The newsmakers of 2012 – the top five |

The newsmakers of 2012 – the top five

The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Editor’s note: Monday and today The Aspen Times, in continuing a tradition started nine years ago, takes a look at the biggest local newsmakers of 2012. Today, we publish our selections of the spots one through five, along with a special note of those we lost in 2012.

The winter of 2011-12 started with promise when an early snowstorm blew into Colorado in October and covered many mountain areas with a thick coat of snow. The early snowfall proved to be a tease.

Enough snow fell to allow Aspen Skiing Co. to open slopes early, but December and January were dry. Winter was essentially compressed into February, the one month with close-to-average snowfall. In March, the mercury soared, the sun blazed and locals’ minds wandered to the desert.

April, May and June were warmer and drier than average in the Roaring Fork Valley. The effects were wide-ranging. Wildfire danger soared. Some ranchers with junior water rights on historic ditches couldn’t irrigate. Hay crops were stunted for lack of rain. The rafting season provided only a hint of a normal year. Fish populations were stressed by low streamflows and high temperatures. The insects they feed on were likely reduced. Wetlands along rivers and streams were significantly drier.

The typical monsoon weather pattern revved up in July but that was too late for many ranchers. Hay yields were generally down 50 percent. Hay prices soared as a result. Colorado hay sold for $300 per ton in October 2012 compared to $90 to $110 per ton the prior year.

The rivers and streams never recovered from the lack of snowpack. The Roaring Fork River near Aspen was reduced to 50 cubic feet per second on Aug. 12. The historical median flow for that date is 69 cfs.

The Crystal River managed just 20 cfs on Aug. 12. The historical median flow for that date is 240 cfs.

Conditions haven’t eased much, despite decent snowfall in the Aspen area around Christmas. A look at a Colorado map on the U.S. Drought Monitor website shows the state covered in colors that aren’t good to see. Nearly all the state is in the grips of severe or extreme drought.

The snowpack on Independence Pass was 65 percent of average as of Friday, Dec. 28, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Total precipitation since Oct. 1, 2011 – the start of the water year – was only 60 percent of average.

While there is still plenty of winter left, the forecast for the start of 2013 shows little promise. State Climatologist Nolan Doesken noted in an Associated Press story that early 2013 doesn’t include much moisture for Colorado.

– Scott Condon

Probably the biggest – perhaps the blandest, some might argue – local-government issue of 2012 was the debate over the city of Aspen’s proposed hydroelectric facility on Castle Creek.

All year long, and well before that, critics of the proposal fired off letters to newspapers and federal regulatory agencies that painted the project as a waste of taxpayer money and a severe threat to the health of Castle and Maroon creeks, which would have fed the plant.

They flooded public meetings designed to shed light on the project’s benefits, taking issue with estimates that the plant would pay for itself in the long run as well as claims that there would be no environmental harm to the streams’ ecosystems. City officials tried to allay their concerns, providing financial projections, quoting scientific studies and setting up project safeguards in an effort to convince the community that the city and the plant would be good stewards of the environment.

In the end – late in the fourth quarter of the game, one could say – the offensive juggernaut mounted by the critics overwhelmed the city’s defense, and an advisory question that asked voters whether the city should be allowed to spend more than $3 million to finish the $10.5 million project narrowly failed in the Nov. 6 election.

Just who were the newsmakers associated with controversy, which stirred government critics, insiders and observers over much of 2011 and 2012 but served to bore the Aspen worker-bee crowd?

• Maurice Emmer and Ward Hauenstein: The two Aspenites successfully organized a petition that sought to overturn a City Council zoning decision designed to pave the way for the project to move forward. By gathering enough signatures to call for a referendum on the land-use decision, Emmer and Hauenstein effectively forced the council to put the issue to a test of the voters. However, the decision on the advisory question was not a binding vote – meaning that the city can resurrect the project in some future form, should they desire to reopen the matter and take on the critics a second time.

• Saving Our Streams: This local nonprofit group, primarily consisting of Castle Creek landowners, fought the city’s desires tooth-and-nail. In 2011, the self-proclaimed environmental group filed a lawsuit in state water court that challenged the city’s water rights (for hydroelectric purposes) on Castle and Maroon creeks. That matter is still unresolved, but many members of the organization continued to argue their case in the court of public opinion and supported Emmer and Hauenstein’s petition effort, as well as the anti-hydro campaign on the advisory question.

• Mayor Mick Ireland: He was a tireless advocate of they hydroelectric project, countering that in the city’s electricity portfolio, it would replace a dirty, nonrenewable resource (coal) with clean energy. During much of the debate, he attacked the faceless groups that sprouted up with a single mission: to kill the project. He claimed the anti-hydro efforts were anonymously fueled by billionaire Bill Koch, who owns property along Castle Creek, and blasted local media on GrassRoots TV and in other forums for not taking the industrialist to task.

The debate also had many local residents and even city officials trying to figure out fact from fiction.

Adam Frisch, who was elected to the City Council in mid-2011 just as project opponents were intensifying their efforts to fight the initiative, said city officials and others who openly supported hydropower failed to rally swing voters over to their side.

Frisch supported the hydro project when it first passed local voter muster in 2007 as $5.5 million bond issue. But in the November election, he voted against it, saying he wasn’t happy with cost overruns that raised the project’s price tag from around $6 million to $10.5 million.

He said that although overruns sometimes occur with capital projects, he never got a reasonable explanation for the higher costs and that no one in City Hall was ever held accountable for the error. He also suggested that swing voters might have come to believe that during the public process over the Castle Creek hydroelectric project, the city wasn’t adhering to the same standards that it employs when scrutinizing private development applications.

“I think the city opened itself up to a lot of flak over something we should have been able to control better,” he said on the night of the Nov. 6 election when the final votes were being tallied in the favor of hydro opponents.

– Andre Salvail

From revered to reviled.

From decorated to stripped bare.

The fall of one of the world’s most iconic athletes and humanitarians has been both swift and severe.

Lance Armstrong was a hero and an inspiration. He was a cycling phenomenon. He was the hard-charging Texan who fearlessly and doggedly stared down cancer – and won.

His annual jaunts down Paris’ Champs Elysees with teammates in tow and champagne flute in hand became symbols of courage and unyielding determination. Legions of admirers donned yellow wristbands and were quick to join his cause.

Armstrong not only produced seven Tour de France titles; he provided hope.

That optimism was challenged in 2012.

The rumors – those persistent, damning allegations that Armstrong has been attempting to outrun nearly as often as competitors in the past decade – finally have appeared to catch up with the 41-year-old.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency labeled him something much different than an inspiration and pioneer. It determined that Armstrong cheated his beloved sport – and cheated all of us. It determined that arguably one of the greatest sports stories every crafted was a drug-fueled farce.

Armstrong was stripped of his Tour titles in late August. Fourteen years of his career effectively were erased.

After extensive research and information culled from interviews with dozens of former teammates and confidantes, which formed the basis of a report released in October, USADA concluded that Armstrong had used the blood-booster EPO and testosterone from before 1998 through 2005. The agency outlined a doping regimen that was as sophisticated as it was systematic.

The substantial evidence was enough to appease the International Cycling Union, which in October upheld USADA’s sanctions, including a lifetime ban.

“Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling, and he deserves to be forgotten in cycling,” UCI president Pat McQuaid said in a statement. “Make no mistake, it’s a catastrophe for him, and he has to face up to that.”

For his part, Armstrong has consistently and vehemently denied any wrongdoing, deeming USADA’s findings “an unconstitutional witch hunt,” and then proclaiming that he was “done with this nonsense.”

The part-time Aspen resident looked very much at ease at August’s Power of Four mountain bike race, telling a throng of reporters packed into Aspen Mountain’s Gondola Plaza that “nobody needs to cry for me. I’m going to be great. … I’m more at ease now than I have been in 10 years.”

That sentiment was hammered home in early November, when Armstrong tweeted a picture of himself lounging in the living room of his Austin, Texas, home. Seven framed, illuminated Tour de France jerseys adorned the walls.

In past months, Armstrong largely has receded from public view. He relinquished his formal role with his famed cancer charity, Livestrong, in an effort to avoid being a distraction and causing irrevocable damage.

Some of his staunchest supporters and sponsors have retreated, too, and Armstrong’s future is as muddled as ever.

He’ll no doubt continue to be a polarizing figure, one who emboldens many while leaving others lamenting yet another unsettling footnote in the history of a sullied sport.

– Jon Maletz

The effort to have marijuana regulated much like alcohol in Colorado paid off with the passage of Amendment 64 on Nov. 6.

Though the historic vote – a similar one was undertaken by voters in the state of Washington on Election Day – sets the stage for the statewide decriminalization of pot, many questions remain.

In other words, until the laws are ironed out, don’t go and roll a few dozen joints, call your buddies and stage a toke-fest in Paepcke Park. While the law makes consumption of marijuana legal for those 21 and older, it doesn’t legalize the use of the herb in public places.

Regulations for recreational marijuana and the stores that will sell it will be hashed out in the upcoming session of the Colorado General Assembly. The rules must be in place by July 1. Also, the state has to start issuing permits for businesses by Jan. 1, 2014.

Supporters of Amendment 64 also are pushing for a referendum on an excise tax on recreational marijuana, which could go to voters as early as November. Meanwhile, the state is reportedly looking to rewrite its medical-marijuana business regulations, which could pave the way for the transformation of medical pot shops to become recreational pot shops.

Technically, however, Amendment 64 has no effect on the medical-marijuana business. Those shops and rules will continue in their present form unless and until the state regulations the govern the industry are changed.

A few facts related to the law, as outlined by the Amendment 64 passage:

• The growing of as many as six plants, with no more than three being mature, flowering plants at any one time, will be permitted, provided the plants are in an enclosed, locked space. The plants cannot be sold.

• Driving under the influence of marijuana will remain illegal.

• An individual jurisdiction (a city or county, for example) may prohibit any aspect of the recreational marijuana business either through adoption of an ordinance or by a public vote.

• It is not illegal for one adult to give another adult marijuana, for free. However, legal sales can only be handled through licensed pot shops, which are not yet open.

Federal law still outlaws the use of recreational (as well as medicinal) marijuana. Marijuana, or cannabis, remains classified under the Controlled Substances Act as a Schedule I narcotic whose cultivation, distribution, possession and use are criminal acts.

But President Obama said in a recent ABC News interview that the federal marijuana prohibition would be a low priority for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

– Andre Salvail

New development at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport made headlines throughout 2012, though nothing was actually built.

While the pull-out of Frontier Airlines from the local market in April was likely the most notable event from the traveling public’s perspective (United remains as Aspen’s year-round commercial carrier, while American serves the market in summer and winter), it was the update of an airport master plan that occupied airport administrators and county commissioners throughout the year.

Its adoption in early December capped some two years of public input and review. What comes next is likely to make news, as well, but when it will occur is a matter of speculation.

The master plan establishes space for a new terminal of up to 80,000 square feet with eight boarding gates, plus 1,300 parking stalls through a combination of a surface lot and an underground garage. The terminal, if it is built to the maximum envisioned in the plan, would be nearly double the size of the existing one.

The plan also allows reconfiguration of some elements of the existing fixed-base operator, which serves private aircraft and sells fuel, and it accommodates space for a second such operation on the west side of the runway. It was mounting interest from prospective operators of a second fixed-base operator that triggered the need to update the master plan in the first place, commissioners were told early on.

The county intends to launch work on design guidelines for airport improvements early in 2013 and commissioners have been warned that an application for a second fixed-base operation may prompt a formal county request for proposals for such a facility sooner rather than later.

Before its adoption by county commissioners, Aviation Director Jim Elwood again stressed that the master plan update merely reserves space for future facilities that must be reviewed and authorized individually.

“We’re not going to end up building any projects that are not financially sound,” he added.

A financial analysis that is part of the master plan estimated the cost of the envisioned future improvements at $171.3 million, including $120.8 million allocated to construction of a new terminal and associated roads and parking, including the parking garage. The plan envisions borrowing $50 million, to be repaid through airport revenues. Of the total sum, $69.5 million is not eligible for federal funding or revenues from the passenger facility charge collected for each passenger that boards a commercial aircraft in Aspen, according to a financial consultant who worked on the plan. A big part of the $69.5 million is parking facilities.

– Janet Urquhart


See more