Letters from the West

Resilient Sun Valley shows how to face change

As much as any community in Idaho, Ketchum, Hailey and Sun Valley have seen the effects of climate change up close and personal.

Twice, in 2007 and 2013, big wildfires have burned up to their doorsteps, threatening hundreds of millions of dollars in homes, canceling summer events and traumatizing residents for days. The snow didn’t fall in the winter of 2013-14, decimating the snow sports season. Mudslides came in 2014.

Yet for all these natural disasters, Blaine County’s economy is booming. Buildings is going up in downtown Ketchum, with a crane towering over a motel under construction on Main Street.

Obviously, having lots of rich homeowners paying lots of property taxes to finance roads, bridges, schools, firefighters, police and other services helps. But the adaptability of the residents, businesses, local governments and churches, hospitals and other institutions allowed the Wood River Valley to shrug off these challenges, along with the global recession.

Such resilience is going to be increasingly important as the pace and scale of change increases.

The size and ferocity of fires in Idaho has steadily increased over the past 30 years, and scientists say fire seasons will contiue to get hotter, drier and longer. The snowpack across the state, and in Sun Valley, is decreasing as winters get shorter and warmer, even as precipitation remains about the same.

Sun Valley has about seven days a season where temperatures midway up the mountain are so warm the resort can’t make snow, said Sun Valley Community Development Director Jay Hill. A 2-degree shift, which climate scientists predict, would increase that number to 25 days.

At the ski resort’s base, warmer conditions would reduce the days for making snow by two months. That’s going to force the resort and, frankly, ski hills across the West to increase the number of services they offer higher up on the mountains to be able to serve skiers and stay competitive in coming decades.

Hill spoke at a forum put on by the Sun Valley Institute on Resilience earlier this week. He warned that there could be a time in the future when it’s too warm to ski for most of the winter. That’s a frightening thought, but one community planners like him have to consider.

So, how can the community survive? Ketchum-Sun Valley present a model of resilience the rest of Idaho can learn from.

Sun Valley became a four-season resort. When I was there this week, it was packed. By putting on events and marketing the shoulder seasons, the valley has filled in its economic gaps. It’s benefited from real estate development for second and third homes for people who not only love to ski, but who also love to bike, golf, hike, ride, fish and enjoy the wildness that surrounds them.

The uncertain climate future has Hill and others in the region thinking creatively. They look to a resilience strategy to shift to a place-based economy that is not dependent on tourism.

They aren’t alone, and they are ready to partner with their neighbors in surrounding counties to expand their vision.

It was Stanley’s city leaders who came up with the idea of promoting the region’s unique darkness.

That’s right, central Idaho has so little development, in part because it is encircled by so much wilderness, that the star-filled night sky we all love is a new resource. Eighty percent of the world’s population can’t see the Milky Way because those people live where there is too much light at night.

Stanley’s leaders have gotten Blaine County and other groups to join them in calling for regional designation as an International Dark Sky Association Reserve. The global organization hosts star-gazing parties worldwide and promotes the protection of these reserves, which have “exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights” and a nocturnal environment “specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural, heritage and/or public enjoyment.”

The path of the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017, will include Stanley’s area of darkness. That could bring people from all over the world to experience it in as dark a place as they will find.

“Someone said we want to put the sun back in Sun Valley,” Hill said. “Actually, in this case, we want to take it out.”

Thinking outside the box is not an attribute you would ascribe to the Idaho Legislature. Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said it’s Idaho’s local governments that are the most adaptable and resilient.

Her advice to her colleagues: Empower the people closest to the challenges ahead, and allow them to lead. These are the people who already are showing they can find a way to cope with a changing climate.

Listen to them as we figure out what Idaho needs to do about our 700 bridges that are deemed unsafe, our aging and inadequate water and sewer systems, and an energy grid that is increasingly insecure. Our future is going to take all the creativity and imaginative we can tap.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker