PHOTOS: Springtime in the Rockies — Vail Valley wakes up to snow Monday morning
Eagle County Schools considers changes to counteract bus driver shortage
For students and parents, this could mean different start and end times, fewer bus stops, further walking distances and more
In a typical school year, nearly 1,800 Eagle County students (and their parents) rely on the school bus to get to and from school every day. In order to continue serving all these students, Eagle County Schools is considering making changes to next year’s start times and bus stops due to a sharp decline in its bus drivers.
The district, which covers nearly 2,000 square miles, currently has 50% fewer bus drivers employed than it did two years ago. While this trend is affecting many school districts across the state and country, Eagle County has a number of additional challenges in recruiting and retaining drivers.
“It’s certainly a tough job and there’s some challenges there that make people a little apprehensive to even apply,” said Tim Owsley, director of transportation for the Eagle County School District.
In general, for all school districts, some of these challenges include the simple fact that driving a bus full of children isn’t an easy feat and that drivers often have to work a split schedule (driving in both the morning and the afternoon with a mid-day break).
Although Eagle County didn’t have the same pandemic-related challenges as other school districts — due to the fact that it still had an in-person schedule this year — there are specific challenges that come with working and driving in the district.
The school district’s fleet of 46 buses — currently driven by 17 drivers — drives nearly 500,000 miles a year stretching from Colorado River Road to East Vail and from Bond to Red Cliff. Within this large geographic area, drivers face a number of climate and road challenges to cover the district’s 48 daily routes (24 in the morning and 24 in the afternoon).
One effect of the pandemic that Eagle County is competing with is unemployment. At the April 14 Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Philip Qualman noted that the additional federal stimulus unemployment benefits, which will be in effect until September, make bus driving a “hard sell” right now.
“The monthly unemployed income would add [an additional] $300 a week, so $1,200 a month to the unemployment benefit. This is a very good explanation of why it’s so hard to find people to do bus driving jobs, custodial jobs, food service jobs — anything that’s paying hourly in our community,” Qualman said. “At this point, with a $300 a week stimulus for unemployment benefits, a person who is not working is basically breaking even with what we’re able to pay in an hourly wage.”
In order to alleviate some of these challenges with hiring drivers, Eagle County Schools has implemented a number of incentives to entice potential employees. This includes the addition of both a hiring bonus and a retention bonus. According to Qualman, the district is also currently working on raising the hourly wage to remain competitive with other transportation services in the community.
While the district is going to continue to look at its compensation and benefits packages as well as ensure it has adequate employee housing for drivers, it is considering making a number of changes, starting in the fall, to compensate for the lack of drivers.
“I think it’s going to be challenging to hire as many drivers as we really will need,” Owsley said. “We’re going to have to do some give and take in order to get all the students back and forth like we need to in the community. It is tough to be in that many places at once.”
The first option being considered is changing bell times for the start and end of schools by level so that drivers have adequate time to complete their routes. This is something that Denver Public Schools is implementing next school year. Additional options include expanding the walking distances, restricting the distance buses will travel to pick up students and consolidating stops.
However, which changes will be made are not certain yet. The district will be having these conversations — both with the community and with the Board of Education — in the coming months to decide which course of action it will take.
“The economy is really unique for all of us that live here,” Owsley said. “We’ve got a very diverse county and a very diverse school district. And with the school bus side of things, we have to support the district in its entirety.”
1,000 volunteers spend Saturday cleaning up trash from Vail-area highways
About 1,000 volunteers turned out to clean the highways of Eagle County on Saturday in the Eagle River Watershed Council’s Community Pride Highway Cleanup.
It’s an annual event, but last year was canceled amid the uncertainty of the coronavirus, and the trash continued accumulating.
This year, Holly Loff with the Watershed Council was able to participate in her first highway cleanup, as she’s usually busy organizing the after-party. Loff said she had people approaching her in the grocery store, asking when and if the cleanup was taking place.
“Everyone was driving down the road, seeing massive amounts of trash, and it was driving everyone crazy,” Loff said. “People were stopping me weeks ago saying, ‘Can I pick up some trash bags and start now?'”
In hindsight, a head start might have been a good idea. Groups were moving slow as a result of the increased amount of trash. Loff said people were having trouble getting past the large objects to reach the level of small plastic shards and other micro debris.
“I had a team of 20 people who worked really hard for three hours and we still didn’t get it all,” Loff said. “I think there’s probably some sections we need to go back and hit again.”
The Eagle River Watershed Council’s annual river cleanup in September could be a good time for volunteers to re-evaluate the status of the roads, Loff said, and the group might have to take a look at incorporating certain sections of roadway into the river cleanup if enough volunteers turn out.
“You can look over and see the river from where you’re cleaning up,” Loff said, of many roads in the area, saying the need to eliminate plastics from these areas is especially important. “A lot of trash from the road will end up in the river.”
The community barbecue which traditionally accompanies the highway cleanup was canceled this year, something organizers say is certain to follow in the years to come. Nevertheless, volunteers turned out in droves, Loff said.
“I find it uplifting to know our community notices the massive amount of trash on the highways, and doesn’t just accept it as ‘highways are dirty,’ and people give up their time to get out there and clean it up, particularly in a year when it’s really nasty,” Loff said. “I’m sure people could have chose to do something else with their Saturday, but they chose to clean up our highways, and I find that to be inspiring.”
Thieves still at large after Vail area car chase closes Interstate 70 on Sunday morning
The driver of a stolen vehicle led officers on a chase across Eagle County on Sunday morning, reaching speeds of 120 miles per hour and traveling the wrong way down the interstate, according to police.
The interstate was closed in various places between Vail and Glenwood Canyon as the vehicle exited the highway and got back on it again, causing officers to change tactics between active pursuit on the interstate and passive monitoring on town streets.
Officers directed bystanders off the interstate out of safety concerns and in an attempt to deploy tire deflating devices to stop the vehicle. The vehicle, an older model Mercedes SUV, had been affixed with stolen license plates in an effort to conceal that it was stolen, said Trooper Jacob Best with the Colorado State Patrol.
A critical moment in the chase occurred when the driver of the Mercedes started traveling westbound on Interstate 70 in the eastbound lanes, between the Post Boulevard and Avon Road exits in Avon.
“(The driver) gets on, goes the wrong way, and starts going about 100, 110 miles an hour,” Best said. “One of our troopers narrowly missed getting struck by this vehicle as it continued the wrong direction at a high rate of speed, so the troopers implemented a plan to close down the interstate in multiple locations to prevent a head-on collision.”
911 calls began coming in “from Avon to Edwards to Wolcott,” Best said, “saying that this vehicle was still traveling in the wrong direction at a high rate of speed.”
A bystander told the Vail Daily their vehicle was directed off the interstate in an urgent manner at the Eagle exit while the lone officer yelled “Get out of here, it’s dangerous.”
Best said communication with other agencies helped state troopers, police from multiple departments and sheriff’s officers from multiple counties avert a potential disaster.
“They actually closed it as far as the Hanging Lake tunnel,” Best said of the various I-70 interruptions.
Signs by CDOT said: “Wrong way driver, exit immediately.”
Abandoned in Wolcott
Amid the chaos, the driver of the stolen Mercedes was able to abandon the vehicle on Bellyache Ridge Road in Wolcott and flee the area.
“Officers canvased the area and checked as much as they could, but I think we were a little bit too preoccupied with closing the interstate and ensuring the safety of the motorists,” Best said. “It would be a horrific head-on crash if that were to happen.”
The scene played out for about an hour; officers were set up at both sides of the interstate in Eagle, but the vehicle never showed.
“Then they started doing a methodical check of the area, and about 30 minutes later they ended up locating the vehicle about 2 and a half miles up Bellyache Ridge Road,” Best said. “We believe there was probably another tail vehicle that was in the area because those officers canvased, they set up a perimeter, they checked multiple houses and properties throughout the area, and there was no sign of them. So we would presume there was another vehicle involved or staged in the area, very consistent with what we’ve seen over the past couple months.”
The abandoning of a stolen vehicle up a hill on a residential street is the same conclusion other Eagle County vehicle-theft incidents saw in 2020.
In November, Wildridge and Wildwood residents in Avon awoke to news of a manhunt underway in their neighborhoods when a stolen vehicle was recovered in the area. While officer were going door to door, another vehicle was stolen in Edwards.
At that time in November, 13 cars had been stolen in recent weeks. Avon Police Chief Greg Daly said he had never seen such a high level of theft of vehicles in Eagle County in his 24 years as a cop. There was not much consistency among the vehicles — several were older model cars — only in the methods. Many were stolen in early morning hours, vehicles which had been left running outside of residences with the keys in the ignition.
And the rash of car thefts continued. In January, at approximately 6:30 a.m., police reported suspects stole a 2002 Volkswagen in Silverthorne and traveled through Eagle County where officers identified the vehicle. The suspects continued into Garfield County where police say they attempted to hit an officer, fleeing into Rio Blanco County. They were apprehended on the border of Rio Blanco and Moffat County.
A driver fitting the profile of the driver apprehended in January was described by witnesses in other car theft incidents in the area, and the early-morning time of the incident was also consistent with the other car thefts.
On April 1, surveillance footage outside of Vail Mountain School identified a suspect in the theft of catalytic converters off vehicles in the school’s parking lot. The suspect was using a blue Ford truck, which had been stolen in Fraser earlier this year. In a Facebook post, a man identifying himself as the vehicle’s owner said the truck was locked at the time it was stolen. It was recovered April 1 after being abandoned in Dillon.
Best said in prior investigations, the Mercedes from Sunday morning’s chase had been seen with the stolen blue Ford truck.
“It’s still an active investigation between Vail Police and the Colorado State Patrol, they’re working with multiple agencies in the metro region, as well as up here in the mountains, as well, to try and do as much as they can to located these individuals involved in this,” Best said. “We’ll catch them, and we will make sure that justice is served. Our priority is the safety of everyone else, and they have shown that they don’t have any regard for the public’s safety.”
Colorado got $119 million in early childhood funding from the 2nd federal stimulus bill: Here’s where it’s going
In the coming months, Colorado officials will send a new stream of federal money to the state’s child care providers and others working in early childhood.
Those dollars — $119 million — come from a $10 billion early childhood allocation in the second federal stimulus package passed by Congress in December. Colorado early childhood leaders unveiled their plans for the money during an online town hall meeting April 8.
In addition to helping the battered child care industry recover from the pandemic, they said the money is intended to help the state prepare for the launch of universal 4-year-old preschool in the fall of 2023.
Four of the seven spending strategies discussed, including direct grants for child care providers, continue efforts that were begun with funds from the first federal coronavirus stimulus package. Three others, including innovation grants that focus on fixing difficult industry problems and efforts to mint thousands of new early childhood teachers, are new.
Overall, state officials estimated that at least 60% percent of the $119 million will go directly to child care providers across the state. The rest will go toward regional early childhood councils, community colleges, prospective early childhood teachers, and early childhood mental health consultants, among others.
“We’re really grateful to the federal government for stepping up … and especially carving out significant funding for early childhood,” said Scott Groginsky, an adviser to Gov. Jared Polis on early childhood issues.
“There’s a lot of funding that we have to spend in a relatively short period of time,” he said.
The money, which must be spent by September 2023, won’t be the last infusion of early childhood stimulus money for Colorado. A third federal package passed in March — the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan — includes $530 million for early childhood efforts that the state hasn’t yet allocated. Groginsky said the state plans to gather feedback from people in the field before parceling out that funding.
The breakdown below details the state’s plans for spending the $119 million in early childhood stimulus funding.
Child care subsidy rate increases — $36.4 million over two years
This money will go to providers that care for children whose families qualify for government subsidies through the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program. The funding will boost subsidy rates by 5%, plus give an additional boost to providers who care for infants and toddlers, and providers in counties where the cost of providing care is higher. Part of the $36 million will also pay providers for days when children are absent. About 44% of Colorado’s child care providers participate in the subsidy program.
Sustainability grants for workforce support — $35 million over one year
This round of sustainability grants will provide funding so child care providers can give employees hazard pay, cover benefits, or maintain employees’ hours. This money will be available to providers regardless of whether they participate in the child care subsidy program The state has not yet decided the maximum grant size, but providers who care for infants and toddlers or operate in child care deserts will be eligible for extra money.
Last fall, the state used $9 million in federal coronavirus relief money to provide two waves of small sustainability grants to providers. Thousands of providers got grants of $1,000 to $3,750 during that time. Over the winter, the state used $35 million allocated during a special legislative session to award more than 4,000 relief grants to providers, with some getting as much as $34,000.
CIRCLE grants — $16.8 million over one year
This new grant program will be available to child care providers, community nonprofits, early childhood councils, and other groups. The grants, set to go out starting in September, are intended for projects that aim to solve early childhood problems that have worsened during the pandemic, such as child care affordability, the lack of infant and toddler care, or barriers to child care access for children with special needs. The state has not yet determined the size of these grants.
Workforce expansion — $12 million over two years
This pot of money is intended to bring 2,700 new certified child care and preschool educators into the field. It will provide free community college courses to prospective child care workers and free online classes for educators interested in becoming child care directors. It can also be used for scholarships, loan forgiveness, and bonuses. In part, the impetus for this spending is the 2023 launch of free universal preschool for Colorado 4-year-olds, which state officials expect will require at least 600 new teachers.
Early childhood councils — $8 million over two years
This money will be split among Colorado’s 34 councils, which support providers in different regions of the state. The funding is meant to support licensed home-based child care providers, increase the supply of infant and toddler care, and help providers serve children with special needs. The money will also help councils to collect real-time data about the availability of child care locally.
Reducing parent copayments — $7 million over two years
Starting July 1, this funding will reduce the parent fee charged to families participating in the state child care subsidy program. The parent fee will be limited to a maximum of 10% of a family’s gross income. A portion of this money will also fund a communication effort to ensure families eligible for subsidies know about the program.
Early childhood mental health consultants — $4 million over two years
This money will pay for the addition of mental health consultants who will work with child care providers and families to help children with challenging behavior or other issues related to mental health. The state already funds 49 early childhood mental health consultants across the state, but 15 of those are only temporarily funded with money from the first federal stimulus package. This latest infusion will allow the state to fund those 15 temporary positions for longer plus add three additional consultants.
Colorado Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization that focuses on education in Colorado and other states. For more, go to www.chalkbeat.com. This story is a part of the Colorado News Share service, which the Vail Daily is a contributing member.
Curious Nature: The return of the lost lynx
The Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) is back and hopefully here to stay due to a reintroduction effort 20 years ago. The first-ever lynx reintroduction took place here in Colorado. Lynx populations were struggling through much of the 1900s and the species were finally extirpated from Colorado by the 1970s. Colorado Parks and Wildlife reintroduced lynx, bringing them back to the lands they previously roamed.
By the end of the 20th century, lynx population numbers were so low across the country that the species was close to being listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. Colorado had an opportunity to help lynx populations through reintroduction. The hope was that lynx could be brought back to Colorado and populations would become stable and avoid federal management.
Lynx are a native species to Colorado and many wanted to help them return to keep our environment whole. An environment with all its parts or individuals is more stable and resilient than an environment missing a piece, especially a predator.
The Canada lynx is a member of the cat family that prefers to live a solitary life in mountainous areas with cold, snowy winters. They are adapted to harsh winters with their thick, warm coat and massive paws that act like snowshoes, preventing them from sinking in deep snow. Lynx primarily eat snowshoe hares but will prey upon other animals such as mice, squirrels, or birds.
From 1999 to 2006, 218 lynx were brought to Colorado, three or four at a time, from Alaska and Canada. Before their transport, each lynx passed a vet check to ensure they were healthy. Once they arrived in Colorado they were acclimated and later released on public land in the San Juan range.
Why did CPW end the reintroduction efforts in 2006? By 2006, the lynx population was meeting the benchmarks. The introduced lynx were surviving well, individuals had spread throughout Colorado and beyond and they were reproducing. For three years prior to 2006, reproduction was exceeding mortality. We had given lynx the help they needed to become reestablished in Colorado.
Today, CPW estimates there to be between 150 and 250 lynx in Colorado and the reintroduction effort is considered a success. It is difficult and resource-intensive to exactly measure lynx populations as they are an elusive species that live in difficult-to-access areas, especially in winter. Game camera footage and reports of tracks are common ways CPW estimates lynx populations. While it may seem like there are still not many lynx in Colorado, this is natural, as they do not have dense populations. They require wide ranges and live mostly solitary lives; they are the cat that prefers its space and minimal human presence.
At the time, not all Coloradans were in favor of the reintroduction. Animal rights activists wanted to suspend the reintroduction because there were so many lynx fatalities early on. While others believed that even though there were losses, it was still worth the reintroduction effort. Eurasian lynx reintroductions have taken place in Europe with varying success, but there had never been a Canadian lynx reintroduction and there were many unknowns. Biologists modified release protocols again and again to improve the survival of released lynx.
In 2020, Colorado voted to reintroduce gray wolves (Canis lupus). This is the first reintroduction effort that has been decided by a public vote in the US. While the lynx reintroduction effort was successful in Colorado, wolves and lynx are two very different species that each have their own unique challenges.
Some lessons learned from lynx may be applied in the wolf reintroduction, but it is likely the project will still face many of its own challenges. Starting in 1995, wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park and in central Idaho which was also considered a success. While lessons can be learned from those reintroductions, Colorado’s effort will have its own challenges to work out.
Hannah Fake is a winter naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center. She loves the mountains in all seasons and admires the critters who survive the seasons at elevation.
Vail ends season on a high note as Closing Day revelers take to the slopes
There was no detonation of explosives atop the mountain this year, but an air horn got the job done. Vail Mountain skiers, snowboards and staffers celebrated a successful season on Sunday, Vail’s Closing Day.
A large crowd gathered atop Chair 4 to join in the revelry, as is commonplace at Vail, and when the air horn blew, the mountain staffers began clearing out the crowds.
Local skier Sean Delaney said he was glad to comply after enjoying Vail’s traditional atmosphere atop the mountain.
Delaney then skied Riva Ridge down the mountain and celebrated one of his own traditions. He stopped at the tree where his grandfather’s ashes were scattered and thanked his grandfather for everything he did to lead him to that spot on Closing Day, healthy and on his skis.
Others weren’t able to make it up the mountain as planned. Some were disappointed to see their favorite chairs close early as lifts 2, 3, 4, 6 and 11 closed at 2:30 p.m. Vail Mountain did not send out a Closing Day news release this year to let skiers and snowboarders know what to expect on Closing Day.
Celebrating the season at the the top of Chair 4, Sava Tshontikidis, of Summit County, said he was glad he made it up the lift in time to meet his friends. He promptly lost them once he got up there.
“I’m having a blast,” he said.
Tshontikidis practiced snowskate tricks at the top of the mountain while waiting to reunite with his group.
Skiing with one leg, Patrick Halgren departed the scene atop the mountain skiing switch. Halgren lost his leg in a motorcycle accident. Halgren trains out of Winter Park and is hopeful to make the next Paralympics as a ski racer.
“But I love freestyle, too,” he said.
Vail ended the season with 233 inches of total snow on the season, a far cry from the 350 inches the mountain has called average in recent years, but enough coverage to finish with good conditions at the top of the mountain.
Bob and Teri Abrams are from Chicago but trying to spend more time in Vail. They said they were thankful to be in town this season at the Closing Day festivities, shutting down the mountain with the locals.
Bob Abrams wore a button of Pepi Gramshammer on his vest.
“I love this place,” he said.
‘Ready for the next one:’ Takeaways from CMC’s virtual lecture helping individuals better prepare for wildfire season
Kale Casey is more than familiar with wildfires — how they start, the damage they can wreak and ways to prepare for them. In a virtual discussion hosted by Colorado Mountain College, Casey presented on his past 14 years of experience in fighting wildfires and engaged viewers from Kansas City to the Western Slope by answering questions on best practices to establish year-round, not just for fire seasons.
“When you spend that much time out there with the crews you really start to internalize what they go through, what this challenging lifestyle really is. The aches, the pain, the loneliness. Missing weddings, missing birthdays … but you really do realize that these folks year-in and year-out are heroes,” Casey said.
The beginning of his presentation included recaps from the Grizzly Creek Fires that took place during the summer of 2020. The fire started Aug. 10 with a spark on the median of I-70 in Glenwood Canyon. The interstate was closed for two weeks and the fire jumped the Colorado River and ended up burning 32,631 acres before becoming fully contained on Dec. 18. He had photos to share from the camps his team had set up when fighting the fires that threatened the watershed in Glenwood Springs and affected traveling on I-70. Something he said that boosts firefighters’ spirits is seeing residents of the area they’re protecting put up signs of gratitude or interact with social media posts about the work that’s being done.
“We really appreciated that this community of Glenwood Springs and the greater fire community is becoming more engaged about that. The pieces of equipment we use, our tactics, how we operate and when the firefighters see the engagement it actually gives them a lift, too, because sometimes they feel forgotten up there on the fire line,” Casey said.
He encouraged taking the steps needed to make one’s home fire defensible and drove the point home that communities need to stop using “I didn’t know this would burn” as an excuse, and instead do the necessary work to be ready when a fire inevitably arrives.
“That’s what firefighters want to see. … They want to see that you have done something to create the defensible space. They want to see that you’ve taken (those) favorite 10 trees that you’ve loved and told stories about and your kids were raised under in the shade … and you’ve cut them down to create defensible space,” Casey said.
Part of the decision behind where firefighters decide to put up their rigs comes from the consideration of how safe they’ll be in that area as well. Reducing hazardous fuel build up surrounding a property is one way to further protect one’s home, since when the teams come in those will be elements outside of their control. Casey also mentioned the connection between climate change and wildfire season, how temperatures are getting warmer earlier and for longer. All these factors set the stage for the perfect burn.
“Colorado last summer, look at us. I was up in Pingree filming a crew in the snow who was doing hot spots and cutting a fire line Nov. 21, 22 because we were worried that we were going to have another Fern Lake, Estes National Park fire like we had in December of 2010,” Casey said.
Thinking about all the steps to take before the time comes helps with peace of mind and successful evacuation. Casey said to consider the six P’s if you are in a situation where you need to leave immediately, have a plan in place and look out for others who are also trying to stay safe during the fires.
“Because our town of Willow has burned down twice we have a very strong VOAD, Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster, and this last fire as soon as the houses started burning … we were so much more prepared to be resilient … and everything else because we had been through it once and everybody made sure they were ready for the next one.”
For more questions about wildfire safety and preparedness, Kale Casey can be reached at email@example.com.
– People and pets
– Papers, phone numbers, and important documents
– Prescriptions, vitamins, and eyeglasses
– Pictures and irreplaceable memorabilia
– Personal computer hard drive and disks
– “Plastic” (credit cards, ATM cards) and cash
Reporter Jessica Peterson can be reached at 970-279-3462 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Community Pride Highway Cleanup set for May 1, with 2 years of trash awaiting volunteers
With the cancellation of the 20th annual Community Pride Highway Cleanup last year, teams throughout the valley are gearing up to remove more trash than in typical years along the main roadways of Eagle County. Eagle River Watershed Council, the host organization, predicts that despite the additional year’s trash, this year’s event will not surpass the 50 tons of trash collected at the inaugural event.
The 21st annual Community Pride Highway Cleanup will take place on Saturday, May 1, and registration is required by Friday.
The Community Pride Highway Cleanup is a hallmark event of Eagle River Watershed. Nearly 1,000 volunteers from local businesses and organizations, as well as families and friends, will show their dedication to the Eagle River Valley by forming teams to clean up more than 140 miles of Eagle County roadways.
To meet required regulations, the thank-you barbecue that traditionally follows the event has been canceled. The Watershed Council does intend to hold the barbecue again in the years to come, and believes the swelling of community pride following this event will remain, despite the absence of the celebratory barbecue.
The registration deadline to participate in the event is Friday at 5 p.m. For more information or to register, email email@example.com.
Eagle River Watershed Council is a community-supported 501c(3) organization with the mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit erwc.org to learn more.
Is golf in Eagle County experiencing a new boom? Maybe
There is no tactful way to put this.
COVID-19 has been a terrific thing for golf, locally and nationally.
In the past year, everyone and their brother, at least it seemed like it, found golf to be a perfect activity during a global pandemic.
While the majority of local golfers ride carts instead of walking, the striking of a golf ball eventually leads to social distancing.
Gypsum Creek, traditionally the first public course to open in Eagle County, saw rounds increase from 17,200 in 2019 to 20,100 in 2020, according to Blake Scott, the course’s director of golf. Clark’s counterpart at Eagle Ranch, Jeff Boyer, reports a similar tale. Rounds on the Arnold Palmer course in Eagle rose from roughly 22,000 to 26,000. (The Vail Daily doesn’t have numbers for Vail and EagleVail, the county’s two other public loops, but tee times were scarce at both last season, not that the author, who loves his 7-iron, was looking to golf.)
Keep in mind when looking at those figures that both Eagle and Gypsum courses were closed for late March and most of April, at least, last year. because of the initial reaction to the virus. There’s room for growth in 2021.
This is a terrific boost for golf, which nationally had been on the downswing since the 2008 recession. Everyone’s heard the death song of golf: It takes too long to play, is too hard, has too many rules, isn’t family-friendly, isn’t suited to the younger generation desiring instant gratification and so on. The pandemic fixed all that … for now.
But it brings up challenges for players as they plan for the season. What is tee time availability going to be like? What COVID-19 restrictions are still in effect? What are some unintended consequences of the pandemic?
It’s getting better, people. But there are still some guidelines:
- When in doubt, book your tee time in advance. Both Gypsum Creek and Eagle Ranch have online booking sites and/or apps for the phone. Not only does this limit person-to-person contact, helpful in combatting COVID, but you just have a better chance of getting a time. “That is the key to your story,” Scott said. “Tee times are going to be scarce in this valley.”
- Masks: They are still required in the pro shop, the 19th hole, in picking up food at the turn and in any generally populated era, say like the cart-loading/drop-off areas.
- The pro shop: Gypsum Creek is still operating out of a window — it works very nicely — with its merchandise on the covered patio. Eagle Ranch’s pro shop is open, but limited in capacity. Please be patient.
- Carts: Both Eagle Ranch and Gypsum Creek are back to two riders a cart after issuing carts to solo riders last season. If a golfer feels more comfortable riding solo, both courses will allow it, but with a surcharge. Eagle Ranch has introduced plastic dividers for players sharing a cart who want some space. “It’s basically a Velcro strap on the roof,” Boyer said. “It has about five straps to keep [the plastic] nice and tight. It takes about a minute to put in.”
- Timing: When COVID-19 hit, courses were spreading out tee times to separate groups on the course (15 or 12 minutes between foursomes, instead of 10). Gypsum Creek is back to 10-minute intervals. Eagle Ranch decided to stick with 12-minute gaps. It will be interesting to watch how local golf courses handle tee-time spacing as pace of play is a major issue in the sport be it a foursome at Eagle Ranch, Gypsum Creek or Pebble Beach.
On the course
- Last year was the year of, “Yeah, that putt would have not been in but for the pin,” because COVID rules didn’t allow anyone to touch the flag stick. You may now remove the flag, if so desired, but remember that the rules do still allow you to leave the stick in, and that might be a wiser policy simply out of consideration.
- Rakes are back and water almost is. Since golfers seem to find bunkers more easily than fairways, every course removed the rakes from the sand last year, resulting often in a foot wedge to a smoother portion of the bunker (not legal, but could be justified) or a full-bodied kick of the ball out of the bunker (nope). Eagle Ranch has the rakes back in the bunkers and Gypsum Creek will have a rake in each cart, so clean up those bunkers people. (FYI, the courses are cleaning everything you can touch as a matter of standard operating procedure.)
- Water coolers are being filled on course at Eagle Ranch and not yet at Gypsum Creek. So bring your water jugs. The beverage carts are also starting up, so that will help. Trash cans are touch-and-go, so please pretend you’re camping: Pack it in and pack it out.
And for the record, pandemic or not, bringing beer onto the golf course does not count as water.
In a world where we don’t know much about the future, golfers can probably count on crowded tee sheets for most of the summer.
Booking in advance is recommended.
“We’re busier than ever,” Scott said of Gypsum Creek. “We’ve stopped selling season passes. We are encouraging people to buy punch cards.”
Yes, season passes are selling out. Gypsum Creek, according to Scott, and EagleVail, according to its website, are sold out on season memberships for the year.
Meanwhile, Vail Golf Club, which shoots for a May opening, has already sold out its top-level pass for Vail Recreational District golfers.
This is a new phenomena, as is the equipment front. Yes, all of Eagle County seems to be golfing, but it’s the entire nation. Want the latest and greatest from Calloway, Titleist and/or TaylorMade? Good luck.
Since most of America apparently wants a new driver, putter, specialty wedge or set of irons, local golf course are having a hard time getting new clubs.
“We don’t have our demos and our rentals,” Boyer said. “They’re still trickling in one club at a time. I have [customers] still waiting. If you want to order, plan ahead.”
So if you have your clubs, a pass and/or tee times, you’re all set. The bigger question remains, “Will this last?”
The only comparable moment to now in recent golf history was Tiger Woods turning pro in 1996 and demolishing everyone during the 1997 Masters.
Woods made golf cool, opened up golf to more people, made television ratings and PGA revenues soar and spurred the building of golf courses all over the country.
No one is expecting companies to start breaking ground on new courses. In Eagle County, the land’s just too expensive for golf. Nationally, courses are closing to make room for housing. (See Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.)
But even if golf isn’t experiencing the full Tiger-effect — unlikely as Woods will not be on TV screens anytime soon — can golf get a bounce out of the pandemic? Will the newcomers of last summer continue to play and become life-long golfers, a boon for the sport, which desperately needs younger players?
While Scott is a bit younger than Boyer, Scott has a good perspective. He started at Gypsum Creek as a member of the Eagle Valley golf team (Class of 2002), turned that into a part-time job while in high school and eventually a career in Gypsum. He’s seen and done everything one can do at Gypsum Creek.
“This is my 18th year in the golf industry and I’ve seen the ups and downs,” Scott said. “I haven’t seen us up like this since the beginning of my career.”
Scott started at Gypsum Creek as a full-time employee after college in 2005, which just happened to be the year of Woods’ chip on No. 16 at the Masters.
Boyer’s been at Eagle Ranch since it opened in 2001. He was less hesitant to proclaim a new era of golf, but is looking at the trends.
“I have read some stuff about [a Tiger-like effect], but I wouldn’t be able to give you the [national] stats,” he said. “It’s definitely comparable. The increase in rounds? The last time I saw an increase of rounds close to last year was back in 1996 when Tiger turned pro.”