The Pacific Exchange - Road to my PhD

Ski resorts, insect infestations and water diversions

by Carina W
Ski resorts, insect infestations and water diversions

Welcome to Grand County, Colorado. The mountain playground and giant water reservoir for Front Rangers (the sprawling metropolis of Denver, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs). Home to Winter Park Ski Resort, Rocky Mountain National Park, three lakes, six designated wilderness areas and just over 14 thousand people. It is also happens to be the headwaters of the Colorado River. Historian Robert C. Black called this place the ‘island in the rockies’ because the only way in is over a major mountain pass.

I’m not entirely sure what I did right to land this case study. But here I am, trying to understand how the communities in this valley experience and respond to landscape change.

The eastern border of the county is the Continental Divide and to the west, the main highway passes through Byers Canyon – that cuts of the ‘New West’ from the ‘Old West’: recreation, amenity migrants and retirees from ranching, mining and forestry. There are four major towns here, Winter Park/Fraser, a reasonably typical ski resort/mountain town, Granby, the service town, Grand Lake, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, and Kremmling, an old ranching/forestry town which kind of still feels like the Old West. The village of Tabernash is my new temporary home. It has a post office, a flower shop, Snooty Coyote Liquor, an upmarket restaurant and an eclectic set of old buildings, log cabins and second homes.

The permanent population of Tabernash is small – around 400 people – although you wouldn’t know that from the number of houses around. I’ve heard a range of different figures but between 60-70% of the houses in the county are second homes. Winter Park takes the cake, with only 17% of the houses having permanent occupants.

Grand County is the’’high amenity’ recreation and tourism case study in our project. It is a large county, covering some 1,869 square miles, however we’re focused on the eastern side, where tourism – ski and snowmobilie tourism in winter and hiking, biking and off-road vehicle trails, fishing, rafting and golf in summer – dominates the economy. Like many other counties in the West, around 70% of Grand County is in public land – Forest Service, Bureau  of Land Management and National Park. And, like much of the West, these public lands that previously supported extractive industries – mining, ranching and forestry – are now playgrounds for the county’s tourist economy. These features make Grand a ‘archetypal case study’ – sharing many similarities with other recreation communities in the Interior West.

But there are two other factors that brought us to Grand. Beetles and Water.

First, the beetles. About ten years ago, Grand County was the ‘epicentre’ of a mountain pine beetle epidemic. The beetle is a native to this landscape, so while there have been beetle outbreaks in the past, many say that climate change and the drought have made this most recent outbreak worse. The beetles lay their eggs under the bark of the tree and in this process inject the tree with a blue fungus to protect the eggs. Problem is, the fungus also kills the trees. Their numbers use to be controlled by strings of really cold days/weeks that they could not survive – and if there is one thing I’ve learnt from Grand County residents – those cold spells are less and less common. Without this natural population control, the population boomed and has killed millions of acres of trees across the Northern Rockies from Colorado up to British Columbia.

Insect infestations fall into the category of complex problems that cannot be addressed by individuals alone. Collaborations like the Colorado Bark Beetle Cooperative emerged to bring together land management agencies, local governments, the ski resorts, chambers of commerce together across Northern Colorado to address the problem. Landscape change transcends the boundaries of public and private land, conservation or production. We might care if it is a national park or a national forest, the beetles don’t know the difference. Whether it is beetles, fires, floods or droughts, managing the landscapes of the future will require this kind of collective effort so we’re interested in finding out whether or not the beetle outbreak built some capacity in the local communities to deal any future challenges they face.

Nobody questions the fact that water shortages are the challenge of the future for Colorado.

The water that flows through the Fraser and Colorado rivers are the life of this county. Every tourist activity here is tied to that water, ranching can not exist without it, and neither can the Front Range. Land and water rights are  separated in Colorado water, enabling forward thinking towns from the plains to buy up the water rights to what was then an isolated mountain community with a very low population. Following three major diversion projects, first of which was put in in 1904, there has been a 73% reduction in the average annual flows through the basin. 73% and a proposal has just gone through to up that to 82%.

Unsurprisingly, the people of Grand County are not very happy.

Like the beetles, a cross-jurisdictional collaboration has emerged to negotiate a path through the difficult issues of managing water between the communities living on the east and western slope of the continental divide. The Colorado River Cooperative Agreement is too complex for the bottom of an already long post so I’ll leave it for now. The critical point for the story is that there is very little the West slope communities can do about the water diversions so the communities on both sides of the divide are going to have to learn to share Colorado’s water resources. And if the models, predictions and droughts over the past 10 years are anything to go by, there will be less and less to go around.

So, it is because of the ski resorts, insect infestations and water diversions that I ended up in one of the most beautiful counties in Colorado.