COLORADO SPRINGS, CO - After visiting the site of one of Colorado's devastating forest fires in June, Gov. Bill Owens made one of those rhetorical overstatements to the press that it appeared all of Colorado was on fire.
You could hear the collective crashes of Colorado tourism executives and spokespersons as they fell out of their chairs.
Way to go Bill, tell people all over the world that there's no reason to come to Colorado this summer. We are on fire. You can't breathe, it is so smoky. It's not even Cool Colorado, it's Hot Colorado. The blue skies are gray and the purple mountains are gray.
That's not exactly true, folks. Colorado's beauty is only slightly smoke damaged.
The state's $7 billion-a-year tourism industry was already in trouble like everyone else after September 11. And Owens' statement certainly didn't help.
A Colorado Congressman tried to set things straight. On June 18, the same day folks living around Perry Park Country Club near Larkspur were being evacuated because of the massive Hayman fire, Mark Udall stood up on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and declared:
"Mr. Speaker, I rise to announce that Colorado is open for business! Recently, my great State of Colorado has been the focus of a lot attention because of the fires. However, the fires are burning only in one-percent of the state and much of our beautiful state has not been affected by fire."
"Many people associate Colorado with winter sports like skiing and snowboarding, but there is no where on Earth during the summertime like Colorado. Our state is home to fifty-three 14,000-foot peaks that are ready to be conquered, creeks and rivers ripe for fishing or rafting, numerous golf courses (about 250) and mountain bike and hiking trails," Udall proclaimed.
That same day, Dennis Hogan, the Director of Golf and part-owner of The Golf Club at Bear Dance (at right), just five miles to the east of Perry Park Country Club, was watching a moderate amount of ash fall from the sky on his green fairways.
Hogan, a past president of the Southwest PGA Section, said it was one scary sight.
"I'm just hoping and praying I'll have a place of business to come back to tomorrow," Hogan said.
He did. Thankfully, the weather turned cooler and a slight amount of rain fell, helping the firefighters draw containment lines protecting Bear Dance and Perry Park from the Hayman fire.
Meanwhile, Colorado's resorts are getting call after call from folks all over the country asking about the fires. Many resorts have "fire updates" on their web sites and The Broadmoor, the legendary five-star resort, has even installed a webcam on their West Tower for prospective visitors to check out.
"In response to the many calls The Broadmoor has been receiving concerning fire-related weather conditions in Colorado Springs, and specifically at the resort, a live webcam was introduced on The Broadmoor's website. Potential guests to the resort and to Colorado Springs now have a way to view weather in real-time pictures. Images are updated every three minutes," said Allison Scott, Director of Communications for The Broadmoor.
The Broadmoor's web camera shows Cheyenne Lake and the recently renovated ($75 million) historic Broadmoor buildings. Live webcam coverage is located at www.Broadmoor.com on the homepage just under the "Make a Reservation" icon on the right of the page. Future plans include at least one more webcam to be located on Broadmoor Main facing the lake, golf course and Cheyenne Mountain.
"We are thrilled to be able to offer Colorado visitors a way to see us as we really are," Ms. Scott said. "It's important to remember while the fires are certainly a tragic event, and one that has even affected some of our own employees living in the fire zone, Colorado Springs - and most of Colorado is open for business."
"The biggest part of our challenge is explaining that all of Colorado is not on fire, particularly to travelers on the East Coast. Colorado is a big state. Our immediate objective is containment, with the ultimate goal of putting our tourism 'fires' out," Ms Scott said.
Visit The Broadmoor today and you would never know there's a drought. Only a slight haze in the air reminds you of the fires burning throughout the west. And even though The Broadmoor is on a reduced watering schedule, you would never know it. The classic Donald Ross East Course and Robert Trent Jones West Course look plush and green as they always do.
But that's not the story elsewhere in Colorado. They are out of water at Grandote Peaks Golf Club in La Veta, where the Cucharas River running though the course is dry. Wayne Smith, the course superintendent, and his staff are having to haul water in from nearby Walsenburg to douse the greens.
The fairways are brown, and to Grandote Peaks' credit, the website tells prospective golfers about the conditions: "The greens are in good shape and holding shots nicely. The tees are thin and firm and the fairways are now dormant. But the Kentucky Blue grass is very resilient and will improve with some future rain."
Looking for a positive, with brown and firm fairways, the website also says you will feel like John Daly or Laura Davies off the tees.
The drought is the worst in 100 years, Bear Dance's Hogan said. "Normally we have 23 inches of annual rainfall and through the first six months of the calendar year, we have almost zero."
Fortunately, Bear Dance has two deep wells to draw from, but without significant rain, just how long can deep wells last?
Most golf courses these days use non-potable or effluent water. At Castle Pines, home of The International, there's plenty of reclaimed water, but deep rough suitable for a PGA Tournament needs steady rain to thicken. The tournament is less than a month away.
Cold winter temperatures and strong spring winds took needed moisture from the ground at Colorado Springs' munys Patty Jewett and Valley Hi. So even with the use of non-potable water, Director of Golf Dal Lockwood says drenching rains are needed to flush the salts out of the roots and erase the winter-kill brown spots on the courses.
That sentiment is echoed at places like The Air Force Academy north of Colorado Springs and Westminster's Heritage at Westmoor and Legacy Ridge in the Denver suburbs. These golf courses also use non-potable water for irrigation, which is not suitable for drinking, but some purifying processes deem it fine for golf courses, baseball diamonds and soccer fields.
The sustained drought in the southwest will no doubt kill some plans for golf courses, too. In far south-central Colorado, Melby Ranch's golf course in a 35-acre ranchette development in the San Luis Valley, was recently axed because of a lack of a sufficient water source.
Finally, let's talk about environmentalists. How do we manage forests, fires and water? No one loves a clear-cut forest, but when tree-huggers chain themselves to trees, what comes to mind? Forest Service employees love to walk up to these folks and ask: "What's your house made of? Does it have any wood in it?" Average people would like to see a middle ground - you have to cut some trees, but don't level the forest.
Some of the forest fires today are worse because the environmentalists lobby to keep untouched, pristine areas - places that haven't been thinned out of the heavy undergrowth for decades. The result is a flammable forest.
Well, now we have the water conservationists speaking up during this drought, as well they should. One such person, writer Kristen Davenport is "seething" over all the new golf courses being built in New Mexico. She says golf courses are wasting water and she reports that one has been watering in the middle of the afternoon, when it is least effective because of evaporation.
If that's true, report them. But most golf courses are being responsible. They are on a reduced watering schedule, they are using their own wells and many, if not most courses use reclaimed water.
This is serious business. Water Police are out in the neighborhoods of drought-stricken states. If they see violators of water restrictions, there's a first-time warning, then a heavy fine.
And remember Kristen, when you brush your teeth, don't keep the water running through the entire process. Please turn off the water in between rinsings. Just another way you can save water.
Log on to these sites to track any fires burning in Colorado: www.colorado.com, www.coloradoparks.org, www.fs.fed.us and www.dot.state.co.us.
July 2, 2002