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, had this to say: “Most, most important you get Janis right, and I can feel her and she is alive when I read your book.”

He also wrote book reviews for the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times.

The Jackson Hole News&Guide says he was a regular as a musician in Jackson Hole, performing in the house band at the Stagecoach, a bar.

For his own passing, musician friends gathered around his hospital bed as he died of cancer, playing his favorite songs. He went out as they sang “Love at the Five and Dime.” Then they played “I Shall be Released.”

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Xcel decision fortifies calls for 100 percent renewables

As coal plants close, more calls for 100% renewable goals

Xcel Energy proposes to close two of its coal-fired generating units at Comanche, indicated by smokestacks at right. The stack at left, for the plant completed in 2010, provides energy for a portion of Aspen and for the Roaring Fork and Eagle valleys. In the foreground is the largest solar farm east of the Rocky Mountains at its opening. Photo/Allen Best

by Allen Best

DURANGO, Colo. – The Sierra Club has been pushing Durango to commit to 100 percent locally produced and renewable electricity by 2050.

The argument of petitioners, reports the Durango Herald, is that in addition to cutting carbon emissions, the local, renewable energy would create local jobs and stabilize energy rates as the cost of fossil fuels continues to rise.

The petition in Durango fits in with a broad pattern across the country of calls for municipalities to embrace goals of 100 percent renewables during the next few decades. In Utah, for example, Salt Lake City, Moab, and Park City have all embraced that goal. In Colorado, so have the Front Range communities of Fort Collins, Boulder, and Pueblo.

That goal no longer seems so far-fetched. Major, investor-owned utilities have been rapidly investing in renewables not because they have to, but because of tumbling prices for wind, but also solar. Cost of utility-scale storage has also started sliding.

Last week, Colorado’s largest utility, Public Service Co., a subsidiary of Xcel Energy, announced that it would seek approval of state regulators to retire two coal-fired generating plants at Pueblo, which began operations in 1972 and 1974. The retirements, if approved by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, will mean Comanche I and II will be retired a decade earlier than previously scheduled.

Xcel wants to replace the lost power with some natural gas-fired electricity but mostly with renewables, with up to 1,000 megawatts of wind and 700 megawatts of solar. It wants to move fast, too, to take advantage of federal tax credits that are scheduled to expire in 2020.

Cost to consumers will stay the same or more likely go down, explained David Eves, the utility’s president of Colorado operations. Reduced greenhouse gas emissions are a bonus.

After the switch, Xcel expects its will be at 55 percent in carbon-free generation. This year, it will be completing conversion of a coal-fired power plant in Denver to natural gas. It had also converted a plant in Boulder last year.

Xcel delivers power to Colorado’s Summit County, where Breckenridge elected officials recently heard from a local group that wanted a commitment to 100 percent renewables, first in city operations and then a few years later in the community at large. Town officials weren’t ready to commit, lacking a clear path to achieve these goals. This was a week before the Xcel announcement.

Mark Truckey, a town planner in Breckenridge who is a member of the local 100 percent group, called the Xcel announcement “huge.”

“This has to speak volumes about how the cost is coming down,” he said. Yet he concedes it’s not exactly clear how Breckenridge can achieve what his group advocates.

In Utah, it’s the same story. Rocky Mountain Power last week reached a deal with solar advocates about a transition. The utility, which serves Park City, has a plan for adding more wind generation from southern Wyoming and upwards of 1,000 megawatts —the equivalent of a giant coal-fired power plant—in solar generation from Utah.

It used to be that renewables came with a price premium. As the Xcel and Rocky Mountain Power cases illustrate, that has changed. Aspen also proves the case.

Aspen gets more than half of its electricity from wind turbines just north of I-80 in the Nebraska panhandle.

Aspen Electric was an early adopter. The utility serves half to two-thirds of Aspen. More than a decade ago it invested in two wind turbines in Nebraska. It has also invested heavily in hydroelectric. As a municipality, it is also eligible for electricity from the giant dams of the West.

Several years ago it was able to achieve 100 percent renewables. Despite the renewables—or maybe because of them—residential customers in Aspen pay 20 percent less per kilowatt-hour than co-op members such as those serving Durango.

The rest of Aspen, including the ski area, gets its electricity from Holy Cross Energy. If moving briskly toward renewables, Holy Cross still gets a substantial amount of its electricity from another coal-fired power plant at Pueblo. Although news as of 2010, it increasingly looks archaic.

Solar panels have become abundant on rooftops. Even so, solar delivered just 2 percent of Colorado’s electricity in 2016. Solar energy proponents expect that will change. Costs of panels have declined 64 percent in the last five years, points out the Summit Daily News, citing the Colorado Solar Energy Industry Association. Too, utilities like Xcel, Rocky Mountain Power, and Tri-State Generation and Transmission are increasingly investing in giant farms of solar panels.

Tri-State provides electricity for the co-operatives that serve the Colorado mountain towns of Winter Park, Grand Lake, Crested Butte, and Telluride. The power for Durango also comes from Tri-State through La Plata Electric Association.

Last year, 53 percent of Tri-State’s electricity came from coal, although 27 percent came from renewables, and more is coming on line all the time, says Lee Boughey, spokesman. He points to 75 megawatts of wind generation from southeastern Colorado that will go on-line later this year.

About 4 percent of Durango’s power comes from local renewable sources, but a major solar plant on the Southern Ute reservation has also been added, reports the Durango Telegraph.

Volunteers help to construct the solar system at a low-income, rental-housing subdivision in La Plata County. Photo/LPEA

Can Durango get to 100 percent renewables, as the Sierra Club petition seeks? La Plata hasn’t said no, although there are many challenges. Most illuminating is a white paper from the co-op’s chief executive, Mike Dreyspring. The paper describes the evolution of markets that will allow slow-cost electrons from renewable sources to be moved around the grid to match demands. That other changes are poised to disrupt old business models—including the centralized power generation of the last half of the 20th century.

Locally produced power, called distributed generation, “shifts the balance sheet risk from owners of central station bulk power generation assets to DG owners,” the paper says. “The traditional, vertically integrated electric utilities that adapt to this changing market place will financially thrive.”

Another way of saying this is that yes, the train is out of the station. It’s just a matter of accommodating the new renewables. Whether 100 percent renewables is possible is a discussion for another day.

This story was published in the Sept. 5 issue of Mountain Town News, an e-mail based newsmagazine first distributed to subscribers. Please consider subscribing or donating. 

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Thin air stealthily robs young backpacker of her life

The cornice of Bald Mountain, overlooking Vail and I-70, in July 1997. Photo/Allen Best

By the time it became clear the high altitude was killing her, it was too late 

by Allen Best

ASPEN, Colo. – In some ways, Susanna Deforest was typical of those who suffer from Colorado’s thinner air after arriving from a low elevation. A 20-year-old from Pennsylvania, she felt sluggish when hiking up a trail to the popular Conundrum Hot Springs near Aspen, lacking much energy. She had to stop frequently for rest.

But in critical ways, her personal physiology masked what was happening as her case of high-altitude pulmonary edema, serious in its own right, turned deadly. She wasn’t breathing hard, nor did she cough. She didn’t turn blue. There were no obvious telltale signs to tell her and her companions on Aug. 18 that her blood oxygen saturation was dropping dangerously low.

When she died early the next morning at an elevation of 10,367 feet, the oxygen saturation in her blood was at about what is commonly found in climbers who at between 22,000 and 28,000 feet in elevation unaided by oxygen.

Dr. Steve Ayers, the corner of Pitkin County, announced today that her cause of death was high altitude pulmonary edema and high altitude cerebral edema. The former, HAPE, is more common and can precede the latter, HACE, which is exceedingly rare. However, HACE can occur without HAPE.

This was an extreme case of dangers of hypoxia, or the effect of oxygen deprivation on human tissues. It also poses questions for those who survive whether they could have done anything differently to prevent the death. In this case, the answer is probably not.

Mountain sickness is relatively common, afflicting about a quarter of all visitors to Colorado resorts of above 8,000 feet in elevation who arrive from sea level. Young men most commonly suffer. They eat heavy, drink too much alcohol, and still plow forward, skiing with gusto. The usual advice is to take it easy for a few days, stay hydrated, and get plenty of rest.

High-altitude pulmonary edema, or HAPE, ordinarily doesn’t show up until the second or third day. It can affect people at elevations of as low at 6,000 feet, but it’s more common at about 8,000 feet.

Aspen and Vail are both a little above 8,000 feet. Telluride is at 8,750, but most people visiting there stay at Mountain Village, elevation 9,545 feet. Mt. Crested Butte, the slope-side town, is 9,380 feet. Most lodges in Summit County are 9,000 feet or above.

Fourth of July in Aspen. Photo/Allen Best

The cases of HAPE are relatively rare. Just one visitor in every 5,000 to 10,0000 visitors to Colorado mountain resorts will suffer HAPE, according to Dr. Peter Hackett. A physician, Hackett made hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation, a central part of both his research and his mountain climbing career. He summited Mt. Everest in 1981 and in later years ministered to climbers at the 18,000-foot base camp.

At Aspen Valley Hospital, physicians see HAPE victims one or twice a month although, on at least one occasion, there were three cases within a 24-hour period. Victims of the condition, also called acute mountain sickness, invariably arrive on their third night at altitude after their afflictions have worsened. Ayers says they complain about trouble with breathing and they can’t sleep. Sometimes they can hear fluid gurgling in their chests, and the sound worries them.

“It should worry them,” says Ayers. It’s a telltale symptom of HAPE.

These cases of HAPE are invariably remedied with the simple prescription of supplemental oxygen, about three liters a minute. The patients can return to their hotel rooms, oxygen cannulas in their nostrils.

Fatalities resulting from HAPE used to be more common in Colorado, the nation’s highest state with an average elevation of 6,800 feet. But travelers have become better educated and clinics in high-mountain valleys better able to respond.

Still, fatalities do occur. Several years ago, a visitor to Mt. Crested Butte died of HAPE. A hunter in the San Juan Mountains also died.

More rare and more deadly is cerebral edema, or HACE in which fluids built up in the brain. Rapid response can make all the difference. Ayers remembers a case several years ago of a young woman staying in Snowmass Village suffering from HACE. The lodge was probably at about 9,400 feet, the base elevation for which cerebral edema occurs. In that case, she was given oxygen immediately at Aspen Valley Hospital and put on a helicopter to a level-one trauma center in Denver, where neurologists are on staff around the clock. She didn’t need them, though. Getting off the helicopter in Denver, she had recovered.

In the case of Suzanne Deforest, supplemental oxygen would have made all the difference. But her symptoms were atypical.

She had flow to Denver on Aug 13, spending the night in Golden, elevation 5,675 feet. The next day she traveled to Dillon, elevation 9,111 feet, where she lingered for two days and probably started developing HAPE, according to the report of Ayers, the coroner.

The next day, on Aug. 17, she and companions set out from Aspen to hike up the Conundrum Hot Springs trail. It starts out at 8,700 feet and, 8.5 miles later, ends up at the hot springs, just below treeline at 11,200 feet in elevation.

Ayers says she struggled up the trail, needing frequent stops for rest, but companions said she did not exhibit obvious signs of breathing distress.

Her symptoms were subtle and atypical, as is true in 10 to 15 percent of cases. A healthy person at sea level has an oxygen saturation of 96 to 98 percent in their blood, says Hackett. Oxygen saturations typically drop to 89 or 90 when people are at 9,000 feet in elevation.

For a normal person standing on top of Mt. Everest, unaided by supplemental oxygen, it would be 40 or 50.

As the young woman struggled up the Conundrum trail, her oxygen saturation levels probably dropped to the level of the world’s highest peaks. As you develop HAPE, your oxygen level continues to drop, even if you are not ascending in elevation. HAPE, in this case, then continued into HACE. “It’s no mystery that she had high-altitude cerebral edema,” says Hackett.

Had the woman breathed heavily instead of just feeling lousy, she or her companions might have figured out that rapid descent was necessary. Instead, they hunkered down in a tent, sort of waiting out the storm. That was a fatal if understandable decision.

Arriving at 1:30 a.m., the rescue helicopter was unable to land, because of its weight. Instead, the helicopter had to burn off fuel. It didn’t land until 5:30 a.m. By then, she was dead.

But from the testimony of a key witness and a timeline put together by the Pitkin County deputy coroner, it almost certainly would have made no difference had the helicopter been able to land the first time. When the tent companion returned to the tent after shining her lights to the helicopter, she found the woman had stopped breathing.

There may be cases of victims of HACE brought back from the brink of death, but Ayers says he’s unaware of any. Victim of cardiac arrhythmia can be brought back from the brink of death. But when the brain has swollen to the point it is causing cardiac arrest, it can’t be reversed.

Had the victim and her companions carried a book of “Wilderness Medicine,” the text that Ayers carries with him on his travels around the world, they might have diagnosed her HAPE and then HACE. But few of us carry such books when backpacking or any place else.



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