The San Juan Avalanche Project by Don Bachman-Silverton Mountain Journal–February 2001—Reposted because it’s such an important story in San Juan Mountain history ~ rŌbert


In early May of 1971, I was detailed to Silverton by the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR),University of Colorado with a purchase order and instructions to locate a house of suitable size to base an office and living quarters for an avalanche research project.

That night I stopped at the Grand Imperial to listen in on a busy town of 850 people supported by the employment of two large mines, the Sunnyside and Idarado.  I wasn’t long on the bar stool before two fellows got up from a table and sandwiched me, right and left with the admonition from the big one on the right of  “We don’t allow no #$%&*! hippies in here”.  Well, I was fresh from the hippie-cowboy wars of Gunnison County, so not too concerned.  My hair and beard weren’t really that long and I was a bit older and sober, and after all was still running a bar of my own back in Crested Butte and felt at the time, those attributes along with carefully honed negotiation skills and perhaps friendly allies could save the day.  But, the bartender didn’t look too supportive of customer immunity, and for that matter did the rest of the crowded place.

Hmm, this wasn’t looking good, so I stuck out a hand and introduced myself to Clayton Hadden and Marvin Blackmore.  That worked for a minute.  Then I said I was in town to run the logistics for an avalanche project.  Thank goodness, the other guy at the table they’d just left hopped up and said to leave me alone:  he’s heard about this deal and I was probably ok.

That was the first of many times Tuffy Foster, Colorado Highway Maintenance Foreman for Red Mountain and Molas Passes, was to contribute to the well being of the San Juan Avalanche Project. Then Marvin bought me the first of many beers we shared over the years.




A student of snow retires from decades long career in high country ~ Durango Herald

By Jonathan Romeo Herald staff writerSaturday, Dec. 26, 2020 7:52 PM

Chris George, 82, has spent most of his life in high-elevation mountains. But about 10 years ago, health reasons caused him to move to Durango. Recently, he retired from serving as president of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, capping a decadeslong career.Jerry McBride/Durango Herald 

When you’ve lived most of your life above 11,000 feet in elevation, you’re going to have some stories to tell.

And Chris George has no lack of them.

“My life has been so diverse, what can I say?” George said. “You name it, we’ve done it.”

George, 82, is perhaps best known for his contributions to snow and avalanche research, as well as restoring a hut and ski lodge atop Red Mountain Pass known now as the St. Paul Hut & Lodge.

Recently, George retired from serving as president of the board for the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, capping a decadeslong career.

“A pioneer,” CSAS director Jeff Derry said of George. “He took the research of avalanches into the realm of science, so it wasn’t just something that was obscure that only mountaineers were knowledgeable about.”

George’s life adventures started in England, hiding in a bed with his brother as bombs rained down during the Battle of Britain. Growing up, he thought he would be a chef, having even been Charlie Chaplin’s cook for a few months.

But as a young man, George took to mountaineering, going on epic journeys in the Middle East’s Hindu Kush mountain range and the Alps. When he visited Switzerland, and saw the way mountaineers lived, he saw his life’s trajectory.

“It was just a fleeting fancy,” he said. “I never thought it would develop.”

At the age of 28, the Outward Bound program, which offers educational experiences in the outdoors, recruited George to work in Colorado on a 10-week contract. Ever since, he’s called the San Juan Mountains home.

“I decided I wanted to make my living in the high mountains,” he said. “I was researching all the places around Colorado, but you come to the San Juans and it’s a no-brainer from then on.”

George purchased the St. Paul Mine property on Red Mountain Pass in 1973, and quickly got to work renovating it into a ski lodge and hut. Although he was experienced in backcountry skiing, he said the San Juans presented unique risks.Chris George is best known for helping advance and legitimize the study of snow and avalanches, his colleagues and friends say. Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

“I’d climbed high mountains on three continents before I got here,” he said. “What I discovered … was definitely the most complex and treacherous snowpack I’d ever experienced.

“And I still believe,” he continued, ”that after nearly 50 years of studying it, it is a very complex snowpack and very, very difficult to forecast.”

The reason why snowpack is so difficult, George said, is because of the amount of sunshine in this area (not to be confused with high temperatures).

“The solar radiation creates surface instability in the snow,” he said. “It creates weak layers. It’s very subtle.”

In the high country just around Silverton, 11 people have died in avalanches since 2010, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Realizing the need all those years ago to better understand the intricacies of snowpack and avalanche activity, George, along with others, like Ed LaChapelle, started several projects up in the mountains.

In 1975, George took the helm for avalanche observations and reporting for the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research “San Juan Project” on Red Mountain Pass and the newly formed CAIC, both of which he continued until 1995.

“He was always able to relate well with the people doing the science,” said Keith Roush, a Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies board member and former owner of Pine Needle Mountaineering.

Roush said he’s known George for almost 40 years, and spent the better half of that time conducting search and rescue trainings and avalanche classes together.

“We weren’t the science experts, but we spent lots and lots of time in the snow,” Roush said.

Great advancements in the understanding of snowpack and avalanches, as well as technology, have been made over the years, George said. But America, in many ways, is far behind other countries, especially those in Europe.

Derry agreed, saying there’s usually an uptick of interest in funding projects or organizations that study snow after a winter season with a high number of bad accidents. But more often than not, that momentum fades.

“Europe is light years ahead,” he said. “But it has come a long way over the years, and Chris brought into light snow science as legitimate and necessary science.”

George lived between the hut and a home in Silverton until about 10 years ago, when health issues forced him and his wife of 41 years, Donna, to move to Durango, which at 6,512 feet, is nearly half the elevation of his Red Mountain Pass lodge.

“It was very hard for me to leave Silverton,” he said. “But Silverton is not an easy place to live. You have to be very physical to stay in Silverton.”

These days, especially because of the COVID-19 pandemic, George is mostly homebound. But, to be sure, he’s got a lifetime of “once in a lifetime” adventures racked up to reflect upon.

“I don’t have anything to feel bad about,” he said. “There’s a lot of things, ever since I was a kid, I thought I’d like to do. By some happenstance, it just happened.”

Hwy. 550 corridor ~ overnight snow/H20 information ~ 12/28/20

This one is looking like the real thing.  Of course, it’s always hard to say til it’s too late… 

Monument 2” w/ 0.1” SWE

RMP 6” w/ 0.3” SWE

Molas 6” w/ 0.4” SWE

Coal Bank 8” w/ 0.55” SWE

CAIC analysis of Battleship Accident

Avalanche Details Location: North Face of Battleship, southeast of Ophir State: Colorado Date: 2020/12/19 Time: Unknown Summary Description: 2 backcountry skiers caught, buried, and killed Primary Activity: Backcountry Tourer Primary Travel Mode: Ski Location Setting: Backcountry
Backside of the Battleship from another year

crédito total, Eric Ming

Number Caught: 2Partially Buried, Non-Critical: 0 Partially Buried, Critical: 1Fully Buried: 1 Injured: 0 Killed: 2Avalanche Type: SSTrigger: AS – Skier Trigger (subcode): u – An unintentional release Size – Relative to Path: R2Size – Destructive Force: D2.5 Sliding Surface: O – Within Old SnowSite Slope Aspect: NW Site Elevation: 11155 ft Slope Angle: 30 °Slope Characteristic: Sparse Trees

Avalanche Comments

This was a soft slab avalanche triggered by the group of skiers. The avalanche was small relative to the path and destructive enough to injure, bury, or kill a person. The avalanche failed on a 15 cm thick layer of faceted snow (SS-ASu-R2-D2.5-O). The crown face of the avalanche was 12 to 20 inches deep and about 700 feet wide. At the crown of the avalanche, the most recent snowfall sat above a firm, wind-stiffened surface that developed during a strong wind event on December 15. Several hundred vertical feet below the crown face, the snowpack was not wind affected, the weak layer was softer, and the slab was more cohesive. This was a Persistent Slab avalanche.There were two avalanches in the main bowl to the east that released sympathetically to the the fatal avalanche (SS-ASy-R2-D2-O)

The avalanche occurred on a steep, northwest through north to northeast-facing slope above treeline, locally known as the North Face of Battleship. The avalanche ran 1600 vertical feet, from the alpine into a below treeline creek bed.

Backcountry Avalanche Forecast

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s (CAIC) North San Juan zone rated the avalanche danger as Considerable (Level 3) near and above treeline, and Moderate (Level 2) below treeline. The forecast listed Persistent Slab avalanches as the primary problem at all elevations on west through north to southeast-facing slopes. The likelihood of triggering was Likely and the potential size was Small to Large (up to D2). The summary statement read:

Recent snowfall has thickened slabs above weaker snow inching the snowpack toward its tipping point. Slopes that have not failed naturally may be sitting there waiting for the extra push from a rider or machine. For today, the threat of triggering an avalanche remains elevated and you’re more likely to get into trouble on west through north to southeast-facing slopes. Areas harboring the thickest drifts are the most dangerous and where a small slide could trigger a larger, more deadly one. Strong northwest winds today may help thicken and expand the distribution of wind-drifted slabs below ridgeline and in cross-loaded terrain features.

Treat any steep slope where you see evidence of recent wind-loading, textured snow surfaces, or smooth rounded pillows of snow, as suspect. Although the size of avalanches that you can trigger will be smaller below treeline, these avalanches can be just as dangerous if you are pushed into trees or buried in a terrain trap. Pay attention to surface cracking, audible collapses, and stick to slopes less than 35 degrees to help reduce your avalanche risk.

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Barry Lopez won the National Book Award in 1986 for Arctic Dreams.John W. Clark


National Book Award winner Barry Lopez was famous for chronicling his travels to remote places and the landscapes he found there. But his writings weren’t simply accounts of his journeys — they were reminders of how precious life on earth is, and of our responsibility to care for it. He died on Christmas Day following a years-long battle with prostate cancer, his wife confirmed to NPR. He was 75. 

Lopez spent more than 30 years writing his last book, Horizon, and you don’t spend that much time on a project without going through periods of self doubt.


Writer Barry Lopez Reflects On A Life Traveling Beyond The ‘Horizon’ 

When I met him at his home last year, he told me when he was feeling defeated by the work, he’d walk along the nearby McKenzie River. 

“Every time I did there was a beaver stick in the water at my feet. And they’re of course, they’re workers. So I imagined the beaver were saying ‘What the hell’s wrong with you? You get back in there and do your work.'”

Up in his studio, he had a collection of the sticks, and he showed me how they bore the marks of little teeth. It was a lesson for Lopez. “Everyday I saw the signs of: don’t lose faith in yourself,” he told me.

This was the world of Barry Lopez — a world where a beaver could teach you the most valuable lessons.

Lopez was born in New York, but his father moved the family to California when he was a child. He would eventually settle in Oregon, where he gained notice for his writing about the natural world. He won the 1986 National Book Award for his nonfiction work Arctic Dreams.

At the time, he told NPR how he approached the seemingly empty Arctic environment. 

“I made myself pay attention to places where I thought nothing was going on,” he said then. “And then after a while, the landscape materialized in a in a fuller way. Its expression was deeper and broader than I had first imagined that at first glance.”

In Lopez’s books, a cloudy sky contains “grays of pigeon feathers, of slate and pearls.” Packs of hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos move “like swans milling on a city park pond”

Composer John Luther Adams was friend and collaborator of Lopez for nearly four decades He says Lopez’s writing serves as a wake-up call. 

“He surveys the beauty of the world and at the same time, the cruelty and violence that we humans inflict on the Earth and on one another, and he does it with deep compassion,” Adams says

Lopez experienced that cruelty firsthand: As a child he was sexually abused by a family friend. He first wrote about it in 2013, and he later told NPR the experience made him feel afraid and shameful around other people. The animals he encountered in the California wilderness offered something different. 

“They didn’t say ‘oh we know what you went through,'” he said. “I felt accepted by the animate world.”

Lopez would spend his life writing about that world — in particular the damage done to it by climate change.

It’s so difficult to be a human being. There are so many reasons to give up. To retreat into cynicism or despair. I hate to see that and I want to do something that makes people feel safe and loved and capable.

That hit home for Lopez this past September. Much of his property was burned in wildfires that tore through Oregon, partly due to abnormally dry conditions. His wife Debra Gwartney says he lost an archive that stored most of his books, awards, notes and correspondence from the past 50 years, as well as much of the forest around the home. 

“He talked a lot about climate change and how it’s so easy to think that it’s going to happen to other people and not to you,” she says. “But it happened to us, it happened to him personally. The fire was a blow he never could recover from.”

When I spoke to Lopez last year, he said he always sought to find grace in the middle of devastation. 

“It’s so difficult to be a human being. There are so many reasons to give up. To retreat into cynicism or despair. I hate to see that and I want to do something that makes people feel safe and loved and capable.”

In his last days, Lopez’s family brought objects from his home to him in hospice. Among the items: the beaver sticks from his studio.


Barry Lopez, Lyrical Writer Who Was Likened to Thoreau, Dies at 75


Mr. Lopez spent five years in the Arctic, and his books, essays and short stories explored the kinship of nature and human culture.

Barry Lopez in Point Reyes, Calif., in 2008. He embraced landscapes and literature with humanitarian, environmental and spiritual sensibilities that some likened to those of Thoreau and John Muir.
Barry Lopez in Point Reyes, Calif., in 2008. He embraced landscapes and literature with humanitarian, environmental and spiritual sensibilities that some likened to those of Thoreau and John Muir.Credit…Peter DaSilva

By Robert D. McFadden

  • Dec. 26, 2020

Barry Lopez, a lyrical writer who steeped himself in Arctic wildernesses, the habitats of wolves and exotic landscapes around the world for award-winning books that explored the kinship of nature and human culture, died on Friday while at his home in Eugene, Ore. He was 75.

His wife, Debra Gwartney, confirmed his death on Saturday and said Mr. Lopez had had prostate cancer. She said the family had been living in a temporary home in Eugene since September after their longtime riverfront home in McKenzie, Ore., was consumed by a wildfire.

In a half-century of travel to 80 countries that generated nearly a score of nonfiction and fiction works, including volumes of essays and short stories, Mr. Lopez embraced landscapes and literature with humanitarian, environmental and spiritual sensibilities that some critics likened to those of Thoreau and John Muir.

He won the National Book Award (nonfiction) for “Arctic Dreams” (1986), a treatise on his five years with Inuit people and solitude in a land of bitter cold and endless expanses, where he found that howling storms could craft mirages — a hunter stalking a grizzly bear that, as he approaches, turns into a marmot, or a polar bear that grows wings and flies away: only a snowy owl.

“It treats the distant snowy world of the Arctic as a place that exists not only in the mathematics of geography, but also in the terra incognita of our imaginations,” Michiko Kakutani said in a review of “Arctic Dreams” in The New York Times. “For Mr. Lopez, it is a land where ‘airplanes track icebergs the size of Cleveland and polar bears fly down out of the stars,’ a land rich in imagery and metaphor.”

In the Canadian Arctic, Mr. Lopez was once engulfed in a blizzard of such intensity that it turned into a mystical experience: Three-dimensional space seemed to vanish all around him. He explained the science of it as a trick of light, but described the phenomenon and its deeper meaning in rhapsodic prose.

“There are no shadows,” he wrote. “Space has no depth. There is no horizon. The bottom of the world disappears. On foot, you stumble about in missed stair-step fashion. It is precisely because the regimes of light and time in the Arctic are so different that this landscape is able to expose in startling ways the complacency of our thoughts about land in general.”

The authors E.L. Doctorow, left, and Barry Lopez with their American Book Awards in 1986. Mr. Doctorow was honored for “World’s Fair,” and Mr. Lopez for “Arctic Dreams.”
The authors E.L. Doctorow, left, and Barry Lopez with their American Book Awards in 1986. Mr. Doctorow was honored for “World’s Fair,” and Mr. Lopez for “Arctic Dreams.”Credit…Susan Ragan/Associated Press

Raised and educated in Roman Catholic traditions, Mr. Lopez as a young man considered vocations as a priest or a Trappist monk. But, deciding to be a writer, he drifted away from the church, as he explained in an interview for this obituary, and starting in the late 1960s adopted a deep reverence for nature and its effect upon humanity.

“I can tell you in two words,” he said when asked about his motives for writing. “To help. I am a traditional storyteller. This activity is not about yourself. It’s about culture, and your job is to help.”

The Guardian put it this way in 2005: “Throughout his writings, Lopez returns to the idea that natural landscapes are capable of bestowing a grace upon those who pass through them. Certain landscape forms, in his vision, possess a spiritual correspondence. The stern curve of a mountain slope, a nest of wet stones on a beach, the bent trunk of a windblown tree: These abstract shapes can call out in us a goodness we might not have known we possessed.”LOVE LETTER: Your weekly dose of real stories that examine the highs, lows and woes of relationships.Sign Up

After a trip to Alaska to research wolves for a magazine assignment in 1976, Mr. Lopez devoted two years to a study of the history, lore, habitats and literature of wolves, reviled in myths as evil and hunted since the Dark Ages as bloodthirsty beasts. He interviewed scientists, trappers and native people in the American and Canadian Northwest. He even raised a wolf pup.

His book “Of Wolves and Men” (1978) was a National Book Award finalist and won the John Burroughs Medal and the Christopher Award. A history of man’s relationship with wolves, it separated fact from fiction in what critics called a cleareyed evaluation of a creature that has been superstitiously scapegoated and historically slaughtered nearly to extinction in regions of Europe and North America.

“In coming to terms with the difference between what we know and what we imagine about the wolf, Lopez has shed light on some painful truths about the human experience,” Whitley Strieber said in a review for The Washington Post. “By laying no blame while facing the tragedy for what it is, he has made what we have done to the wolf a source of new knowledge about man.”

Mr. Lopez’s fiction, a shelf of novels and short stories, reflected his humanist convictions, a blend of adventure, intimacy, ethics and identity. In “Crow and Weasel” (1990), a fable of long ago, “when people and animals spoke the same language,” two youngsters leave their plains tribe and come of age facing perils in the wilderness on a quest for wisdom.

“Light Action in the Caribbean” (2000) was a diverse collection of short stories bound by Mr. Lopez’s belief in the redemptive values of self-respect. In “Emory Bear Hands’ Birds,” an imprisoned Native American storyteller uses magic realism to evoke hope in fellow inmates. In the title story, a young woman gives a smug, materialistic yuppie his comeuppance in a Caribbean vacation paradise:

“The first bullet tore through his left triceps, the second, third, fourth and fifth hit nothing, the sixth perforated his spleen, the seventh and eighth hit nothing, the ninth hit the console, sending electrical sparks up, the tenth went through his right palm, the next four went into the air, the fifteenth tore his left ear away, the sixteenth ricocheted off the sixth cervical vertebra and drove down through his heart, exiting through his abdomen and lodging in his foot.”

Barry Lopez was born Barry Holstun Brennan in Port Chester, N.Y., on Jan. 6, 1945, the older of two sons of John Brennan and Mary Frances (Holstun) Brennan, who lived in Mamaroneck, N.Y., and worked in advertising. Barry’s brother, Dennis, was born in 1948, and the family moved to Reseda, Calif., then a semirural section of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley.

After a divorce in 1950, Mary Brennan taught home economics in high schools and a junior college. In 1955 she married Adrian Bernard Lopez, a businessman who adopted her sons. They both took the Lopez surname.

Barry’s mother encouraged his love of nature with trips to the Mojave Desert and the Grand Canyon. He attended a Roman Catholic grade school in the nearby Encino neighborhood.

When Barry was 11, the family moved to Manhattan, where he attended the Loyola School, a Jesuit institution, and was senior class president, graduating in 1962. He considered the priesthood but enrolled in the University of Notre Dame, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications in 1966 and a master’s in teaching in 1968. He also spent a month at a monastery in Kentucky but decided that a monastic life would be “too easy,” he told The Times.

In 1967, he married Sandra Jean Landers. They were divorced in 1998. In 2007, he married Debra Arleen Gwartney, who had four daughters: Amanda, Stephanie and Mary Woodruff and Mollie Harger; and a half brother, John Brennan, all of whom survive. His brother, Dennis, died in 2017.

Mr. Lopez lived in Finn Rock, Ore. He was a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine and wrote for many national publications. He taught at Columbia University, Eastern Washington University, the University of Iowa, Carleton College in Minnesota and Texas Tech University, where his works are archived.

His essay collection “About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory” (1998) explored landscapes around the world and in the mind.

“Lopez takes readers not only out of themselves to another place, but into themselves as well,” Sara Wheeler wrote in The Times. “He is much attracted to the rift that has opened between human society and nature, and, more specifically, to the theory that art can close it. He believes in the community of artists.”

Estrella de Navidad

Jupiter, its moons and Saturn visible from Trenton, Fla., on Monday night during the rare planetary conjunction. (Martin Wise/

estrella de conguntion

vio solsticio noche

nunca volvió a ver



Longer days will soon be upon us

Sunset over Cash Lake at Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge, Dec. 13 (Rex Block via Flickr)

By Justin GrieserDec. 20, 2020 at 7:22 a.m. MSTAdd to list

Winter may just be getting started, but our long, dark nights are about to turn a bit brighter. Monday is the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year in Earth’s Northern Hemisphere. On Tuesday, we’ll start gaining a few seconds of daylight again.

This year’s solstice, which arrives Monday at 5:02 a.m. Eastern, coincides with another special astronomical event: On Monday evening, Jupiter and Saturn will be in a rare planetary alignment, appearing closer together in the evening sky than they have in nearly 800 years. They won’t appear this close again until 2080.

Rare ‘double planet’ conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter to land on winter solstice

The visual proximity of the two giant planets offers a good reason to gaze skyward on the solstice. But if you miss the event (or clouds spoil the show), there’s still plenty to appreciate about the winter solstice in its own right.

What happens on the solstice?

On the December solstice, the sun appears directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, a line of latitude 23.5 degrees south of Earth’s equator. It’s as far south as the sun ever gets before starting its six-month journey northward again. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, we see the sun take its lowest and shortest path across the southern sky, which is why it’s dark for a good portion of the day.

The reason we have solstices, and seasons, is because the Earth doesn’t orbit the sun completely upright. Instead, our planet is tilted on its axis by about 23.5 degrees, which means one hemisphere receives more of the sun’s light and energy at different times of year.

On the December solstice, Earth's Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun. (NASA)
On the December solstice, Earth’s Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun. (NASA) 

On the winter solstice, the Northern Hemisphere leans away from the sun, and we receive much less direct sunlight. Meanwhile, the Southern Hemisphere is entering summer and people are enjoying their longest day of the year.

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Battleship Accident yesterday


Bodies of two backcountry skiers found in avalanche debris near Silverton ~ Colorado Sun

The skiers — 55-year-old Albert Perry and 51-year-old Dr. Jeff Paffendorf — were reported overdue and later found dead in an area known as “the Battleship,” which is southeast of Ophir PassPUBLISHED ON DEC 20, 2020

The Colorado Sun

An aerial shot of an avalanche near Silverton that killed two skiers on Saturday. (Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

The bodies of two backcountry skiers were found in avalanche debris near Silverton on Saturday. 

The skiers were reported overdue and later found dead in an area known as “the Battleship,” which is southeast of Ophir Pass. 

“In the dark from a helicopter, rescuers could see a large avalanche and ski tracks,” the Colorado Avalanche Information Center said in a preliminary report on the slide. “The two skiers were later found buried in the avalanche debris.”

The San Juan County Office of Emergency Management said an operation to recover the bodies was underway Sunday. The victims were identified as 55-year-old Albert Perry and 51-year-old Dr. Jeff Paffendorf. Both were from Durango.

The deaths come after a backcountry skier was killed in an avalanche near Crested Butte on Friday. The Crested Butte News identified the skier as Jeff Schneider, an avid backcountry skier known as “Schnoid.”

Schneider was the first person to die in a Colorado avalanche this snow season. 

Six people were killed in Colorado avalanches during the 2019-2020 snow season.

Officials have been worried about a surge in backcountry skiers this year because of the coronavirus crisis as people look for an alternative to crowded resorts. Money normally dedicated toward attracting tourists to Colorado has been rerouted for avalanche education as a result.

After three deaths in two days, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center on Sunday urged backcountry travelers to be vigilant

“One hundred and eight avalanches were triggered by people in the last week,” Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said in a written statement. “More people die in avalanches in Colorado than any other state, and this year conditions are especially dangerous. This is not the landscape-changing event we saw in March of 2019, but it is the weakest snowpack we’ve seen since 2012. People need to recognize we have unusual conditions and their usual practices may not keep them out of harm’s way. As we gain more snow in the coming weeks, avalanches could become even more dangerous.”


The outgoing administration is pushing through approval of corporate projects over the opposition of environmental groups and tribal communities.

The Oak Flat area of the Tonto National Forest, east of Phoenix. Under a Forest Service plan to create a copper mine, much of Oak Flat would be destroyed.
The Oak Flat area of the Tonto National Forest, east of Phoenix. Under a Forest Service plan to create a copper mine, much of Oak Flat would be destroyed.Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

By Eric Lipton

In Arizona, the Forest Service is preparing to sign off on the transfer of federal forest land — considered sacred by a neighboring Native American tribe — to allow construction of one of the nation’s largest copper mines.

In Utah, the Interior Department may grant final approval as soon as next week to a team of energy speculators targeting a remote spot inside an iconic national wilderness area — where new energy leasing is currently banned — so they can start drilling into what they believe is a huge underground supply of helium.

In northern Nevada, the department is close to granting final approval to construct a sprawling open-pit lithium mine on federal land that sits above a prehistoric volcano site.

And in the East, the Forest Service intends to take a key step next month toward allowing a natural gas pipeline to be built throughthe Jefferson National Forest in Virginia and West Virginia, at one point running underneath the Appalachian Trail.

These projects, and others awaiting action in the remaining weeks of the Trump administration, reflect the intense push by the Interior Department, which controls 480 million acres of public lands, and the Forest Service, which manages another 193 million acres, to find ways to increase domestic energy and mining production, even in the face of intense protests by environmentalists and other activists.

When he takes office on Jan. 20, Mr. Biden, who has chosen a Native American — Representative Deb Haaland, Democrat of New Mexico — to lead the Interior Department, will still have the ability to reshape, slow or even block certain projects.

Some, like the South Dakota uranium mine, will require further approvals, or face lawsuits seeking to stop them, like the planned helium drilling project in Utah. But others, like the lithium mine in Nevada, will have the final federal permit needed before construction can begin, and will be hard for the next administration to stop.

Whether they are the final word or not, the last-minute actions are just the latest evidence of how the far-reaching shift in regulatory policy under Mr. Trump has altered the balance between environmental concerns and business, giving substantial new weight to corporate interests.

Mr. Trump chose former industry executives to run major federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department, and industry executives and lobbyists who cycled in and out of government positions were granted substantial influence in setting regulations.

For four years, Mr. Trump’s team and its allies have raced to roll back federal rules intended to protect federal lands and the nation’s air and water, as well as other safety rules in agencies across the government. The changes were often made in direct response to requests from lobbyists and company executives who were major donors to Mr. Trump and frequent patrons at his hotels and resorts.

The final push on the mining and energy projects has come in part from senior Trump administration officials, including the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, a steel industry investor before joining Mr. Trump’s cabinet.

Mr. Ross’s calendar shows at least three appointments with top executives at Rio Tinto, the Australia-based mining giant backing the Resolution Copper mine planned for construction in Arizona next to the San Carlos Apache reservation. Mr. Ross also made a trip to the mine site this year.

“As far as I am concerned, this is an invasion by a foreign power,” said Wendsler Nosie Sr., a former San Carlos Apache tribal leader who is protesting against the copper mine in Arizona.
“As far as I am concerned, this is an invasion by a foreign power,” said Wendsler Nosie Sr., a former San Carlos Apache tribal leader who is protesting against the copper mine in Arizona .Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

“This is a disaster,” said Wendsler Nosie Sr., a former San Carlos Apache tribal leader who in recent weeks has been camping out at the proposed mine site inside the Tonto National Forest to protest the pending decision. 

Backers of these projects say they are committed to minimizing the effect on public lands, sacred Native American sites and wildlife. ………. what bullshit! rŌbert editorial

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Program expanding to map Colorado mountain snowpack ~ Aspen Journalism

By Heather Sackett December 7, 2020


This map shows the snowpack depth of the Maroon Bells in spring 2019. The map was created with information from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory, which will help water managers make more accurate streamflow predictions.

Front Range water providers are hoping to expand a program that uses a new technology they say will revolutionize water management in Colorado. But for now, the expensive program isn’t worth it for smaller Western Slope water providers.

The Northern Colorado Water Conservation District is seeking state grant money to expand the Colorado Airborne Snow Observatory program. The ASO program uses remote-sensing lasers on airplanes known as LiDAR, which stands for light detection and ranging, to precisely measure snow depth and density.

The technology creates a much clearer picture of how much water is contained in the snowpack and has been used in pilot studies in the Gunnison River basin and for Denver Water.

But these flights have been scattered and lack consistent funding. A geographically expanded program with consistent funding would revolutionize water management in Colorado, according to the grant application.

“This technology is kind of a no-brainer when it comes to helping us understand what water we have to work with each year,” said Laurna Kaatz, the climate science, policy and adaptation program manager for Denver Water. “We know ASO adds value and is kind of the game-changer in water management.”

Denver Water, which provides water to 1.4 million people along the Front Range, is the ASO expansion project manager, while Northern Water is the fiscal agent. The Colorado, South Platte, Metro, Gunnison and Arkansas basin roundtables have each committed $5,000 toward the project.

The project would not fund the flights themselves but would be used to develop an expanded, collaborative, well-funded plan to identify which basins to fly each year.

Photo courtesy of Quantum Spatial

A flight from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory gathers data about the snowpack above Dillon Reservoir on a June 24, 2019 flight. Information gathered from the flight helped Denver Water manage reservoir operations in spring 2019.

SNOTEL limitations

Important data points that water managers and streamflow forecasters use for measuring snowpack — and the water contained in that snowpack, known as snow-water equivalent (SWE) — are snow-telemetry (SNOTEL) sites, a network of remote sensing stations throughout Colorado’s mountainous watersheds that collect weather and snowpack information. But they provide just a snapshot of conditions at one location.

“A large amount of SWE is in that high-elevation snow band, which doesn’t get captured by the SNOTEL program,” said Steve Hunter, utilities resource managers for the city of Aspen.

In the spring of 2019, Denver Water learned just how valuable ASO technology is in predicting runoff. Data from a June ASO flight showed there was about 114,000 acre-feet of water in the snow above Dillon Reservoir, Denver Water’s largest storage pool, even though SNOTEL sites, at about 11,000 feet, registered as melted out already. The water provider increased outflows from Dillon so they could make room for the coming snowmelt and avoid downstream flooding.

“I think this is going to revolutionize water management in the West,” Kaatz said. “If you have the ability to have more information and we know that it’s accurate information, it is gold in the water industry.”

Jeffrey Deems/ASO, National Snow and Ice Data Center

This map shows the snowpack depth of Castle and Maroon valleys in spring 2019. Colorado water managers are hoping to expand NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory program with state grant money, which will help water managers make more accurate streamflow predictions.

Expensive technology

ASO technology was developed by NASA and researchers at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. But the technology is expensive — between $100,000 and $200,000 per flight, according to Kaatz — and still not worth it for smaller Western Slope municipal water providers who don’t have to carefully coordinate the operation of large reservoirs.

The city of Aspen and the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District are part of the collaborative workgroup helping to create the ASO program expansion plan. Other entities include Colorado Springs Utilities, city of Fort Collins, city of Boulder, city of Greeley, Thornton Water, Pueblo Water, Aurora Water, city of Westminster, Ruedi Water Power and Authority, and the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

Hunter said more data is better when it comes to managing Aspen’s water supply, which comes from Castle and Maroon creeks. The city is trying to install a SNOTEL site and another stream gauge in its watershed. Hunter said the collaborative workgroup has also been exploring ways to sustainably fund an expanded ASO program.

“Airborne measurements of both snow depth and density to come up with your SWE is a great alternative, but it’s cost prohibitive,” Hunter said. “If they have this great technology but nobody can use because nobody can afford it, that doesn’t help anybody.”

Water managers for Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, which supplies water to the Vail Valley, said that although they are participating in the workgroup meetings and find the science interesting and useful, the expense is not something they can bite off right now. Their reservoirs are small and mostly used for augmentation, not to supply municipal water.

“I think there’s value in the whole system and understanding the water that’s available,” said Len Wright, the senior water resources engineer for Eagle River Water & Sanitation District. “But we don’t have anything that would justify the expense right now.”

Northern Water and Airborne Snow Observatories, Inc. will each contribute $5,000 worth of in-kind services to the project. Also, Denver Water will contribute $10,000 in-kind and the collaborative workgroup will give $24,000 of in-kind services. The Colorado Water Conservation Board is being asked for $20,000 from the statewide Water Supply Reserve Fund account and is scheduled to consider the grant application at its March meeting.