The Village At Wolf Creek: Salesmanship Trumps Meteorology

About that snow removal complexity. . .

December 13, 2006 in The Rockies | Comments (0)

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What falls on Wolf Creek Ski Area falls on Alberta Park. The Texans who dreamed up The Village at Wolf Creek don’t seem to understand that. Their urban-density land development at 10,300 feet elevation will get 40 to 50 feet of snow a year. The Forest Service environmental impact statement acknowledges “snow removal complexity” as one of the access problems.

There are many other problems, technical and moral, with concentrating 2200 houses and 222,000 square feet of commercial space on 287 acres of near alpine terrain that used to be part of Rio Grande National Forest. “The planned development will alter a natural appearing landscape to an urban landscape,” admitted the Forest Service as it went about . . . approving it. The rationale, presumably among the things under study by U.S. District Judge John Kane, is you can’t mess with a man’s private property even if the public has a fundamental interest in it.

Maybe a snow removal complexity narration will give the picture of just one of the problems with this bold triumph of salesmanship over urban planning, geology, meteorology and environmental protection.

At the top of the Alberta Chairlift at Wolf Creek Ski Area on one of its “Most Snow in Colorado” days, a ski patrolman was digging a hole just below the unloading platform. Every time I passed over on the lift he was down there digging. Pretty soon all I could see was scoops of snow flying with some regularity out of the hole. He got deeper and deeper, 15 feet deep at least. I watched his work all day as I passed over the hole periodically on the lift. I wondered, what is this man looking for?

I suppose Wolf Creek is the worst place in Colorado to lose something in the snow. It can snow 100 inches in just a few cold days, as it did last March. Drop a glove in deep powder like that and you could get frostbite before you find it. Fall and you could lose your skis.

A week later I was up there again. One of the amenities of living in the dry San Luis Valley is you can be skiing at Wolf Creek within 90 minutes of almost any doorstep. Just look at the weather over the high San Juans and go. And one of the amenities of Wolf Creek is the Alberta lift. It gives access to some fine glade skiing and a few thoughtfully cut trails that are practically invisible from the open meadow at the bottom.

On the first ride up the Alberta lift that morning I could see the rim of that hole. It was now like a crater. When the chair passed over it, my curiosity was satisfied. Centered at the bottom, about 15 feet below the rim, was a proud little yellow upright fiberglass sanitary unit. The patrolman had found the porta-potty. (I hoped he found it in time.) How did they lose the porta-potty? I imagine they woke up one morning and it was buried to the door latch and the next morning it was buried to the vent pipe and in a week or so it was six feet under.
This is the snow that Bush billionaire buddy B. J. “Red” McCombs, owner of 1200 Clear Channel radio stations among other things, and Bob Honts, his developer, don’t seem to understand.

Take a look at the snow removal complexity math. Deducting the commercial space and 10 per cent for roads leaves about 11 million square feet for the 2200 residential lots, or about 5,000 square feet each – the area of a 50- by 100-foot plot, the minimum building site allowed in many communities. The median home size in the United States is 2227 square feet. So the median two-bedroom, two-bath home would cover 45 per cent of the lot. Colorado mountain homes have steeply pitched roofs, by code, to shed snow. What falls on the 45 per cent would be added to the snow on the rest of the lot. If the snow depth was 8 feet at Wolf Creek Ski Area – not unusual in late winter – it would be about 12 feet around your house in the village to be built on Alberta Park. Even if the property owners association limited the size of dwellings to, say, 1800-square-foot town houses, the average snow depth on an occupied lot would be just under 11 feet. And this calculation doesn’t account for snow from the plowed roads.

So what has been ignored by the Forest Service, Mineral County and perhaps the developers is that the snow in deep winter would be up to the eaves. At your little Wolf Creek dream home you’ll need that ski patrolman to dig a path to your door (unless you have two stories and a second-floor door, which is common in other high Colorado towns, like Silverton).

The snowfall in the southern San Juans has been ignored before, with disastrous consequences. At the Summitville open pit mine, 16 map miles down the Continental Divide from Wolf Creek, an international company used a cyanide solution to leach microscopic gold particles out of millions of tons of crushed rock. Cyanide is one of the few elements that will combine with gold. It is a deadly poison, of course, but the miners began by spreading an impervious liner under the 45-acre heap leach pad, to isolate the cyanide from nature.

But they under-designed and rushed construction and cut corners, according to court testimony. Then came a heavy winter. Imagine snow piled in a bathtub two feet above the rim. At a an average room temperature it drains as fast as it melts. Now, pile the snow to five feet. The leach pad at Summitville overflowed. Toxic water spilled. All the fish disappeared from the Alamosa River in the San Luis Valley. The international mining company declared bankruptcy. The U.S. government declared Summittville a Superfund site. Millions of dollars have been spent, but people along the Alamosa River still have to monitor their wells for cyanide.