Caramie Schnell, firstname.lastname@example.org
September 20, 2006
Carving fresh lines into hidden powder stashes in
the West Vail trees is practically what Caitlin Rapson lives for in the
wintertime. The Smith-sponsored snowboarder grew up in the valley and
she doesn’t mince words when it comes to her beloved path home to
Matterhorn after a day spent riding on Vail Mountain – “West Vail trees
are the sickest trees to ride, by far … It’s dangerous sometimes, yes,
but you can go three days after snow and if you pick the right line, you
can still get fresh tracks,” she said. “It’s awesome.”
The 21-year-old Rapson also knows a large number of those trees she navigates are lodgepole pine, and that they’re either dead or dying due to the mountain pine beetle.
“If they’re all going to die, or they’re going to get cut down, it’s going to be horrible,” she said.
Rapson admits that many of the people she knows in her peer group aren’t that concerned about the pine beetle problem and aren’t very knowledgeable about what’s causing it. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t noticed.
“Young people are definitely like, trees? Whatever. But a lot of people that live in Matterhorn and Alpine Drive, they snowboard home so they’re like, what the hell is happening? People that have actually been here for awhile and remember what it used to look like are definitely worried – my mom, my dad, longtime locals.”
In a county where local’s lives are inexorably tied to tourists thinking Vail is a beautiful place to visit, the impact the mountain pine beetle could have on the landscape is worrisome. Will people be so turned off by the sea of dying and dead trees that they’ll cancel a vacation or rethink a return trip?
ourism Bureau, Michael Robinson knows better than anyone that tourism is about the whole experience – the amenities of the town combined with the beauty of the landscape. He’s frank about the fact that the dead trees will impact a tourist’s experience when visiting the Vail Valley. It is a concern when it comes to promoting the Vail Valley to consumers. So the bureau tries to educate visitors, Robinson said.
“This is a community steeped in natural resources. (The pine beetle outbreak) is a part of nature unfolding in front of their eyes, but we need to educate them, so they understand that it is a natural part of living in a forest area – not part of a devastation or some imperfection.”
In the end though, Robinson said he does not believe that the pine beetle is going to keep tourists away from Vail – “the Vail Valley has so much to offer,” he said.
It could be argued that Vail Resorts has more to lose than anyone when it comes to the pine beetle affecting a bottom line. But at least in the near future, Chief Operating Officer of Vail Mountain Bill Jensen doesn’t see the pine beetle having any affect at all on Vail Resorts business or on tourism in the valley as a whole, he said.
“In the near term? I don’t think so. One of the interesting things about the infestation is in the winter it’s much less visible than in the summer.”
The bigger challenge for the resort, Jensen said,
“Fortunately we’ve had a nice wet summer and in essence probably can breathe a sigh of relief. One of the cures for pine beetle is fire. I think in some areas that would be healthy. But in our communities or on our mountains, fire is not the desired outcome.”
When it comes to looking further down the line, Jensen said he hopes there will be a solution to the pine beetle, whether that comes from scientists or from Mother Nature herself.
“I think there’s an opportunity for the scientific community to tackle this,” he said. “I’ve been spraying my own property for the last five years with great success. Obviously in certain areas that’s effective, but spraying across not just a ski area, but hundreds of thousands of acres is not effective. But just like with any other disease the human race faces – in essence, is there a vaccine for this?”
The other “glimmer of hope,” Jensen said, is some of the long-range weather forecasts for this winter.
“We know that 14 consecutive nights at negative ten or below will kill the beetle and in Colorado in the past we’ve had that – in ’89 where there was the last big incredible cold snap and at least some of the long-range weather is saying we should anticipate below average temperatures this winter.”
In the meantime, the resort is looking at what they can do to fix the damage already done by the pine beetle. In the past two years, VR has cut down 1,200 trees, Jensen said, mainly trees that pose a risk to gondola or chairlift lines, he said.
“The mountain sits on Forest Service land and we lease that land but the trees belong to the Forest Service. To date the 1,200 trees we cut down, we’re in essence doing work for the Forest Service. We have to buy the trees from them and pay for the process of cutting them down and removing them. It works out to about a $100 per tree. We’ve spent about $125,000 so far. If you do the math, 10,000 trees would be a million dollars.”
The company hasn’t ruled out cutting down more trees, but Jensen said there are no plans to move in that direction right now.
“I don’t anticipate front-side bowls,” he said. “Certainly not in the next decade or two, if ever.”
Sea-changes in scenery
Mike Campbell has been the manager of the Savory Inn in West Vail for the past three years. the small inn sits on the banks of the Gore Creek, surrounded by trees. Nearly a quarter of this summer’s guests have quizzed him about the dead pine trees.
“I get asked about it all the time,” he said. “Most of my guests don’t understand what’s going on and they’re just looking for answers. Some of the folks have visited before and they feel like it’s gotten much worse.”
A significant amount of the clientele are traveling from place to place, spending a few nights in a spattering of mountain towns, Campbell said. “They say that this area seems to be the worst they’ve driven through and I certainly feel like it is. I haven’t done too many road trips this summer, but by the percentage of trees affected right in our corridor, it’s pretty obvious the problem is serious.”
Though Campbell admitted he is concerned about how
the change in scenery will affect tourism in the county, he’s most
concerned about the chance of fire.
“It definitely concerns me just on the value of the real estate here and the fact that if we did have a fire, there’s a lot of kindling out there right now,” Campbell said. “That scares me. I also try to look at it from the big perspective, though. I’m someone that looks at it like nature takes care of itself, so maybe there’s a bigger picture we can’t see … The earth is one organism and it’s just taking care of itself. It’s going to spit us out soon, too,” he added with a laugh.
Campbell is not the only person worried about a fire sweeping through this valley in the not-to-distant future. Officials like Wettstein have said many times over that there are significant fire risks as a result of the dead lodgepole pines.
“The longer term risk is as those trees start to fall apart (they) create the big fuel loadings for the Yellowstone-type fires. Essentially, big pick-up sticks.”
Rebecca Hollister is concerned about our “forests of brown,” she said, and the larger implications – like the possibility of fire and the repercussions in the tourism arena, which is sure to affect her job as a designer at Slifer Designs in Edwards.
“We do a lot of work with developers who depend on people visiting this place and buying second homes,” she said. “People already comment all the time – ‘oh my God, why are the trees so brown? It’s so ugly.’”
When it comes to solving the problem though, Hollister isn’t sure what, if anything, she can do.
“I think a lot of people are aware and concerned, but what can we do short of getting everyone together and chopping down all the trees? People feel almost futile about it.”
Caramie Schnell can be reached at email@example.com.