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Bear checks himself into The Lodge at Steamboat (with video)

Kailee Duryea was in the middle of a slow shift at the front office of The Lodge at Steamboat on Wednesday, May 18. Occupancy was less than 10%. The complex was quiet.

Cookies were left out on one of the coffee tables in the lobby, and it was a warm day outside, so the backdoor was left open to create a soothing breeze.

Duryea was busy working on an occupancy report when she heard a noise coming from the lobby. At first, she thought it was a maintenance worker. It was, instead, a cinnamon-colored black bear that had found the cookies.

“They’re so opportunistic,” said Christy Bubenheim, an administrative assistant with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and chair of Bear Aware Steamboat group.

Duryea recalled feeling unnerved but said she didn’t feel scared. She stayed behind the front desk and got on the phone with maintenance. While on the phone, she recorded video of the encounter.

The maintenance worker asked Duryea if she had any bear spray, to which she replies, “No, I don’t.”

She yelled at the bear to get out, and the bear seemed to agree that it was indeed time to leave, but wasn’t sure which way to go. The bear checked the front door for a moment but it was closed, so the bear turned around and approached Duryea at the front desk.

She yelled as the bear sped past her en route to the back door, where it exited the building.

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According to Duryea, the bear didn’t leave much of a mess aside from a few crumbs, and the animal wasn’t aggressive at all.

Bubenheim says during indoor encounters such as this, it’s best to be loud and try to funnel them toward an exit.

She also encourages people to report bear incidents so Colorado Parks and Wildlife can track the bear’s activity and try to prevent future incidents.

In some cases, if the bear is aggressive or forcibly enters a property, the bear would be euthanized. According to Bubenheim, peaceful encounters with bears, such as Duryea’s, typically don’t end in euthanasia.

Bubenheim says bears are known to walk through screen doors or even use their paws to open lever door handles. Car doors and windows are also vulnerable, and Bubenheim recommends keeping car doors locked and windows shut.

Duryea says she hasn’t seen the bear since.

With abnormal weather, Steamboat Resort relying heavily on snowmaking for Opening Day

Snow guns crank out manmade snow on the slopes of Steamboat Resort on Nov. 17 in Steamboat Springs.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

With abnormally low snow levels, most of the snow skiers and snowboarders will encounter today during Steamboat Resort’s Opening Day will be manufactured.

Though they won’t be accessible to resortgoers at the start, some higher points of the mountain, such as Storm Peak, have received decent snow, according to Dave Hunter, vice president of resort operations for Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp.

Ski Corp. employees typically begin making snow at the end of October and throughout November, when temperatures drop low enough to take river water and turn it into powder snow. But Ryan Olson, snowmaking manager with Ski Corp., said the unusually warm temperatures have forced snowmakers to begin operations much later this year, with fewer opportunities to blow snow on cold nights.

“Whereas we usually get three or four cold snaps throughout November, we’ve only had one or two this year,” Olson said. “That has kind of slowed us down.”

Olson said the snow will likely hold the resort through its entire season, with long-awaited natural snow hopefully covering the base layer of prepared powder.

“Once we get the snow down, it tends to stick around for a long time,” Olson said. “Unless it gets way up into the 70s, we might lose a little bit of snow, but we don’t lose enough to have to close down.”

Ski Corp. makes its snow using water from the Yampa River, accessed through a pipe under Walton Pond. The pipe runs up to the resort, with a series of pumps and distribution centers along the mountain.

Hunter said 80% of the snow made flows back into the Yampa River in spring as the resort prepares to close for the season and ranchers begin pulling water for their operations.

“We are very thankful and blessed based on the founders of the resort and the water rights that they put in place, and we continue to work with our local partners,” Hunter said.

Though the resort’s water rights dictate how much snow can be pulled from the river, Hunter declined to say what that limit is.

“Our water rights are something that are ours, and they’re protected,” Hunter added. “We know exactly what we’re able to take and we work within those parameters.”

Because of the warming temperatures and lack of snowfall, Steamboat’s famous Champagne Powder — referring to the fluffy, light snow unique to the Yampa Valley — may not arrive until later in the season, as Olson said it is difficult to replicate that type of snow through a snowmaking gun.

“We can make super light, fluffy snow, but the problem with that is it would compact very quickly and it wouldn’t last very long,” Olson said. “This snow is not as fluffy and it is denser, but that’s actually how we want it so that it sticks around and helps people move around when we get the light fluffy stuff from the sky.”

Even in the best of conditions, Olson said the resort always makes snow at the beginning of the season.

In efforts to be conscious of a warming planet and more severe droughts each year, Hunter said the resort is extremely environmentally conscious in the way it makes snow.

“We pride ourselves on utilizing the most sustainable snowmaking systems,” Hunter said. “That is something that we are hyper-focused on any season, including this season.”

Olson said Ski Corp. purchased more efficient snowmaking guns decades ago, which has helped snowmakers do their jobs while using less energy and water.

“They’ve really come up with a lot of ways in the past 40 years to reduce the energy consumption for making snow,” Olson said.

The resort typically makes snow through the end of December, then natural snow carries the mountain through January to the end of the season. Ski Corp. normally likes to have much more snow made before Opening Day than there is this week.

“We can be extremely productive and efficient in a very short time if Mother Nature is cooperating,” Hunter said. “This time of the year for us is mainly all about cold temperatures and the ability to maximize our capabilities and our efficiencies in our snowmaking system, but when it’s marginal like it has been, we’re not able to be as efficient and maximize our capabilities.”

In addition to a lack of snow, guests will also notice the resort’s ongoing construction process — notably through the fences surrounding some areas.

“It’s not your average construction fence, it’s very animated with some great signage and great storytelling,” Hunter said.

Rep. Joe Neguse proposes legislation to complete Continental Divide Trail

A Continental Divide Trail marker is pictured in September 2020 along the Gold Hill Trail with Breckenridge Ski Resort in the distance.
Antonio Olivero/Summit Daily News

Rep. Joe Neguse proposed legislation directing the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to work together to finish the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail in time for the trail’s 50th anniversary in 2028.

The trail spans 3,100 miles from Montana to New Mexico going through Colorado and Summit County, but the trail has about 160 miles of incomplete routes due to gaps in public lands. The trail ends up following along roads to connect its separated portions, which can be dangerous for hikers.

“The Continental Divide Trail traverses some of the most beautiful and rugged landscapes in our country, and of course that includes our wonderful congressional district and Summit County,” Neguse said in an interview with the Summit Daily. “Completing the trail, in my view, would kind of fulfill a promise that Congress made more than four decades ago … to provide the American people with world-class recreational opportunities that span the length of the Continental Divide.”

The highest priority of the legislation is a 15-mile gap outside of Steamboat Springs, where thru-hikers must walk along Colorado Highways 14 and 40 at Muddy Pass.

In order to complete the trail, the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service would work together to acquire lands from willing sellers using authorities such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This can be done in the form of outright purchases from landowners or land exchanges.

While the Continental Divide Trail was created by Congress in 1978 as part of the National Trails System, it remained around 60% complete until the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 was passed. Teresa Martinez, executive director of the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, said prior to this act, land managers didn’t have authority to buy land from willing sellers, making completing the trail arduous. The trail is now closer to 96% complete.

Martinez said the next step was the permanent authorization and funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund so land managers could get money to purchase these lands.

​”Up until that point, we didn’t have that tool, and it was really hard,” Martinez said. “Even though we had really dedicated land managers, they didn’t have the tools they needed to complete the trail, so no matter what they tried, they couldn’t get there.”

Martinez said the Continental Divide Trail Completion Act is the “final trifecta” of legislation to make completing the trail a priority.

“It really gives the agency partners, who now have all these other tools, the priority setting they need to keep moving forward and getting these acquisitions across the line,” Martinez said.

While Neguse said he does not know how much the project would cost, he said funding should not be an issue since the Land and Water Conservation Fund was secured last year.

“(Land and Water Conservation Fund) funding was designed to be available for projects like this one,” Neguse said. “We’re certainly open to amending the bill to include an appropriation, but we think based on what we’ve seen thus far that there should be ample funds to be able to complete it on the targeted timetable that we have placed into the bill.”

Summit County and the surrounding area is home to some of the highest peaks on the Continental Divide Trail, including Grays Peak, which is the highest point on any National Scenic Trail. Martinez said the section of trail in Summit County won’t change much but that the area between Georgia Pass and Grays Peak could see minor relocations to avoid steeper segments, making it safer and more accessible.

“Summit County has these incredibly high peaks at some of those quintessential Colorado sections,” Martinez said. “When people think about the Continental Divide, Summit County is probably what most people envision.”

After Neguse became chair of the public lands subcommittee earlier this year, he did listening tours across the state to get a better idea of what priorities folks would want to see addressed by the committee. It was in one of those meetings where the idea of completing the trail was introduced to Neguse, whose congressional district contains 230 miles, or 7.5%, of the entire trail.

Neguse said the legislation will also help the economy by creating short-term jobs for trail construction as well as additional long-term jobs for guides, outfitters and service workers in outdoor recreation.

Martinez also said the legislation will ensure the divide is fully protected so that when hikers experience the trail, they see as little impact as possible from previous trail users.

“It allows us to ensure that the trails and that highest-quality landscape itself is protected — not just for our experience but for the wildlife, for the watershed, for climate, for air quality — all so it ensures that my experience will be very similar to someone 100 years from now,” Martinez said. “I think that’s what it means to Summit County is that, what Summit County has in its segment of the Continental Divide Trail doesn’t really exist anywhere else in the world.”

Martinez said she and her organization have an “incredible amount of gratitude” for Neguse for envisioning and creating this legislation to see through the trail’s completion.

Dillon Reservoir fills to 100% capacity

Dillon Reservoir is pictured Wednesday, June 30. The reservoir has filled to 100% capacity.
Photo by Nicole Miller / nmiller@summitdaily.com

Dillon Reservoir is now 100% full, according to Denver Water, which manages the reservoir.

Nathan Elder, manager of water supply for Denver Water, said it’s normal for the reservoir to be full this time of year, but he noted that the reason it’s full despite an ongoing drought is because the water is carefully managed, and much less water was released from the reservoir to the Blue River than in an average year.

“This year, it’s been dryer than normal, so it did fill a little bit slower, and we released much less out of the reservoir to the Blue River than we typically would to ensure that Dillon would fill this year,” Elder said.

Elder said this was a year where the reservoir started out lower than normal and less water flowed in from the melting snowpack.

Water from Dillon Reservoir flows into the Blue River and Robert’s Tunnel, Elder said, which carries water underneath the Continental Divide, making its way to the South Platte Basin, then to Denver Water treatment plants and finally to customers along the Front Range. The Blue River brings water to Green Mountain Reservoir and eventually to the Colorado River.

Elder noted that Denver Water is bringing much less water through the Robert’s Tunnel than it typically would because of good moisture levels in the South Platte Basin, which is at 96% of normal, and water conservation by consumers on the Front Range.

“We’ve had really low demand so far this spring on the east slope side,” Elder said.

While more water is being released into the Blue River now — 184 cubic feet per second as of Wednesday afternoon compared with 100 cfs prior to Monday — it’s still not enough for rafting this year. Elder said a flow of 500 cfs is needed for rafting, but the maximum outflow this year will likely only get to about 250 cfs.

The main reason water levels are low this year is because the snowpack was below average. According to a measurement site at Copper Mountain, the 2021 snowpack peaked at 12.4 inches of snow-water equivalent, or the amount of water held in the snowpack. That’s nearly 5 inches less than the 17.3 inch median for the site over the past 30 years.

Recent rain has helped slightly but isn’t as much of a determining factor as snowpack.

“That definitely helps. It doesn’t help as much as snowpack, but it does help,” Elder said. “With that rain, we added about 573 acre feet to the reservoir over the weekend. … We had (June) 24, 25 and 26 with significant rain events.”

Dillon Reservoir holds 257,000 acre feet. Elder said the additional 573 acre feet is important but isn’t a major contribution. Compared with streams, the reservoir was able to better capitalize on rainfall due to its larger surface area.

Treste Huse, a senior hydrologist at the National Weather Service in Boulder, said stream flows in Summit County overall are below normal compared with historic levels. Huse said all streams in Summit County are below normal and that Straight Creek is running much below normal — 13 cfs Wednesday near Dillon compared with an average of 55 cfs for the same date. Recent precipitation levels have been above normal, but it hasn’t made much of a difference, Huse said.

“The snowpack drives (stream flow), and although that rainfall was helpful, it didn’t help a lot,” Huse said.

In the past 30 days, the Dillon weather station has recorded 1.69 inches of precipitation — 50% above the normal 1.13 inches in the same time period. And in the past four months, precipitation is slightly above normal. Huse said that while precipitation is above normal, the difference is less than an inch, and with dry soil conditions, it doesn’t make much of a dent in the water supply.

“There’s still a big concern with water supply,” Huse said.

Huse noted that while Summit County’s drought conditions have improved, the northern half of the county is still in a severe drought.

Map from Natural Resources Conservation Service

Forest health survey shows impacts of beetles, diseases

Trees killed by pine beetles are pictured Aug. 29, 2018, by Ptarmigan Peak near Silverthorne. The results of the 2020 forest health survey were similar to years past in Summit County, according to the Colorado State Forest Service.
Photo by Hugh Carey / Summit Daily archives

In its annual aerial forest health survey, the Colorado State Forest Service examined forested land and cautioned that beetle and disease activity combined with drought is likely to lead to more destructive wildfires.

The survey, which is conducted in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service, was scaled back in 2020 due to limitations presented by the pandemic. Normally, the survey covers the majority of forested land in the state, about 44 million acres. Last year, the survey covered 23 million acres, focusing primarily on high-priority areas, including Summit County, where there is an increased likelihood of widespread, destructive forest disturbances, according to survey results.

State forest entomologist Dan West said as the 2021 survey is getting started this week, he expects the whole state to be surveyed again this year.

West said the Summit County survey results were similar to years past, with an endemic, or background level, of bark beetles. That means there are small pockets of trees, groups of anywhere between three and 10, that are affected by various bugs.

“If we were in an area where there was no epidemic, you’re always going to have bark beetles that are going to recycle trees that have been struck by lightning or that have breakage or an issue with their roots or whatever,” West said. “So years where drought really is compacted or compiled year after year, we pretty much start to see bark beetles pick off those trees and continue the cycling of nutrients.”

West added that Summit County sits in the middle of two pockets of spruce beetles, which remain the most damaging forest pest in the state for the ninth consecutive year. Populations have worked their way south from Steamboat Springs down through Rocky Mountain National Park and into the northern end of Grand County, just to the north of Summit.

In the southwest corner of the state, West said a spruce beetle outbreak started around 2004 in the Rio Grande National Forest. Spruce beetle populations have started to make their way northeast since, most recently moving into Pitkin County just to the southwest of Summit.

The most prominent disturbance seen in Summit County is the presence of western balsam bark beetle, which often appears in conjunction with root disease. According to the Forest Service, these beetles have been detected on 8,000 acres of sub-Alpine fir in Colorado and Wyoming.

In years of drought, balsam beetles will attack otherwise healthy trees that have been predisposed to a reduced defense response due to a lack of precipitation — as was the case in 2020, according to the survey. This in turn sets the stage for increased activity in 2021.

“That’s a bark beetle that we never worry about as far as large, widespread damage because it doesn’t move in a wave across the forest …” West said. “It really continues to just work in little small pockets or individual trees.”

When these trees are killed by beetles, they become much more likely to sustain large forest fires.

Tree canopies fade from green to red in the few years after a beetle attack as the trees die. When that happens, the tree canopies can fuel wildfire as it travels through tree crowns, according to the survey. This is known as an active crown fire, which was responsible for quickly consuming vast acreages of forest during Colorado’s record-setting 2020 wildfire season.

Summit County forester Ashley Garrison said one of the biggest diseases affecting lodgepole pines in the area is dwarf mistletoe, which is a native parasitic plant that makes trees more susceptible to drought and insects.

Despite the presence of bugs and diseases, Garrison said wildfires and windthrow, or trees being uprooted by wind, are the greatest risks to Summit County forests right now.

“We work to balance out those effects by doing field treatments, forestry treatments, having a diversity of age classes, a diversity of tree density and diversity of different species,” Garrison said.

The goal is to alter fire behavior to make it easier for firefighters to control, Garrison said.

“We want to alter the fuel so that it’s not a catastrophic wildfire, so that it can actually have some benefit and not be so damaging,” she said.

West said it’s important for communities to be on the lookout for beetle activity as it has a strong linkage with forest fires.

“Mitigating our property, of course, for private landowners is paramount, especially on the tails of such a bad wildfire season,” West said.

Justin Conrad, fire management officer for the eastern half of the White River National Forest, also said the amount of dead and downed trees in the county contributes fuel to wildfires.

As the state endures an ongoing drought, dry trees not yet attacked by beetles become more susceptible as they are less able to defend themselves. Healthier trees can build stronger defenses, making it harder for beetles to bore into the trunk. Bark beetles aren’t able to live for a long period of time outside of a tree, meaning beetle populations would likely decrease in healthy forests with the help of birds and other predators, West said.

West said Summit forests received plenty of precipitation this spring and that if rainfall continues throughout the year, trees could start to build a better defense. He said trees typically need two seasons or more to recover from a drought.

While West said it’s too early to predict whether spruce beetles will make their way to Summit County, it’s possible.

“Should there not be enough precipitation, we would consider them still on the move and consider them still to be at higher risk to increasing their footprint across Colorado state forests,” West said.

Rep. Neguse discusses national forest needs with Summit officials

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

Rep. Joe Neguse is hoping to increase funding for public forest lands by allowing the U.S. Forest Service to keep money generated from ski area permit fees.

Neguse said he plans to introduce the Ski Fee Retention Bill in the next few weeks, a bipartisan effort alongside Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah; and Rep. Ann Kuster, D-N.H. and the chair of the Congressional Ski and Snowboard Caucus. The group is looking for another Republican cosponsor, as well.

The Ski Fee Retention Bill would allow national forests — including the White River National Forest — to retain fees generated from ski areas, which are usually remitted to the U.S. Treasury. The funding is meant to improve the recreation permitting processes, improve visitor services, and support wildfire planning and coordination.

Of the money retained by national forests, 75% would be set aside specifically for ski area related purposes. The other 25% could be used for other recreation purposes.

The concept was originally introduced in 2018, but Neguse said he wanted to make sure that there was more engagement with local governments before pushing forward. Neguse has zeroed in on the outdoor recreation industry in recent months — one way he hopes to help bolster the economy in Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes Summit County and the eastern end of Eagle County.

“I pursue these issues because they matter to me personally, they matter to my constituents, they matter to local leadership, and they have tremendous impact on our ability to thrive in Summit County, in Boulder County, in Grand County,” Neguse said.

In a roundtable conversation with the Summit Board of County Commissioners, ski area officials and Forest Service representatives, Neguse asked for stories to share when introducing the bill.

“I’m proud to co-lead the bill, but the more stories that I can tell that you arm me with the easier it will be in sharing with the National Resources Committee that this bill deserves to be expedited,” Neguse said.

Melanie Mills, president and CEO of Colorado Ski Country USA, discusses the Ski Fee Retention Bill with Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse during a roundtable Monday in Breckenridge.
Ashley Low

Melanie Mills — president of Colorado Ski Country USA, a ski industry trade association — commented on the increasing demand for outdoor recreation. She pointed out that everything done at ski areas is reviewed by the Forest Service, whether it’s construction, snowmaking, expansions or summer operations. Reviews are for environmental impact along with other factors.

“As recreation budgets have suffered over the last decade or more … it has just taken longer and longer for projects to be reviewed and to get the reviews that they need, and this bill will help,” Mills said. “It will bring some of that money, that currently is going to the Treasury and getting reallocated, back to our forests here where it’s generated to help them have the staff that’s needed,” Mills said.

Alan Henceroth, Arapahoe Basin Ski Area’s chief operating officer, said the demand for public lands is “through the roof” in Summit County and across the West. He said that while activities like skiing and camping have been popular for decades, the demand is unlike what’s been seen in previous years with increased ski pass sales and parking issues.

“I think this is going to stick,” Henceroth said. “… It’s a whole new world with people using public lands, and that’s why it’s so important for us to be good at what we do.”

Henceroth added that the White River National Forest needs resources to cater to the people who visit the area’s public lands. Frisco Mayor Hunter Mortensen commented that it’s difficult for the town as the owner of the Frisco Nordic Center to expand trails, and he said funding from the bill could help move things along. Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence added that funding would make it easier to move along ski area projects, which are meant to improve the skier experience.

Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse listens to Arapahoe Basin Ski Area Chief Operating Officer Alan Henceroth speak during a roundtable discussion about the Ski Fee Retention Bill on Monday in Breckenridge.
Ashley Low

Breckenridge Mayor Eric Mamula said there also is a safety component that additional funding to the Forest Service could help address.

“We live in the middle of this forest,” Mamula said. “The majority of our land is forestland. Scott (Fitzwilliams, White River National Forest supervisor) doesn’t have the people to patrol the land so that when we have people that are deciding to camp legally or illegally and they walk away from their campfire, that is a huge danger to the forest, to the people, to all of our livelihoods. … As much of that money that can stay with the Forest Service — they provide the services on the land that the federal government owns — the better.”

Fitzwilliams said funding the bill would more than double the Forest Service’s recreation budget.

“To be able to have the stable resources and specialists to be able to process proposals, do the monitoring, do the administration — all the things we have to do for the ski areas — there are some real advantages to that,” Fitzwilliams said.

Neguse said that while bill introductions are a dime a dozen, he thinks this bill can go all the way with bipartisan and grassroots support.