Winter of Discontent

The other day, for the first time in my 58 years, I looked at a denuded tree and thought, “It’s going to look like that for months.” The thought depressed me, which was another first — I’ve never minded winter before.

To be perfectly correct, I did kind of mind one winter in my youth. The winter I was a freshman in high school, it never snowed. I remember being in our rec room with probably Bartlesons and Barils, and we were wearing our mittens and caps and pretending it was snowing, only to look out and see a few wispy flakes falling from the sky. We dashed outside in glee, but that was it for the entire season’s output, those few wispy flakes.

It did turn out, that year, which still got cold, that instead of snow there was ice, and we went out to Blue Mesa Reservoir several times to skate. Lemons, lemonade, all that, but it was still a weird year and we were all relieved when it went back to snow as usual for my sophomore year.

Earlier this year, as mice were invading nearly every house in town, there was an alleged old-timers’ tale going around that this was portending a harsh winter. Then Kara heard someone opine instead that it was the current uber-dry weather that was driving the invasion, a theory that frankly sounded a lot more realistic to me.

I’ve also heard tales about the height of the skunk cabbage, which I believe the scientists at Rocky Mountain Biological lab say is really corn lily: the theory there is the taller it grows, the more it’s going to snow the following winter.

I did not make it out anywhere to take in the height of the cabbage lily this year, but as dry as it was, I would be very surprised if it grew much at all.

I realize this is heresy, but I don’t put much faith in the Farmers Almanac, of which there are multiple versions with myriad predictions. I think it was local weather chronicler Bruce Bartleson who said predictions beyond 10 days are rarely reliable, and that’s where I tend to focus. Actually, I frequently don’t check the weather until I’m already in it.

But the other day the Gunnison paper ran an article forecasting a dry winter based on La Nina and the jet stream. This prediction says because of La Nina, the jet stream is going to run farther north, and while Gunnison is in the variable zone, everything south is in for yet another dry year.

It’s been pretty clear for many years that Gunnison does serve as sort of a dividing line, and in recent years places to the north have been snowed on while places to the south sink deeper in drought. Sometimes Gunnison partakes in the winter wealth and sometimes it veers toward drought.

A couple years ago we were staring drought in the mouth until a very wet, unexpected spring saved us and took Blue Mesa from a projected 30 percent full to 100 percent.

We already had one storm that just about undid us last month — the city is still identifying weakened trees and taking them down before some big wind does it for them. And there has been a lot of wind, busy drying out any moisture we might have retained from our September snow. But so far the bounty that drives our winter economy has been missing.

This is the case for the entire state, and as we watch conflagrations between Boulder and Fort Collins, everyone is remarking on how unusual it is to be this worried about fire this time of year. It’s so dry that the aptly named East Troublesome fire blew right past most contenders to become the second largest fire in state history in a mere two weeks. It is threatening to merge with the Cameron Peak fire, which is the largest fire. (I believe that leaves Pine Gulch, near Grand Junction, to be third largest — and all of these are from this year. Wacky climate scientists.)

Today, however, it is snowing. I don’t know about south of here, but here it is and more important, it’s snowing on the fires.

Now, before we celebrate too much, this is supposed to be a one-day, one-off event, much like the September snow, hopefully without the downed trees and subsequent electrical damage. Then we are supposed to go back to unseasonably warm, windy and dry.

Fire officials are cautioning that this snow isn’t going to provide enough sustained moisture to thoroughly soak many of the combustibles, like lodgepole pine, much of which was been done in by voracious pine beetles. So while they are welcoming Mother Nature’s assist, they’re not expecting her to do the job by herself.

As we in Gunnison County perhaps should not, either, but I don’t have any solution on offer.

Our winter economy is driven in no small part by the ski area at Crested Butte. There was the rough end to last season, when Corona crashed the party and brought down the final month, and while Vail Resorts has spent the months since working on a plan to try to maximize skier days without sacrificing health, the plan doesn’t go anywhere if there’s nothing to ski on.

Several years ago, 15 or maybe even 20, the county undertook one of those favored government exercises along the lines of a strategic plan, parceling the “strategy” into several topics. One of those concerned recreation, or perhaps tourism (the two are fairly intertwined here), and the committee of citizens appointed to work on this came out with a strong endorsement of the ski area.

Except one member. If I’m remembering correctly, it was a man who owned a retail sporting goods/clothing store in Crested Butte who was later killed in an airplane crash. Even though his business relied on the ski economy, he took a longer view than the rest of the committee, and his arguments were so eloquent that his dissent was placed in the document alongside the ski area support.

Essentially (and going from feeble memory), this man was arguing that by 2050 there would not be a skiable acre anywhere in Gunnison County based on climate trends, and it was important, starting right now (15-20 years ago) to try diversifying the economy.

If he couldn’t convince his fellow committee members, it’s not likely he was going to hold sway with the general public, and it doesn’t seem like we’ve used our time wisely. The ski resort, under a handful of owners since that dissent, has broadened winter offerings, but they all still rely on snow: a tubing hill, a half-pipe.

An economist from Colorado College, also many years ago, argued that ski companies had really become far less about skiing than real estate, and maybe houses can continue to be sold without snow. Without snow, however, our summer vistas will suffer as flora dries up and fauna has trouble finding food.

I could be premature here, although if we only get one snowstorm per month I won’t be. At some point, though, we probably ought to heed the alarms that have been going off at klaxon strength for quite some time and try to devise whatever plans we can to try to keep our entire way of life from burning down around us.

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