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Rep. Joe Neguse pushes for better access, funding for federal lands

Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse discusses the Ski Fee Retention Bill with U.S. Forest Service officials and Summit County commissioners during a roundtable May 24 in Breckenridge.
Photo by Ashley Low

Rep. Joe Neguse is pushing to improve access and funding for public lands in Colorado and around the country.

Last week, Neguse, who chairs the U.S. Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, presented the subcommittee with three bills targeted at improving access to public lands and supporting Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy. By and large, the bills would help to simplify the permitting process for allowing guide services and individual parties to access public lands, ensure local communities get their fair share of ski fees paid by resorts, and promote the digitization of outdoor recreation mapping records around the country.

Neguse, who serves Summit County as part of Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District, is in a unique position among his colleagues in Washington, D.C., to advocate for the conservation and improved use of public lands, not only via his position with the subcommittee — which oversees some of America’s most iconic landscapes and the agencies in charge of protecting them — but also because of the vital role those landscapes play in his district.

Neguse said more than 50% of his district is composed of federal public lands, including Rocky Mountain National Park, the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, and the White River National Forest here in Summit County, the most visited national forest in the country. With public lands playing such a vital role in the quality of life for residents, and as the primary economic driver for the region, Neguse said he owes it to his constituents to make sure the lands are taken care of.

“First and foremost, I’m a Coloradan,” Neguse said in an interview with the Summit Daily on Thursday, June 10. “I’ve lived in this state since I was 6 years old, and I’ve never left. I grew up with a deep and abiding love of our great outdoors in our wonderful state. As a citizen, as a father who wants to ensure that his 3-year-old daughter and her generation can enjoy these public lands that we hold in public trust, I think it’s just incredibly important and a top priority of mine in the United States Congress.”

Among the bills Neguse is advocating for is the Ski Hill Resources for Economic Development Act, or SHRED Act. Currently, ski resorts operating on federal lands pay a permit fee to the U.S. Treasury. The White River National Forest alone is home to 11 ski areas, including Breckenridge Ski Resort, Copper Mountain Resort and Keystone Resort.

If passed, the bill would establish a Ski Area Fee Retention Account, wherein forests that receive less than $15 million in fees would get to keep 75% of it — or 60% for forests making more than $15 million — to use for wildfire preparedness, processing ski area improvement proposals and more. The remaining 25% would be earmarked for visitor services, avalanche education activities and other purposes.

Neguse said the move would serve as a good short-term solution to help local land agencies reinvest funds to support trailhead improvements, backlogged maintenance projects, increased staffing and more, all of which have become especially important as officials deal with ever-growing volumes of visiting recreationists. But Neguse said there would still be a need for more robust and sustainable funding from the federal government in the future.

“The longer-term solution is Congress mustering the political will that is necessary to fund the Forest Service at appropriate levels,” he said. “… It’s something that is reflected within the Civilian Conservation Corps proposal, which would scale up the Forest Service’s maintenance and other important accounts. We’re just going to have to keep pushing. But the current situation is simply unsustainable and unacceptable.”

Neguse declined to comment on why some members of Congress opposed increased funding for agencies like the Forest Service and said that position is “refuted by the facts on the ground.”

“Any member of Congress who feels differently can come to the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, come to Rocky Mountain National Park, come to the White River National Forest and see the real unmet needs for themselves,” he said.

In the meantime, Neguse is hoping to pass a pair of other bills that would improve access to public lands for recreation enthusiasts. The first is called the Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation Act, or SOAR Act. The bill is essentially meant to modernize and remove barriers to obtaining recreation permits for outdoor guides, educational organizations, higher-education programs and others.

Neguse said the processes used by many agencies to issue permits is currently outdated, overly complex and time consuming.

“As a result, federal land management agencies are often unable to issue the permits for guided outdoor recreation activities, even when the activities ultimately are within the capacity limits established for the given landscape,” Neguse said. “At the end of the day, the unintended consequence of that is that local economies don’t end up receiving the benefit of those outdoor recreation visits.”

Neguse is also advocating for the passage of the Modernizing Access to Our Public Land Act, or MAPLand Act. The bill would direct federal land management agencies to standardize and digitize their mapping records, which in turn would help the agencies identify areas with limited access points to open them up to the public and provide users with better and more easily attainable information on the lands.

Neguse said in order to find the best outcomes for public lands, lawmakers would need to strike a balance between making sure everyone has the access they desire and ensuring management agencies have the resources they need to support that usage.

“It’s important that we ensure the outdoor recreation industry in Colorado remains a robust one,” Neguse said. “It has a significant economic impact on Colorado and certainly my district. Through legislation like the MAPLand Act and the SOAR Act, we can ensure Coloradans and others are able to access our wonderful outdoors that is core to who we are as Coloradans. At the same time, we need to take the necessary steps to maintain our public lands and ensure we are investing the necessary federal resources so these lands can be protected for future generations.”

Bolstering local transportation infrastructure

As Neguse works to improve access and funding for federal lands, he’s also made progress in helping to fund local transportation infrastructure projects.

Last week, more than $11 million for Summit County infrastructure projects was included in the INVEST in America Act, which, if passed, would provide funding for the Gap Project, the Frisco Transit Center and Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel improvements.

“It would certainly be the largest infusion of federal transportation dollars for local Summit County projects in decades,” Neguse said. “The fact that the transportation committee ultimately included the three projects, which are critically important to Summit County, was a great step forward. Now, we’re going to have to make sure we work hard to have these projects survive the rest of the legislative process and get to the president’s desk for a signature.”

Senior Colorado Parks and Wildlife manager reinstated after investigation for meddling with wolf reintroduction

A senior Colorado Parks and Wildlife manager has been reinstated after a 12-week investigation into a whistleblower’s allegations that the manager tried to sabotage the voter-directed reintroduction of wolves — using tactics including hiring an outside group to post videos on YouTube and Facebook targeting pro-wolf state commissioners.

CPW Northwest Region Manager JT Romatzke has served in the agency for 23 years and is widely regarded as a star game warden. He was put on paid leave during the investigation and resumed work in April.

State investigators found “some” of the alleged offenses occurred, but officials last week wouldn’t specify. Following the investigation, “appropriate action was taken,” a state spokesman said, declining to give details. Romatzke wrote in an April 23 email that his “integrity and professionalism is intact,” and he will “face the future with positivity and regain credibility.”

Colorado Department of Natural Resources and CPW officials declined to discuss the matter but said in a statement, “there is no question” that they are “fully committed to restoring wolves to Colorado as required by state law.”

In November 2020, voters narrowly approved Proposition 114, which requires CPW to reintroduce a self-sustaining wolf population in western Colorado before 2024. Gov. Jared Polis supports this and has emphasized there must be “paws on the ground” by the deadline.

But wolf reintroduction is unpopular in parts of rural Colorado where wolves are seen as a threat to cattle. It’s also unpopular among some Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists.

Documents and recordings reviewed by The Denver Post show CPW officials based on the Western Slope working to subvert voters’ directive to bring back wolves. Agency directors prohibited Romatzke and other regional agency officials from talking with media before the 2020 election — including The Denver Post.

Romatzke was the subject of an official complaint filed January 18 with the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, with 11-year CPW employee Randy Hampton accusing him of:

• Using state money to hire an outside group to anonymously post YouTube and Facebook videos casting negatively two pro-wolf commissioners appointed by Polis — Taishya Adams and Jay Tutchton. The complaint said Romatzke initially asked Hampton to “find a video editor,” saying “it couldn’t cost more than $5,000,” and “we can find a way to (for) pay it.” Hampton refused. In a Jan. 5 legally inadmissible taped phone call, which was shared with The Denver Post, Romatzke told officials, “I’ve got an outside group doing just that. Don’t share that with anybody.” It’s unclear whether videos were posted.

• Instructing the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado to obtain information that Polis had sent to CPW commissioners urging them to move faster than the deadline for wolf reintroduction. Polis urged consideration of completing work sooner because lawsuits could force the federal government to reinstate endangered species protection for wolves.

• Guiding the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado to push anti-wolf perspectives in two northwest Colorado newspapers.

• Sharing details of targeting the commissioners with other managers in a conference call, according to a taped version provided to The Denver Post by the national whistleblower law group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which represents Hampton.

The HR department’s investigation concluded “some” of the alleged misdeeds occurred but didn’t provide details in an April 18 letter that closed the case. Department of Natural Resources Spokesman Chris Arend cited privacy requirements around personnel matters and said officials were not available.

In an April conference call with the human resources director, CPW Director Dan Prenzlow and Romatzke, Hampton was given a choice of “onboarding” back to his position under Romatzke or resigning, according to a recording shared with the Post. Hampton voluntarily resigned, citing fears about safety for himself and his family in Grand Junction.

After moving to Denver, he then moved out of state.

Hampton said in an interview he was reluctant to file a complaint because Romatzke was a friend. He did so only at encouragement of Colorado Department of Natural Resources director Dan Gibbs, who Hampton said called him on a Sunday assuring him that if he filed the complaint he’d “‘be taken care of.'”

He said he resigned out of concern for the integrity of the CPW and believes many “really great, passionate employees” are working under what he sees as ethically compromised conditions.

“I am anti-forced reintroduction, anti-ballot management of wildlife, for sure. But the voters spoke, and our job is to get it done — not go out and interfere,” Hampton said.

Gibbs and Romatzke didn’t respond to requests for comment. Adams declined to comment publicly. Tutchton said he wasn’t fully informed of what happened and was glad to have “survived” what felt like a very difficult confirmation process.

“On their own time, people are free to trash me. … But the part about using state resources in that effort, that is inappropriate. People should not be doing that in their uniform or on state time,” he said in an interview.

While he has “heard the skepticism” about wolves, he believes many at CPW “are doing their best to implement the will of the voters.”

Hampton’s PEER attorneys say Colorado leaders need to better protect whistleblowers so that they don’t face retaliation.

“The people of Colorado voted for wolves reintroduction, and when civil servants reject the will of the voters and substitute their own, they are forsaking the democratic principles our nation was founded on,” senior attorney Kevin Bell said.

“He reported his supervisor, the supervisor was placed on leave for a few months, and our client was assured by the state that either the supervisor would be removed, or he would be reassigned to another position so he would not have to work under the same person he reported afterwards,” he said. “Neither of those things happened. The state substantiated the allegations and then did nothing.”

Earlier this week, state officials announced the first wolf pups that were born in the wild since the 1940s, but it still needs to decide the number of wolves needed to achieve a self-sustaining population and where they’ll be released.

Straight Creek Fire in Summit County 100% contained

Firefighters have fully contained the 8-acre Straight Creek Fire, according to the most recent update from U.S. Forest Service spokesperson David Boyd.

The fire started Thursday, June 10, about two miles east of Dillon in the Straight Creek area. Sunday afternoon, June 13, Hotshot crews completed their work reinforcing containment lines and mopping up the area. Local fire crews will continue to monitor the burn area.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, according to the Forest Service.

The Straight Creek Trail and Tenderfoot trail system remain closed.

 

Straight Creek Fire sends 1 person to hospital for altitude- and heat-related concerns

Though the Straight Creek Fire has not grown beyond 8 acres, someone from the fire line was taken to St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco for heat- and altitude-related concerns, White River National Forest spokesperson David Boyd said. Boyd did not report the person’s condition.

On Friday, June 11, the U.S. Forest Service also issued a closure for the area northeast of the fire for firefighter and public safety. The closure includes the Straight Creek Trail and Tenderfoot trail system.

Crews first responded to the fire, located along Interstate 70 between Dillon and the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels, on Thursday, June 10.

Boyd said the status of the fire remains relatively unchanged. The north side of the fire has cooled, and crews are continuing to work on the south side where there is still heat. The two heavy helicopters that helped douse the fire Friday are no longer working the blaze. On Saturday, June 12, there remained two Hotshot crews and the light helicopter, which is used to target specific areas.

The fire is 80% contained, and the cause is under investigation.

For more details about the fire’s status, visit InciWeb.nwcg.gov/incident/7525.

Low water volumes due to drought could affect Colorado River recreational activities

Water volumes along the Colorado River are 55% of average for the amount of volume that would normally be seen from April to July, according to Aldis Strautins, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.

That’s due to drought conditions that have persisted over the last year.

The Eagle River’s water volume is also at 55% of the average, and the Roaring Fork River is at 51% of the normal average volume, Strautins said.

“They’re really well below average and a lot of that has to do with last year and what happened going into the snow accumulation period,” Strautins said. “We were really dry last year — soil moisture levels were exceptionally dry. The soil took a lot of that runoff and that’s what we’re seeing here is the combination of below normal snowback for a good portion of the Colorado basin.”

Without the spring rains and kinds of storms the Colorado River Basin would likely have in the springtime, the area will continue to stay dry and below normal, Strautins said.

“We’re hoping for some monsoonal rains that might help it. The climate prediction center is predicting a higher probability of below average precipitation through the summertime,” Strautins said. “So, that’s not good.”

Meteorologists are also expecting a higher probability for higher temperatures,” Strautins said.

“We do see some slight indications that there might be some moisture coming into Arizona in two weeks out or so.”

Strautins said moisture could be pulled up to Arizona that could come close to Colorado.

“Whether it makes it to the Colorado basin, it’s hard to tell,” Strautins said.

“The outlook is that even if we do get that it won’t bring above average precipitation. It’s a bleak outlook right now.”

Paula Stepp, executive director for the Middle Colorado Watershed Council, said the drought will likely impact the Glenwood Springs area in many ways.

Stepp said there are concerns about how the drought and lower water volumes along the Colorado River will impact agriculture, recreation and aquatic habitat.

Water use by agricultural producers is already stressed by the drought, Stepp said.

“There was already a lot going on with the historical users pool. When I sat in on those calls in April there were already concerns about low water. Who needs the water and where that water is going to.”

Stepp said she’s already heard that there’s not a lot of water available and there’s a need to be conservative with water usage.

On the recreational side of things, Stepp said there could be a much shorter rafting season.

“We’ve already passed the peak from what I understand,” Stepp said.

Stepp explained that conditions one would experience while rafting in August may be the kind that appear in July.

“Angling and fishing will also be impacted probably,” Stepp said. We might end up seeing where we have to stop fishing in the middle of the day because the water is too warm because it’s too low. Those are the concerns that have been expressed.”

Stepp said there’s a need for rain, but a deluge could result in debris slides within the Grizzly Creek burn scar.

“Post-fire means that if there’s a huge rain storm, or the wrong kind of quick rain, we could see some debris flow,” Stepp said. “So we’re concerned about that as well and how that might impact downstream.”

Currently, Stepp said the best thing local residents can do is to conserve their water.

“It’s that kind of year,” she said.

Reporter Shannon Marvel can be reached at 605-350-8355 or smarvel@postindependent.com.

Craig betting on Yampa River to help transition from coal economy

This section of the Yampa River in Craig is part of the Yampa River Corridor Project. The city of Craig is making the project part of a plan to diversify the region’s economy with a focus on outdoor recreation.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

With the impending closure of coal mines and power plants in northwest Colorado, Craig officials and river enthusiasts are hoping a long-overlooked natural resource just south of town can help create economic resilience.

The city has applied for a $1.8 million grant from the federal Economic Development Agency for the Yampa River Corridor Project, which will refurbish boat ramps, add parking areas and a whitewater park, in an effort to develop the Yampa River as a source of outdoor recreation and local pride. The project is part of a multi-pronged approach to help rural Moffat County transition from an extraction-based economy to one that includes outdoor and river recreation as one of its main pillars.

“(River use) has definitely grown in the last couple of years,” said Jennifer Holloway, executive director of the Craig Chamber of Commerce. “Awareness that the river could be part of our future has grown. It had just not been on our radar as a town. We had the coal mines, we had the power plants. People tubed the river and fished in it sometimes, but it was not looked at as an economic asset until the last few years.”

An August 2020 preliminary engineering report by Glenwood Springs-based consultant SGM laid out the project components. The first phase of the proposed project would include improvements to Loudy Simpson Park on the west end of town, including a boat ramp, parking, a picnic area and vault toilet. The park is often a take-out point for tubers and boaters who float from Pebble Beach, just a few miles upstream. The project would also create better waves, pool drops with a fish passage, two access points and a portage trail at what’s known as Diversion Park, as well as improve the city’s diversion structure.

The total project cost is roughly $2.7 million. A second project phase, which is still conceptual, would include bank stabilization and a trail connecting the river to downtown Craig.

Project proponents see the river as one of the town’s most under-utilized amenities and say it can add to the quality of life in the town of about 9,000.

Josh Veenstra is the owner of Good Vibes River Gear in Craig. The company rents paddle boards, rafts and tubes, runs shuttles on the Little Yampa Canyon and sells hand-sewn, mesh bags and drying racks, which are popular among the boating community. This is the fourth season for his company and Veenstra said the momentum is unbelievable.

“What it’s going to do is give Craig a sense of identity,” he said.

Transitioning from coal

Two of the region’s biggest employers and energy providers, Tri State Generation and Transmission and Xcel Energy, announced in 2020 that they would be closing their coal-fired plants and mines. Tri-State, whose plant is supplied by two local mines, Trapper and Colowyo, plans to close all three of Craig’s units by 2030. Xcel, whose plant is located in nearby Hayden, plans to close both its units by the end of 2028.

According to Holloway, the closures represent about 800 lost jobs.

“All of our restaurants survive off the power plant workers, all of our retail, all the rest of our businesses,” she said. “Most of our small businesses downtown are run by women whose husbands work in the mine. So I think we are going to see a mass changeover of people leaving.”

Holloway is focusing on ag-tourism, the arts and outdoor recreation as industries that can help replace lost jobs. Although she recognizes that tourism jobs generally don’t pay the high wages of extraction industries, outdoor recreation has been identified as an industry with a large potential for growth and is identified as a priority in Moffat County’s Vision 2025 Transition Plan.

In addition, the pandemic has shown that many white-collar workers can work remotely from anywhere that has internet. It has also increased interest in outdoor recreation. Project supporters say improving the river corridor could help attract a new demographic interested in the outdoors but who don’t want to pay the premiums of a resort community, like nearby Steamboat Springs.

“Entrepreneurs in the rec industry would be a great fit,” Holloway said. “A warehouse here would be so much cheaper than Steamboat. If we could get some of those entrepreneurs, that would attract those that have a remote job or business elsewhere but that want the rural outdoor lifestyle.”

Recreation water right

Although city officials are moving forward with plans to build the whitewater park, they are — for now at least — forgoing a step that could help protect their newly built asset and keep water in the river.

Many communities in Colorado with whitewater parks, including Glenwood Springs, Basalt, Durango, Silverthorne and Vail, have a water right associated with the man-made waves, known as a recreational in-channel diversion or RICD. This type of water right ties an amount of water necessary for a reasonable recreational experience to the river features.

A RICD can help make sure there is enough water in the river for boating, but it also has the potential to limit future upstream water development. Under Colorado water law, known as the prior appropriation system, older water rights have first use of the river and therefore, a RICD does not affect existing senior water rights.

“It’s something that we have had some discussion about and we are looking closely at; it can be kind of political,” said Craig City Manager Peter Brixius. “I have not personally heard from folks, but I know people are opposed to it.”

The Lefevre family prepares to put their rafts in at Pebble Beach for a float down the Yampa River to Loudy Simpson Park on Wednesday. From left, Marcie Lefevre, Nathan Lefevre, Travis Lefevre and Sue Eschen.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Brixius said the conversation about a RICD is on hiatus at least until the fall.

Without a water right, which would secure the whitewater park’s place in line, future upstream water development could jeopardize having enough water for the park.

Peter Fleming, general counsel for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said that while he can’t speak specifically for Craig, it makes sense for a municipality to protect its place in the prior appropriation system with a water right.

“If there may be some risk in the future that somebody is going to develop some water upstream that would either reduce or eliminate entirely the benefit of this expenditure, then yeah, you go to water court and try to protect this investment you have made,” he said. “Even if you don’t see anything on the horizon that is going to impact you, who knows what’s going to happen in 20 years.”

Looking to the future

The city expects to find out if it got the EDA grant in early fall. The project has also received funding from Moffat County, Friends of the Yampa, Trapper Mine, Northwest Colorado Parrotheads, the Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable, Resources Legacy Fund and the Yampa River Fund.

City officials are hoping the Yampa River Corridor Project will attract visitors, contribute to marketing efforts to rebrand northwest Colorado and build morale around the area’s economic future. For river gear shop owner Veenstra, that future can’t come fast enough. He hopes to hold swift water rescue courses and do environmental education using the new river corridor area.

“Craig is one of the coolest little towns,” he said. “The closure of the power plant, everybody says it’s going to be the downfall of Craig. It’s the best thing that could ever happen to us because it made people snap out of it and go, ‘oh, we need to do something different.’ That’s why the whitewater park is getting built. It was a blessing in disguise.”

Update: 15- to 20-acre Straight Creek Fire ignites east of Dillon

The Straight Creek Fire burns near Interstate 70 east of Dillon on Thursday, June 10.
Photo from Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons

Editor’s note: I-70 reopened late Thursday, but fire officials warn it likely will close again Friday while crews work to extinguish the blaze.

The Straight Creek Fire ignited off Interstate 70 near Dillon on Thursday afternoon. As of 9 p.m., the fire was about 15 to 20 acres, and firefighters were still on scene working to control it. Officials said no structures are threatened.

At about 6:30 p.m., firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service, Summit Fire & EMS, and the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District responded to a blaze off I-70 near milepost 209 east of Silverthorne, according to Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons. He said the fire is on U.S. Forest Service land.

Summit Fire spokesperson Steve Lipsher said the fire was moving toward the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels, and that residents in Silverthorne and Dillon don’t need to be worried for now.

“The fire is blowing up toward the tunnel, and right now there’s no need for anyone to be overly concerned about the fire reaching developed areas,” Lipsher said. “But I think the bigger issue is its June 10, and we’ve got ourselves a regular, serious wildfire here. … All of this is not the harbinger for the fire season we hoped we would see, but it is a definite moment that should promote contemplation and awareness on behalf of our residents and visitors. We are in fire season, and they need to be prepared for fire season.”

Lipsher said there were about 30 responders on-site Thursday night, including firefighters, sheriff’s deputies and other supporting staff. Aircraft has also responded to the blaze. Firefighters expect the fire to burn overnight.

“It’s burning in dead, standing lodgepole and spruce,” Lipsher said. “We’re seeing torching and active fire behavior blown by the wind. Nothing outrageous or crazy, but it keeps burning down low, and then it will hit what we call jackpots, which are really receptive stands of dead trees, and they’ll just flare up. … It’s going to burn into the night, and hopefully the winds die down, and by morning we’ll be able to make some good headway on knocking this thing down.”

While the fire isn’t currently threatening any structures, Lipsher said there were still values at stake in the area. He said the fire was just a “couple hundred yards” south of the interstate, and road closures could continue as the fire lingers. I-70 eastbound remained closed at Silverthorne Exit 205 as of 9 p.m. Thursday with a detour over Loveland Pass.

Lipsher noted that Straight Creek, nearby where the fire is burning, is a water source for the town of Dillon, and that there were high-tension power lines in the area that had been de-energized.

Earlier Thursday, the local fire districts increased the fire danger level from low to very high. Lipsher said the change in conditions throughout the day was considerable.

“I’ve never seen it go from a rating of low this morning to very high as of now,” Lipsher said. “In one day, we jumped three levels; we skipped moderate and high. … Our humidity is really low for whatever reason. We’re dry, dry, dry.”

Boyd said crews will monitor the fire Thursday night and that more resources are expected to arrive Friday, when the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management unit’s Type 3 Incident Management Team will assume command.

The cause of the fire is undetermined.

Summit Fire crews also responded to a small grass fire in Dillon near the Red Mountain Grill on Thursday. Lipsher said officials believe the fire was started when power lines touching each other sent a shower of sparks to the ground, but the fire never grew more than a couple yards in size.

“Local condo residents very quickly jumped on it,” Lipsher said. “They brought out shovels and buckets of water and had it stomped out before it got anywhere. It was not a threatening wildfire. But the residents did a great job, and good for them for being on top of things and aware. By the time our engine crew arrived, the fire was out.”

Trout Unlimited gets $255K for watershed restoration

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the national Trout Unlimited group received the funding and to clarify exactly what the money will pay for.

Trout Unlimited has received funding for the Colorado River Connectivity Channel to be built in Grand County.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation awarded Trout Unlimited $255,695 for restoration work on the natural function and habitats. The work will take place on 164 acres of riparian habitat, 111 acres of wetland habitat and 4.3 miles of stream habitat. The goal is to improve the environment for native species, including the boreal toad, northern leopard frog, bald eagle, Lewis’s woodpecker, short-eared owls and river otter.

Trout Unlimited is one of 10 groups to receive grant funding from the NFWF’s Restoration and Stewardship of Outdoor Resources and Environment (RESTORE) program. This year, over $3 million in projects were awarded.

Other projects include restoration work in the Swan River Valley in Summit County for improved trout habitats and efforts to restore sagebrush shrublands and wet meadows in Northwest Colorado by the Wildlands Restoration Volunteers.

The RESTORE program is run in partnership with Great Outdoors Colorado, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Occidental, Bureau of Land Management, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Gates Family Foundation, US Forest Service, US Natural Resources Conservation Services and Corteva Agriscience.

U.S. ski industry up, Aspen Skiing Co. down in pandemic plagued winter

A group of skiers and snowboarders make it down the mountain on Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, at Snowmass Ski Area. (Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)

While the U.S. ski industry logged its fifth-best season ever in 2020-21, Aspen Skiing Co. experienced a tough winter during the pandemic.

Denver-based National Ski Areas Association announced Tuesday that the country’s resort recorded about 59 million skier and snowboard rider visits this winter. Many resorts were able to capitalize on the high desire of people to get outside during the COVID-19 pandemic. One big trend was that people stuck close to home and skied at their hometown hills or ski resorts closest to them, according to NSAA.

Aspen Skiing Co. faced a tough time because international travel was almost non-existent and fewer “long haulers” within the U.S. ventured out for trips, according to Jeff Hanle, Skico vice president of communications.

“Those two pieces are really what we didn’t see this year,” he said Tuesday.

The year started slow for Skico because Australians couldn’t travel here in droves as they usually do in January. Group business was wiped out because of capacity limits and physical distancing requirements. Numerous domestic travelers canceled trips as the pandemic worsened and Pitkin County required arrivals to sign an affidavit acknowledging they hadn’t had COVID symptoms for 10 days and have either been vaccinated or have received a negative COVID-19 test result within 72 hours of arriving in Pitkin County. Visitors also were required to quarantine for 10 days if they were not tested before arrival.

In addition, the snow was crummy in January. All those factors added up a rough start of ski season.

“January and the beginning of February were about as bad as they could be for us,” Hanle said.

Ski season by the numbers

– U.S. ski areas logged about 59 million skier visits. It was the fifth busiest season ever.

– Rocky Mountain region (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico) totaled 22.5 million skier visits. The average for the prior 10 years was about 21.1 million.

– Aspen Skiing Co. was just below 1.2 million skier visits. “It certainly wasn’t our fifth-best season ever,” spokesman Jeff Hanle said.

Sources: National Ski Areas Association and Aspen Skiing Co.

In contrast, mid-March to mid-April was better than even a “normal” year, according to Hanle.

“We came out just short of 1.2 million visits,” he said.

That was down between 3% and 4% from 2019-20, which was on pace for a record before ski season came to an abrupt end by order of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on March 14, 2020.

However, Skico was down about 20% in skier and snowboarder visits for its five-year average, according to Hanle.

Local skiers and riders took advantage of their opportunities on the slopes. Season pass sales and use soared.

“We did see really strong pass use,” Hanle said.

While Skico officials are optimistic about building off the late-season momentum next season, there is still plenty of uncertainty. The prime booking period for many overseas travelers is coming up soon. Skico and partners are providing incentives by promising full refunds on lift tickets and lodging for international guests who find they cannot travel next winter because of the pandemic.

“At this point we don’t expect to see the Australians in January (2021),” Hanle said.

For the U.S. ski industry as a whole, 2020-21 exceeded expectations. The latest season was on par with 2018-19 when there were 59.34 million visits.

The ski industry’s record season was 2010-11 when there were 60.54 million visits. The 2007-08 season was the only other one to top 60 million.

The 10-year average for national skier visits is nearly 55 million, so that puts the strength of the latest campaign into perspective.

After being forced to close abruptly starting March 15, 2020, most resorts were able to stay open the entire season this winter. The average U.S. resort was open 112 days this winter compared with 99 days the prior campaign. In NSAA’s annual Kottke End-of-Season Survey, 78% of resorts that responded said the season exceeded their expectations.

“Small- and medium-sized ski areas (defined by lift capacity) performed well this winter, with more guests choosing to stay close to home for ski trips, and increased local demand for outdoor recreation in general,” NSAA said in its statement.

Many resorts were forced to adopt capacity limits of skiers and riders on the slopes and at indoor facilities such as restaurants. The pandemic also enhanced the trend of the ski industry to encourage advanced lift ticket purchases.

Window sales of lift tickets fell from 46% in 2019-20 to just 17% in 2020-21, according to NSAA. Visits from pass use increased from 45% in 2019-20 to 51% this winter.

Skiers and riders also showed their flexibility by hitting the slopes more frequently on weekdays. Weekday visitation was responsible for 48% of total visits. That was up 27% from the season before, according to NSAA.

A strong season for skier visits didn’t necessarily mean resorts raked in the cash. Revenue data is still being analyzed, but NSAA noted that ski lessons fell by 30% season over season. Public health orders prohibited large groups, so ski areas had to offer smaller classes.

Hanle said Skico officials aren’t despairing because national visits were up while Skico was down. The 2020-21 season proved people want to be outdoors and they still want to hit the slopes, he said.

“We don’t look at it as people did better than us,” Hanle said. Instead, company officials say the message of the season is that people still want to ski and ride. “Better luck next year” is the prevailing attitude.

scondon@aspentimes.com

Wildfire burning 2 miles north of Routt County border in Wyoming

The North Fork Fire on Tuesday. (Courtesy photo)

A wildfire is currently burning in Wyoming just 2 miles north of the Routt County border, according to Wyoming officials.

The North Fork Fire is located in the south Sierra Madre Range in Carbon County, Wyoming. It is believed to have been ignited by lightning and was first reported Sunday.

The blaze was initially believed to have reached 26 acres as of Monday, according to the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests and Thunder Basin National Grasslands. Though, better mapping of the fire Tuesday showed it is only 12.5 acres.

The North Fork Fire as seen Monday from the air is burning in Wyoming just north of the Routt County border. (Courtesy photo)

Two crews have hiked in and engaged the fire with suppression and line construction. Bucket work with helicopters has continued, according to an update provided at 2 p.m. Tuesday by the forest service.

No people or structures have been threatened.