Two weeks in the West

  • The Snowflake chair lift at Deer Valley Resort outside Salt Lake City in mid-November. At press time, the forecast was for rain


A few days before Thanksgiving, about five dozen employees of Vail Resorts were hard at work. The Colorado ski resort had staffed up for a mid-November opening, but these workers weren't running ski lifts or grooming the slopes. Instead, they were picking up trash; the snow had not arrived, the opening was delayed and they needed to keep busy during the sunny, 50-degree days.

As winter solstice approaches, scenes like this are playing out all over the West. The predominant color is not white but brown, accented here and there by deep orange flames leaping across the landscape. People were as likely to golf at mountain resorts over Thanksgiving as they were to ski or snowboard, and ranchers, water managers and ski area operators are watching anxiously as their livelihoods evaporate into the severe drought that covers most of the region.

New Mexico dodged wildfires all summer - less than 80,000 acres burned in the state this year, compared to, say, Idaho, where 2 million acres went up in flames. But in late November, the party ended: The Ojo Peak fire scorched 7,500 acres in what should, at this time of the year, be the snow-covered Manzano Mountains. On the West Coast, news media reprised the stories of a few weeks before as fires fueled by Santa Ana winds charred yet more homes - 50-plus Malibu mansions this time. The fact that fire season and the holiday season are now synonymous no longer seems surprising, so news outlets played up the fact that Flea, the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, lost his home.

Scientists announced that fires in California released 7.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide during one week in October, and that fires in California release 7,579 pounds of mercury each year, about three times what one cement plant in Tehachapi, Calif., emits. 

Los Angeles is experiencing its driest year on record. The Sierra Nevada snowpack is at 3 percent of average, and the snow cover in the Colorado River Basin above Lake Powell is 70 percent below average. Powell's surface level is 101 feet below full and Lake Mead is half empty. To cope with the drought, L.A.'s water utility has hired six guys to drive around in hybrid vehicles, asking people to turn off their sprinklers during the middle of the day. 

Bears, forced by drought and a late freeze to look for food in towns, have sacrificed, too. Colorado wildlife officers killed 59 bruins - a record - over run-ins of one sort or another with people. In mid-November, wildlife agency officials speculated that even more bears might die: Thanks to the balmy days, the animals are still rummaging through trashcans rather than hibernating. Arizona ranchers, squeezed between sparse water supplies and rising corn prices (thanks to the ethanol boom) are thinning their herds, so they don't have as many cattle to feed and water next summer. 

Aspen Skiing Co. opened a soup kitchen to feed its idle, paycheck-less employees, but emphasized it wasn't meant to provide meals to real estate agents moonlighting as ski instructors. Plans to build a rock 'n' roll-themed amusement park in Eloy, Ariz., near Phoenix, dried up because of worries that it's too hot there for such a park. Archaeologists in Montana found historic artifacts, including 18 unfired cartridges and an ax, in an area denuded by a wildfire this summer. "In 1870, you don't lose 18 unfired cartridges," an archaeologist told the Associated Press. "We speculate that maybe a grizzly bear ran the guy off, killed him and ate him."

A storm finally hit much of the West in the days before Thanksgiving. Snowflakes doused the fire in New Mexico, and some ski areas were able to meet their delayed opening dates. But don't get used to it. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Drought Outlook predicts that the Northern Rockies may get some relief this winter, but drought will persist in the rest of the West.

Carbon costs

$89,000 Amount of taxpayer dollars spent to "offset" the 30,000 tons of carbon dioxide emitted annually by the U.S. Capitol's coal-burning power plant. 

116 million Tons of carbon dioxide emitted by Western wildfires each year. 

2.8 billion Tons of carbon emitted by U.S. power plants each year. 

100 million Tons of carbon dioxide released by trees killed by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. 

$504 million Amount budgeted by the feds to replant trees lost in hurricanes Katrina and Rita; $70 million has been promised or dispensed so far. 

551 million Tons of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere and stored in plants or soil in North America. 

172 million Tons of carbon dioxide emitted each year by Southern Company's power plants, making it the worst polluter in the U.S. 

$217,057 Amount employees of Southern Company have contributed to George W. Bush's campaigns. 



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