SI Vault
Some tough Westerners say: 'No snow job for us!'
Roger Rapoport
June 29, 1970
The Bureau of Reclamation plans to seed the Colorado clouds to get more snow; natives are saying they have too much of the white stuff now
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
June 29, 1970

Some Tough Westerners Say: 'no Snow Job For Us!'

The Bureau of Reclamation plans to seed the Colorado clouds to get more snow; natives are saying they have too much of the white stuff now

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

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 bits."

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.

Hundreds of 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.

Mrs. Joyce 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."

Ouray's Francis 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."

Kuboske says, 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.

Continue Story
1 2