The San Juan
Mountains men of southwestern Colorado can handle weapons. They hunt deer, elk
and bighorn sheep. They shoot down avalanches with howitzers. They dynamite
granite to make way for roads and mines. Those miners, ranchers, farmers and
townspeople of this recreational Utopia—all law-abiding citizens—are now
talking vigilantism. As one miner puts it: "If those weathermen screw up
life around here they may suddenly discover their equipment blown to
The weathermen in
this case are not armed SDS anarchists but federal Bureau of Reclamation
meteorologists out to seed local clouds with silver iodide. In October they
will begin mankind's biggest "precipitation augmentation" project on a
4,000-square-mile pilot area in the midst of prime hunting, fishing and
vacation land. Should the Project Skywater snowmaking program work, federal
officials will proceed to seed 14,000 square miles on the western slope of the
Colorado Rockies, over 13% of the state.
The Bureau of
Reclamation hopes that cloud seeding will increase the San Juan winter snowpack
by 20% to boost runoff into the Colorado River basin and meet growing Western
water demand. But the opinionated residents of the towns of Ouray, Ridgway,
Silverton, Lake City and Telluride oppose cloud seeding and counter scientific
expertise with lifetime experience. They insist extra snow will ruin hunting,
fishing, recreation, mining, ranching and farming, while increasing avalanche
and flood hazards.
thousands of sportsmen have relaxed in these mountains and millions of
moviegoers have visited them vicariously. The San Juans have made the classic
alpine backdrop for Hollywood hits like The Unsinkable Molly Brown and How the
West Was Won. This is where Paul Newman and Robert Redford played Butch Cassidy
and the Sundance Kid. Beneath these snowcapped 14,000-foot peaks John Wayne
accomplished his Oscar-winning portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.
Inside the Bureau
of Reclamation's 14-story Denver headquarters, Project Skywater chief Archie
Kalian sympathizes with the restless natives: "When you develop a new
technology like this, there are bound to be people problems. Frankly we share
the residents' concern for the environment; that's a primary reason for this
pilot project. We're trying to find out how precipitation augmentation affects
the ecology of this region."
But the San Juan
residents argue that Colorado's worst avalanche region (eight people have been
killed by slides over the past 12 years) is no place for snow-making
experiments. This spring the Bureau of Reclamation decided to underscore its
good faith by postponing seeding in the sector where nearly all of the San
Juans' 3,000 residents live. But seeding is still scheduled for next fall for
the remaining three-quarters of the pilot area and opponents insist winds will
push the pregnant clouds and extra snow into their backyards.
Jorgensen, editor of the Ouray County Plaindealer, says, "We'd feel a lot
happier about cloud seeding if the Bureau of Reclamation learned how to turn
off natural snowfall before beginning to turn so much more on." She and her
neighbors feel that natural winters are hard enough right now. For example,
this past winter was a bad one. More than 358 inches of snow fell on the
region. Avalanches killed a father of seven, cut off access to mines and
isolated Silverton for several days. Heavy snowpack hurt fall hunting, spring
fishing and summer jeep touring. The big snow also destroyed some oat and
sugar-beet crops and inundated pasture land during the spring runoff.
If cloud seeding
predictably produced this kind of winter many sportsmen and tourists would
think twice about the San Juans. Last year when Ridgway guide Kirk Boyd
attempted to lead hunters to his 13,000-foot camp, fall snows blocked his way.
"We tried," he says, "to pack in on horseback four times but the
snow was just too deep."
Kuboske agrees: "The hunting was terrible last October. Usually the high
country is thick with elk. But we didn't see one last fall. The snow hit the
first of October and the elk and the deer just moved out."
too, that cloud seeding could easily affect his summer income. Ouray is to
jeepsters what Oahu is to surfers. And Kuboske's San Juan Scenic Jeep Tour
carries thousands each summer on daylong trips to Telluride and Lake City. When
heavy snowpack blocks the best routes, tourists are forced to settle for
three-hour trips that stop far short of the scenic highpoints.