2012 brought drought, tragedies and marijuana to Routt County | SteamboatToday.com

2012 brought drought, tragedies and marijuana to Routt County

Wildfires, drought, low flows in the Yampa River and below-average snowfall were just a few of the issues that dominated the Routt County news cycle in 2012 and served as a reminder of how much Northwest Colorado depends on water.

— From a wintertime snow shortage to a summertime drought and extended wildfire season, 2012 served as a constant reminder of how much Northwest Colorado depends on water.

"We need that reminder every once in awhile to keep the conversations going about how wisely we are using water," Routt County CSU Extension agent Todd Hagenbuch said Friday when asked to reflect on 2012.


Mother Nature was the one who determined the most consequential news stories of the past year.

Steamboat Ski Area set several records during the 2011-12 ski season. To start things off, the ski area announced Feb. 16 that the price of a walk-up lift ticket would surpass $100 for the first time. The $105 ticket price came on the heels of a disappointing start to the season with only 38.5 inches of snow in November, 24.5 in December and 39 in January.

Things turned around later in February when the ski area reported 27 inches of snow at midmountain — the most on record in a 24-hour period. A series of storms helped the month finish strong with 93 inches.

At the end of the season, the ski area reported a snowfall total of 228 inches, the fourth-worst winter since record keeping began in 1979.

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With the help of some creative trail maintenance, the ski area managed to make it to its April 15 Closing Day. It was unclear April 2 whether that would be possible after the lower mountain was closed and skiers had to download on the gondola.

An early end to wintry weather delighted mountain bikers when local trails dried out sooner than typical, but the mood quickly shifted to concern as the dry spell continued, river flows declined and vegetation dried.

The wildfire season got an early start March 15, when an agricultural burn got out of control. That scenario repeated itself throughout the season, with 35 human-caused fires reported by early November. No structures were destroyed.

Strict fire restrictions went into effect in late June across Routt County. Campfires were not allowed, and residents were forbidden from using charcoal grills. With wildfire fears rampant, the annual July 4 fireworks display was canceled and Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins grounded the annual Hot Air Balloon Rodeo on July 7 and 8.

With the exceptional drought conditions, things could have been a lot worse.

"I definitely think we dodged a bullet," West Routt Fire Protection District Chief Bryan Rickman said in November when reflecting on the fire season.

Dry conditions across the valley also forced wildlife into town to look for food. As usual, bears found ways to get into trouble during the spring and summer. Images of a bear falling from a tree along Pine Street in May in Old Town Steamboat Springs went viral on the Internet and TV stations throughout the country.

As river flows continued to decline into summer, residents and business owners throughout the Yampa Valley were affected.

"It touched everyone," Hagenbuch said.

Water restrictions were enacted to ensure an adequate supply was maintained in area reservoir.

"People considered how long they had the water on when they brushed their teeth," Hagenbuch said.

To protect the health of the Yampa River, a voluntary recreation closure — including fishing, tubing and other water sports — was put in place for most of the summer, taking into account river flow and water temperature.

Things began to turn around in December, when area snow measuring sites neared their historical averages for snow-water equivalent. With 135.75 inches of snow this season at the ski area, everyone is hoping enough moisture falls this winter to keep the area from experiencing a prolonged drought.

"My attitude has surely improved these last two weeks," Hagenbuch said.


While stories related to drought dominated headlines this past year, they were not the stories that readers found most interesting. As is typical, stories related to tragedies drew the most interest.

The most-viewed article on SteamboatToday.com in 2012 was about 24-year-old Tyler Lundstedt, of Fort Collins, who died in an avalanche in January on Buffalo Pass. His younger brother Jordan Lundstedt survived the slide.

The tragic deaths of Larry and Chris Appel on April 11 were the No. 2 most-viewed story. Investigators think Larry Appel shot his wife of 42 years before taking his own life at their rural Routt County home.

At No. 3 was the story identifying the victims of a Feb. 19 plane crash at Yampa Valley Regional Airport. Passenger Gaby Humpal and pilot Hans Vandervlugt died, and four others survived.

At No. 19 was a high-profile, attempted-murder case that came to a close in April when Robert Cash was sentenced to 38 years in prison. A jury found him guilty of attempting to murder his former wife by shooting her with a gun while she lay in bed and then leaving her for dead at their west Steamboat home.


In March, a group of local men, including Olympian Johnny Spillane, unveiled its vision for an off-reservation casino near Yampa Valley Regional Airport. Community meetings were held, but the project lost some steam Sept. 18, when the Governor's Office announced it was not supportive of the plan. The partnership continues to move forward with the hope of finding an Indian tribe to own the casino and getting federal approval.

In September, TIC Holdings, the national contracting firm that was founded in Steamboat Springs in 1974, announced it was moving its Steamboat personnel and operations to the Front Range by the end of 2013.

At about the same time, Steamboat received some good news when SmartWool started its $1.45 million remodel of its offices in the Steamboat Springs Airport terminal. "We're not leaving," SmartWool President Mark Satkiewicz said in October. "I can't envision SmartWool not being in Steamboat."

A trio of Steamboat companies — Honey Stinger, Big Agnes and BAP — also are trying to guarantee its future in the Yampa Valley. Owner Bill Gamber is in the process of purchasing the downtown emergency services building, but the city has to decide where to move the firefighters and police officers that use the building.

In other city politics, Jon Roberts resigned as city manager after being with the city for nearly four years.


Heading into the fall, the November presidential election grabbed the attention of most of the country. In Colorado, Amendment 64 gained the approval of 55 percent of voters and legalized possession of less than once ounce of marijuana for those 21 and older.

The issue surely will make many more appearances on the front pages of newspapers as Colorado decides how to regulate pot shops and the federal government decides how to respond to the new law.

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com