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Tony Vagneur: Whether grazing or mining, the West was worn down by expansion

Like all things disastrous, it started slowly before building to a great crescendo that no one had any control over. Cattle were king of the West in those days, 1870 to 1885. Money flowed in from Europe and eastern investors sent fistfuls of green to the cattle barons of the day. Herd sizes increased exponentially and the U.S. had some of the largest cattle herds seen anywhere in the world.

There were no fences, at least not to define property boundaries, and anyone with enough wherewithal to put together a herd had vast expanses on which it could graze. Big operations, the ones attracting big investors, kept rounding up and buying more cattle and were never sure exactly how many quadruped bovines they actually had.

They just kept turning them out into those wide-open spaces, rounding them up only when needed for branding or market. The result, naturally, was that in many cases they overloaded the available pasturage, making overgrazing a serious but mostly unrecognized problem.

To be fair, very few at the time had enough sophistication or knowledge to fully understand the issue so, in general, there wasn't any alarm to be raised about overgrazing. It was a fatal partnership between greed and ignorance that led to destructive land practices.

Cool summers and mild winters had made cattle ranching fairly easy, and there always seemed to be plenty of winter forage to keep fat cattle alive through the winter, but all of that changed from 1886 to 1887.

The spring of 1886 was very dry, with very little rain, retarding the growth of grass, and a scorching hot summer burned up what little fodder there was. By November, it started snowing almost every day, covering up whatever feed was left.

Cattle already were starving and dying when Jan. 9, 1887, rolled around, bringing with it a blizzard of immense proportions. It snowed an inch an hour, propelled forward by high-powered winds on top of the already deep snow, and the temperature plummeted to 35 below and then 50 and then, in some areas, to 65 degrees below zero.

Death's door had already opened for thousands of cattle by the time the blizzard hit, and it didn't take long for weakened animals to die from exposure, starvation, or to simply freeze to death on the spot. Cattle looking for relief traveled with the raging winds, at least those who had the energy, and eventually found themselves trapped in drift-filled ravines, shallow rivers or trapped tight against drift fences, staggered haphazardly across parts of the Great Plains.

To add insult to injury, a warm chinook wind briefly blew through and, immediately after, temperatures plunged once again to the depths on the mercury scale. Now, surviving cattle and horses alike were forced to walk through deep snow with a frozen layer on top, which soon tore through skin and hide on the animal's legs, leaving them in tragic, bone-exposed condition.

There wasn't much to do but wait it out and hope your entire herd didn't succumb to the disastrous winter. When the spring warm-up came, the catastrophe was mind-wrenching. Between Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas millions of carcasses littered the land. It is estimated that as high as 90 percent of the then-existing cattle herds were wiped out by the blizzard.

It was the end of an era. Foreign and eastern investors were scared away and it became clear to the serious ranchers remaining that they needed to run smaller herds, needed to raise hay and grain for their cattle, and needed to set up legitimate ranch territories with a headquarters and fenced boundaries. The days of "before the wire" were over, the great trail drives extinguished. Except for some areas in California and northern New Mexico, overgrazing was fairly well put behind the cattle industry, although to this day some of the damage can still be seen.

Where once there were hundreds of thousands of cattle roaming the various territories without any obvious hold on the land, there were now hundreds of thousands of sheep continually grazing through the countrysides, particularly in Nevada, Idaho and New Mexico. Since they were always on the move in trans-human fashion, the cattle ranchers tolerated them reasonably well, although in the end, ranchers increasingly became reluctant to share their grass with the sheep men moving through the country.

This eventually led to the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, whose main tenant stipulated that to gain grazing rights on public land, the livestock owner must own private property at the base of the permitted area. This was an end to an interesting era in the sheep ranching business.

Rather than suffer lasting damage from sheep or cattle ranching, Pitkin County suffered at the hands of mining interests who ravaged her forests and mountainsides, and the professional hunters who extirpated the elk and deer populations in this area. No one in the West seems to walk away unscathed.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.

No more RFTA taxes

It's been reported in the press that a campaign is about to be funded and launched to try to convince Roaring Fork Valley taxpayers to approve a new mill levy to support the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority. Proponents use the word "only" to describe the purportedly minimal impact of such an addition to a homeowner's property tax bill.

Citizens already are taxed to support RFTA through a sales tax on virtually all your purchases. It's a bit here and a bit there so you might have overlooked it, and it's practically impossible to figure what it adds up to at the end of each and every year.

I can almost hear the thought process of those advocating a property tax mill levy: if you don't support being taxed, it must mean you don't care about the environment and don't favor mass transit. Don't fall for that. Most families make decisions about what they can afford given their financial resources. They certainly can't raise a tax so they can spend more.

While a public agency such as RFTA might like to do a number of additional things, don't forget that once a tax is created, it won't ever go away. I'm sure I'm not alone in stating that in the past three years alone, my property tax went up 52 percent, including a 53 percent increase in School District tax, 33 percent more for Crown Mountain Park, and a doubling for the Basalt Regional Library (even before the new library bond). Say "No" to more taxes.

Bob Hubbell

Carbondale

Guest commentary: Follow the money to health care’s undo administrative costs

Last year, the United States spent around $3.5 trillion on health care. As there are about 325 million of us, that comes to a bit over $10,000 per person.

Not only is that twice the per-person average that other industrialized countries spend, at around 18 percent it is also about twice the percentage of gross domestic product that those countries spend on health care. And they cover everyone.

According to data provided by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, a group of 36 countries working on economic and social issues, we are not getting our money's worth.

We pay the world's highest prescription drug prices. Our medical outcomes, such as maternal and infant mortality and our overall life expectancy, are worse than those of most other modern nations. Millions of Americans have no health care insurance, and millions more who have insurance either defer needed care or go bankrupt due to unaffordable deductibles and copayments. Where is all the money going, if not to good care?

Some experts point to our high prices as the culprit. They believe that price transparency and more competitive markets can solve our problems. Our prices are high, but there's an even larger elephant in the room, gobbling up a ton of money. In fact, it consumes close to one-third of all health care spending. That unproductive and ravenous elephant is administrative overhead.

How did we come to spend around $1 trillion a year on health care administration? There are many reasons, but the main ones are for-profit private insurance companies and a bureaucratic industry called managed care.

The overheads of private insurance companies average around 20 percent. Until reigned in by provisions in the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), many companies spent even more than that, on advertising, executive compensation, sales commissions, shareholder dividends, and routine claims processing, including denials and appeals. The overhead of Traditional Medicare is 2 percent to 3 percent, because all it does is process claims.

In the 1970s, as health care costs were rising everywhere, we in the United States tried to bring them under control through better management. We experimented with health maintenance organizations and hired physicians, nurses and case managers, to reduce hospital lengths of stay, deny treatments and otherwise micromanage health care. The result has been a slight improvement in some medical costs, but this has been accompanied by an enormous new managed care bureaucracy, spread among hospitals, physicians' offices and insurance companies. The cost of all this bloated administration accounts for that trillion dollars.

About the same time that we went in that direction, Canada implemented its single-payer national health care system, with private doctors and hospitals. By eliminating around half of the administrative overhead of a complex, multi-payer, for-profit insurance system, their percentage of GDP spent on health care remained fairly flat, while ours has continued to escalate. Their health outcome results are better than ours, and everyone is covered.

Multiple academic studies agree that we could cut our health care administrative overhead by around half by moving to a single-payer system, saving as much as $500 billion each year. We could save $100 billion more by negotiating prescription drug prices. That total amount is many billions more than it would cost to provide full health care insurance to everyone, with no deductibles or copayments. That amount is more than enough to pay negotiated prices for prescription drugs, as well as dental, vision and hearing care. Billions now spent each year on paperwork could be redirected to actual care.

How do we move the money around? There will be taxes, as you have no doubt heard. What you may not have heard is that for 95 percent of households, those taxes will be less than what they currently pay in insurance premiums, deductibles, copayments, prescription drugs and other components of health care. The only ones expected to pay more are those with annual incomes around $400,000 and higher. For the 99 percent, you would pay less and get more.

The simplest route to this goal is to expand and improve Medicare, a proven and efficient single-payer system. There may be some tradeoffs, but the greatest result would be improvement in our nation's health and the relief of much unnecessary physical and financial suffering.

Dr. George Bohmfalk practiced neurosurgery in Texas before retiring to spend half of each year in the Roaring Fork Valley. He is active in Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP.org), a physician-driven group advocating for a single-payer health care system. His series will appear in The Aspen Times on Fridays.

Marolt: The brilliant Mr. Hunt

Mark Hunt is the most brilliant person in Aspen. So long, Albert. Cast Mr. Hunt's bust and prop it up in Paepcke Park. I'm not kidding. The evidence is becoming inarguable.

His ascendency began modestly enough. Mr. Hunt bought, among a quiver of other properties downtown, the incredibly lousy, old, awkwardly angled, concrete building with a weird garden level that nobody wanted at 517 E. Hopkins Ave. for $10 million in 2014, according to assessor records. The experts said he got taken to the cleaners.

Four years later, he negotiated a contract to sell just the top floor and basement of a reimagination of that building for a whopping $23 million. I think you will have to admit that Mr. Hunt is at least smarter than the potential buyers who signed that contract, right? Well, that would be us, you and me, the Taxpaying Citizens of Aspen! Mr. Hunt is clearly ranked first in our class.

Sure, he will have to spend nearly $8 million to rebuild halfway decent offices for the city there, but that still leaves him with enough profit to about double his money. Plus, by agreement, he gets to keep the street-level retail part of the building, worth another not-so-small fortune. How can anyone argue that isn't brilliant?

You are certainly not going to discredit him by asking an appraiser. Randy Gold is one of the best and most respected in this town. He told the city that the building was worth somewhere in the range of $18 million to $20 million. In other words, Mr. Hunt got the city to sign a contract to buy the top floor and basement of a downtown Aspen building for $3 million to $5 million more than it is worth. That's almost magically brilliant!

Of course, there was the moment when this contract was on the verge of expiring where Mr. Hunt risked looking like the fool himself for even presenting such a preposterous idea. But, Mr. Hunt somehow convinced the city to ask him to extend the contract to which request he happily obliged and now looks more brilliant then ever! I am telling you, the dude is amazing!

But, that's not all. Mr. Hunt also talked us into buying 5,500 square feet of gorgeous rooftop space next door, above Lululemon for around $9.5 million. That's about $1,725 per square foot. To put that into layman's terms, that is what some penthouses have sold for.

Of course, we have no use for a penthouse in our government operations, so how did Mr. Hunt convince us? He told us it would be perfect for government offices! And, we fell for it. … Again. It is brilliant! Brilliant! Berrrriiiliantisimoso!!!, for the gibberish-speaking among us.

The backdrop to all of this is that we could build about 13,000 more square feet of city offices, to our exact specifications, on our own property for about $6 million less. The person who can convince us that this is a bad idea is far more brilliant than we.

There's more. A few years ago, you might recall, Mr. Hunt fell victim to a citizen's initiative that took the approval process out of City Hall and placed it in the voting booths. It resulted in the electoral defeat of Mr. Hunt's plan to build an affordable hotel with no parking. A victory for Aspen? Perhaps, but Pyrrhic most likely.

Brilliant people know to make windmills rather than shelters in a windstorm. Mr. Hunt is capitalizing on the voters' initiative getting these current, one-sided contracts out of City Hall's hands where in-house attorneys, planners and appraisers might eventually set things straight. Now, with the issue jammed into the ballot box, the city no longer has the wherewithal to back out of the very contracts they signed and extended. Brilliant!

Many voters see Mr. Hunt's plan as a means to limit construction downtown. They reason that, if we put city offices in buildings that Mr. Hunt is going to rebuild anyway, there will be no need to build on the city's Rio Grande land and, therefore, nobody will. I don't know where they got this idea, but whoever planted the seed was brilliant.

No sooner had that idea been cinched then Mr. Hunt began to somewhat quietly circulate the prospect of a new convention center being built on the Rio Grande site. It would host concerts, exhibitions, shows, outdoor markets and even skiing for the kiddies on a regraded slope from the top of the parking garage into Rio Grande Park. It would be fantastic for the town, he says. What he doesn't have to say is that it would be even better for the proud new owners of the commercial properties down there on North Mill Street.

Like I said, brilliant.

Roger Marolt thinks Mark Hunt is the smartest developer to hit our streets since J.B. Wheeler. Email at roger@maroltllp.com.

Patti Clapper a good choice for Pitkin County

Patti Clapper is a warrior for Pitkin County, there is no doubt in my mind that she will be re-elected for the fifth time. She is running undefeated, I believe this is due to her listening to what the community has to say (while being able to say how unrealistic some of those ideas are), by getting things done instead of just coming up with 'ideas', by taking initiative while others stand still and by moving mountains for what is right for our next generation (her grand babies and your children).

Too many people are not voting, now more than ever, because they feel their vote won't matter and change isn't happening anyway. Well, all I have to say is change won't happen if you are too lazy or stubborn to go out and vote for what you feel is right!

Election time is almost upon us and ballots will be mailed out next month, so please re-evaluate your choice and use your right to VOTE in this upcoming election…

Traci Turner

Glenwood Springs

Beware of parking at Clarks Market

We had a board meeting at Tiki Mana Restaurant in the Clarks Market area on September 19th. Our board meeting went through lunch and lasted 2 1/2 hours. Our lunch was delicious, but after departing our meeting two of us found that our cars had been booted. When we confronted Britt Queer, the boot guy, we informed him that we had spent a vast amount of money at lunch and that we had all been at Tiki Mana the entire time. We offered to have him speak to the restaurant employees to verify our time line, but this was to no avail. We could not convince him that actual CUSTOMERS SHOULD NOT BE BOOTED!

The boots on cars should only be for those who are NOT spending money at the Clarks Market center. So if you are having a long lunch with friends, or a meeting, or have lots of shopping to do, please note that after 90 minutes you will be booted and have to pay $200 per car! (In the off-season, no less!) This does not make any of us want to shop at any of the Clarks market stores, OR eat at the restaurants!

Tom Clark, please get this ridiculous 90 minute rule changed for those who are spending money in your shopping center and are able to prove such.

Catalina Cruz

Aspen

Use new online services for Motor Vehicle Department needs

Use new online services for Motor Vehicle Department needs

On behalf of the Pitkin County Motor Vehicle Department, I would like to thank the community for their patience and cooperation these past several weeks while we work through the Statewide Motor Vehicle systems conversion. All customers are encouraged to use the new user-friendly online service features at http://www.mydmv.colorado.gov to conduct the following services: Renew a vehicle registration, start a new title and registration, add/change vehicle address, request a personalized plate, replace a lost tab, request a duplicate title, apply for a disability placard, calculate a registration fee, search for title and registration history, request a title status, or print a prior transaction receipt.

With any conversion and change there are learning curves and continuous improvements which require time. As we advance through the new processes, our constituents will continue to experience long lines. Online services are convenient and save time, both with traveling and standing in lines! Thank you for using the new user-friendly online services!

Janice K. Vos Caudill

Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder

Outdoor Education program beneficial to student participants

It is impossible to heap too much praise on the Aspen School District's 8th Grade Outdoor Education program. As parents of a child who participated in this year's Outdoor Ed, we thank the visionaries who started the program and the hundreds of people have kept it going through this, its 51st year.

The kids learn more about themselves in one gritty week than a semester's worth of seminars or workshops could ever show them. To a person, anyone who has taken part recalls it as a seminal experience in their young lives. It is such an important program for kids to participate in and we hope it continues for many decades to come.

Jim McPhee

Aspen

Julie McCluskie committed to Colorado

I had the honor of serving as the Lt. Governor of Colorado from 2011 to 2016 and, during that time, I worked alongside Julie McCluskie, now a candidate for House District 61. She served as the Director of Communications and Community Outreach and I had the opportunity to witness her commitment to Colorado every single day. Our shared focus was education, from early childhood to post-graduate, and Julie led the way in helping to develop policies that served all kids and all families, regardless of where they lived or their family background. She traveled the state with me as we visited schools and libraries to raise awareness about the importance of early literacy and she helped formulate the policy that led to the passage of the READ Act to improve third grade literacy.

Julie was also a strong advocate for rural Colorado and her commitment to communities west of the continental divide was unwavering. She and her husband established a small business in Summit County decades ago and she has been active as a parent, a volunteer, and a school district employee. She has been an outstanding public servant and I hope the voters in her district will join me in supporting her election to the Colorado legislature. I can think of no individual better qualified to serve in that role.

Joe Garcia

Denver

Kudos to A Way Out symposium

I want to give an enormous thank you to our local non-profit A Way Out for putting on the symposium at the Jerome on Tuesday 9/18. This event hosted three experts in the field of addiction and provided lifesaving information for our community. I am grateful that organizations like A Way Out fundraise and put on these events to change the culture and patterns within our amazing community.

Kimberly Reil

Carbondale