GJ Sentinel 12/9/12 Waiting on Winter

Dec 9, 2012

Colorado’s ski resorts await pre-holiday storm

Winter starts in two weeks, and yet one wouldn’t know that without a calendar. It’s 50 degrees in Grand Junction as I write this late Friday, and there’s hardly more than a trace of snow gracing the slopes of Grand Mesa. Colorado’s ski resorts have noticed the shortage, and although snow guns have been blasting out man-made crystals for weeks, even that isn’t always enough to keep up with above-normal temperatures.

Aspen opened and subsequently closed the top of Ajax Mountain to skiing until further snowfall, and Monarch Mountain, which usually measures its snowfall in feet, has postponed indefinitely its 2012-13 season opener.

As of Friday, Powderhorn Mountain Resort still is set for a Thursday opening, according to Powderhorn general manager and resident optimist Daren Cole.

At least one thing you don’t have to worry about: Organizers have said the World Snow Polo Championship will take place next weekend in Aspen, regardless of snow conditions.

As readers will see elsewhere on this page, the Piceance Basin is in the news but not necessarily for good news.

The Bureau of Land Management released its draft plan for guiding oil and gas drilling in the Piceance Basin over the next 20 years, and the agency has as its preferred alternative a plan calling more than 15,000 new wells and 1,800 new well pads.

The news doesn’t rest easy with conservationists or wildlife managers who already are concerned about impacts on wildlife from the present level of development.

The Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (www. trcp.org) has proposed several tracts in the Piceance Basin be designated as Backcountry Conservation Areas, where special regulations would govern development.

Keeping intact large parcels of habitat would require disallowing surface occupancy and new road construction while encouraging directional drilling.

This would forestall the habitat fragmentation caused by the spiderweb of roads now stretching across the Roan Plateau and may prevent other deleterious impacts, such as the 60 percent decline in deer numbers seen around developmentheavy Pinedale, Wyo.

“Sportsmen are looking for a reasonable ground-up approach to manage our public lands in a way that keeps our Western way of life intact,” TRCP Colorado field representative Nick Payne said during a recent tour of the Piceance Basin.

“Hunters and anglers have been rallying around the idea of backcountry conservation areas, which maintain access to some of the finest publiclands big-game hunting in the country.”

Game management unit 22, which includes most of the Piceance Basin, was estimated 35 years ago to have 55,000 mule deer.

Today, Colorado Parks and Wildlife estimates deer numbers are less than half that.

But deer being deer, energy development isn’t solely to blame. The frequency of hard winters and the growing intrusion by a burgeoning elk population also have played a role in the decline in deer numbers.

“Energy development isn’t the only issue but it’s a big issue,” said John Ellenberger, retired state big-game manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

In the BLM’s preferred alternative, deer numbers in the Piceance Basin would drop even more, to 70 percent of the state’s long-term population objectives.

The TRCP says the proposed Backcountry Conservation Areas could ease the impact on deer by keeping development away from key winter and transition range. Payne said the Backcountry Conservation Area designation, which would protect traditional uses such as grazing and access by hunters and anglers, could be done by the White River Field Office under the existing Resource Management Plan.

The BLM expects a final decision by April 2014.