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Colorado Parks and Wildlife uses aircraft to reseed part of burn scar above El Jebel

Midvalley residents might have noticed multiple passes by an airplane Thursday and Friday mornings in the skies above the Basalt State Wildlife Area.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife hired a contractor to help reseed rough terrain that was burned by the Lake Christine Fire last year. The agency’s staff reseeded about 500 acres last summer and fall using tractors and other heavy equipment. The aircraft was needed for another 600 acres of terrain inaccessible from the ground, according to Matt Yamashita, acting area wildlife manager.

The airplane was highly visible Friday morning between 7 and 9:30 a.m. It made multiple passes over the valley floor while working one ridge over, across from Whole Foods.

“Some of the seed mixes being used will germinate this spring and summer and are aimed at stabilizing soils to help mitigate flooding and debris left by the fire,” Yamashita said in an email. “Other plant species are native vegetation which will provide forage for deer and elk, the primary management objective of the state wildlife area.”

A second phase of the project will be undertaken in late May or early June when herbicide will be applied by aircraft to combat noxious weeds, he said. Weeds are already competing to take over the burn area.

“Noxious weed eradication is mandated by law and is a continual management project on local land management agency’s lists,” Yamashita said. “Last summer’s fire disturbed large tracts of land which lend themselves to infestations of weeds. During this phase of the project, portions of the state wildlife area that are being targeted will be closed to public use for safety reasons.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife also will team with Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers and Roaring Fork Conservancy for hand crew reseeding efforts in areas that cannot be reached by ground equipment or aircraft. The volunteer day will be June 15. Additional details will be released closer to the project.

In an unrelated project, crews will be undertaking work this spring and summer to ease the risk of flooding and debris flows in the burn scar around Basalt and El Jebel.

Federal, state and local governments teamed up to raise $1.35 million for the work.

Colorado River Water Conservation District now heading for 2020 tax ask

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — The directors of the Colorado River Water Conservation District supported a recommendation Tuesday from General Manager Andy Mueller to research asking voters in November 2020 to restore a portion of the district’s original property-tax rate, or mill levy, and increase its annual revenue from $4 million to $8 million.

In February, the 15-member river district board was leaning toward asking voters this November to remove the revenue restrictions imposed upon it by the Gallagher Amendment, which was seen as easier to pass than a direct tax increase.

But now the residential taxing rates set by Gallagher appear to have stabilized, putting off a potential $370,000 hit to the river district’s budget for two years.

Plus, there may now be a competing water-funding question on the this year’s ballot. So the district is looking to 2020.

“It alleviates the immediate threat but not the long-term threat to the river district’s property tax-based revenues,” Mueller said of the Gallagher rate.

The district gets 97% of its revenue from property taxes on residential and commercial property, and the expected Gallagher rates would have cut the district’s revenue by 15%.

Mueller said it now makes more sense to ask for an increase in its mill levy from 0.252 mills to 0.5 mills — and possibly to ask voters to eliminate the revenue restrictions in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, and include a sunset provision of 10 to 15 years.

If the board does nothing, Mueller said the combined effects of Gallagher, TABOR and a shrinking oil-and-gas sector in western Colorado will cause the district’s property revenue to be less than its expenses, even with more cuts of staff, expenses and the district’s water-project grant program.

“The board and staff are concerned that the perfect storm of negative economic events and constitutional amendments will create a situation where we will be unable to meet our mission,” Mueller said. “We’ve been granted a reprieve to think about it and figure it out, but we are really concerned about having adequate financing to meet our mission. Today, we do a very good job of providing technical advice, legal representation and advocacy, the part that has been left out is actual meaningful cash contributions to projects and efforts by our constituents.”

The river district board also got another reason to avoid this November’s ballot when a bill was introduced in the state legislature Tuesday to ask voters this fall to approve legalized sports betting.

The betting bill is relevant to the river district because it calls for a 10% tax on the gambling revenue, which a 2017 study estimated could be as much as $300 million, and most of the money is to be used to pay for water projects and programs.

“We want to see what happens on that statewide question,” Mueller said in an interview. “Statewide tax measures are really difficult. We don’t want to: A) get in the way of it and contribute it to being defeated; and B) be defeated in its wake. We don’t want to be pulled down with it, if that happens. But either way, we support the effort.”

Mueller serves on an ad-hoc committee that has been exploring financial options for water projects and programs under the auspices of the state’s Interbasin Compact Committee.

“We’re not the architects of sports betting,” Mueller said of the committee.

The sports-betting bill, co-sponsored by state Sen. Kerry Donovan, says 10% of the tax revenue from gambling is “to fund implementation of the state water plan and other public purposes.”

The bill also includes language consistent with a demand-management — or water-use reduction — policy adopted in November by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, a state agency in the Department of Natural Resources.

For example, the bill says the money could be spent “to ensure compliance with interstate water allocation compacts” and on “projects and processes that may include compensation to water users for temporary and voluntary reduction in consumptive use.”

Mueller said even if the sports-betting bill passes, it might not meet the Western Slope’s water needs.

“We support a statewide effort, but we also understand the importance of doing things for ourselves on the Western Slope,” Mueller said. “And we understand that we can’t rely on others from the outside to do the things that we need to do to protect ourselves.”

Mueller cited examples of projects consistent with the district’s mission but short on funding, including building a bypass channel around Windy Gap Reservoir to add a more natural flow to the upper Colorado River.

He said building small, multipurpose reservoirs in the headwater counties could help provide water to ranchers, farmers and cities, as well as to downstream sections of rivers and streams stressed by climate change.

“Last year was a perfect example of where our reservoir releases were able to bring down the temperatures in the Fryingpan, Roaring Fork and upper Colorado rivers,” Mueller said, referring to releases from Ruedi Reservoir. “Before we started releasing water, all of those rivers were dangerously close to getting to a point where the fish were going to start massively dying.”

Mueller looked to the district’s history for his mill-levy recommendation, saying Western Slope residents in 1937 went to the state legislature and asked that the river district be created with a mill levy of 2.5% so residents could manage, develop and protect the water supplies and preserve the high-quality trout fishing on the rivers.

“Even back then, they talked about protecting the rivers. It was then recreation in terms of fishing, but that’s what they were looking for,” Mueller said.

Mueller said Western Slope residents knew it would be an expensive venture, but they were willing to tax themselves at 2.5 mills.

“The values have all gone up, but it was the same impact proportionally on each property as 2.5 mills would be today, but we’re now at a tenth of that,” Mueller said.

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and other Swift Communications newspapers. More at www.aspenjournalism.org.

On the Fly: The caddis are coming

The lower Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers are starting to make the switch from blue-winged olives to caddis hatches. The first few days of the hatch are always interesting; it takes the fish a minute to remember what the heck caddis are. They are starting to recall now and are looking up and eating adults after weeks of snacking on caddis larvae.

Last week’s refusals of big dry flies will turn into this week’s ferocious take-downs. Running double dries is a deadly combination, and if you have trouble with one fish on the end of your line, try fighting two at once! The Roaring Fork is absolutely crawling with caddis larvae, and it’s time for caddis to start their annual rituals of hatching, mating, laying eggs and dying. Sex and death, as John Geirach says.

A few techniques are crucial to your fishing time, starting with having plenty of floatant. Your line, leader, tippet and fly must float well or you will be missing fish all day. Sunken dry flies usually don’t cut it with finicky trout, and caddis fishing requires high and dry presentations on your part. Imparting motion to your dry flies from the second they light upon the water until you go to recast is practically a must. Real caddis don’t just sit there and wait to get eaten; they are struggling to launch or at least make it to shore before trouble comes in the form of a hungry fish. Move them, skate them and “bump” them all the way through your drift.

Lastly, across and downstream casts make this much easier to do on your part. This technique has trickled into most of my dry-fly fishing, whether it’s caddis, blue wings, pale morning duns, green drakes and even midges. Repositioning or twitching your flies is much easier when they’re downstream versus upstream. Be sure to get on the water on our upcoming hot and bright days, then get back to the water at dusk to catch the egg-laying caddis frenzy. It’s time, are you ready?

This column is provided by Taylor Creek Fly Shops in Aspen and Basalt. Taylor Creek can be reached at 970-927-4374.

Your time is up, freeloading Aspenites

Wow, I feel like I’ve spent too much time complaining about Aspen’s socialist policies and about and the constant demands of the freeloader voters who pretend to be accomplished and intelligent.

How’d it feel when you won your first national championship? How many world championships have you won? Tell me about the feeling of the thundering applause. Tell me how it felt to you after you perfectly played a Chopin waltz for your new love?

Get a job in New York or San Fan. And if you’re good, I’ll help you. john@vraspen.com

John Hornblower

Aspen

Tired of the potholes on Highway 82

Thank you, CDOT, for repairing potholes on Highway 82. Can I send you my shredded front tire as a token of my appreciation?

Carl Heck

Aspen

Judge denies motion to suppress Miller’s comments in Lake Christine Fire case

A judge Friday denied a motion to suppress statements Richard Miller made to law enforcement officials when he was questioned at the Basalt shooting range immediately after the Lake Christine Fire broke out July 3.

Eagle County District Judge Paul Dunkelman ruled that prosecutors would be able to use Miller’s comment regarding the type of ammunition being fired by the rifle used by his girlfriend, Allison Marcus.

In a hearing Thursday, Heidi McCollum, Assistant District Attorney in the 5th Judicial District, said Miller initially was uncooperative with investigators about the type of ammo used in the rifle he and Marcus borrowed from Miller’s dad.

McCollum said when an Eagle County deputy sheriff asked to look in an ammunition box, Miller replied, “Well, if I can be honest, it was tracer rounds.”

Investigators suspect that incendiary tracer rounds ignited dry grass on the edge of the rifle range. The fire eventually burned 12,500 acres of national forest and private land.

The attorneys for Miller and Marcus claimed that his comments should be prohibited from use at trial because no law officer read him his Miranda rights, which inform a suspect that any comments could be used in prosecution.

Attorney Stan Garnett for Marcus and attorney Josh Maximon for Miller tried to establish in Thursday’s hearing that Deputy Josiah Maner kept the defendants at the shooting range for about 69 minutes before releasing them. That qualifies as police custody and the questioning as “custodial interrogation,” the attorneys argued.

“They’re being ordered by an officer to stay where they are at least five times over a 69-minute period,” Maximon said in Thursday’s hearing.

McCollum countered that Maner didn’t detain Miller and Marcus. He didn’t question them for the entire 69 minutes they were all at the shooting range, she said. He also was assessing the rapidly growing fire and coordinating response with fire and other police officials. He was speaking with Miller and Marcus as conditions allowed, she said.

When McCollum asked Maner why he didn’t read them their Miranda rights, he replied Thursday, “They weren’t in custody. I did not restrain them in any way. I did not put them in handcuffs.”

In his order Friday, Dunkelman wrote Maner did not restrain or restrict Miller in any manner, plus he gave him access to move his vehicle.

“Maner was not confrontational or intimidating towards Miller,” the ruling said. “In fact, he was the opposite. He was sympathetic and to a degree supportive of Miller and Marcus.”

None of Maner’s actions “are consistent with a deprivation of freedom to a degree associated with a formal arrest,” the judge wrote.

The judge’s decision will now require the DA’s office to make a tough call. McCollum had filed a motion to combine the trials of Miller and Marcus into one. Dunkelman on Thursday conditionally approved the request. However, he said if they were combined, Miller’s comments couldn’t be used in the joint trial because it would be prejudicial to Marcus. He gave the DA’s office until the beginning of next week to determine if they want to proceed with a combined trial or keep them separate.

Miller and Marcus each face three charges of fourth-degree arson, a Class 4 felony, and setting fire to woods or prairie, a Class 6 felony. Miller and Marcus are free on a $7,500 bond each.

As the cases stand now, Miller’s trial is scheduled for May 28 to June 7 with the trial for Marcus on June 17 to 28.

scondon@aspentimes.com

CDOT seeks public input on new marijuana-impaired driving campaign

The Colorado Department of Transportation has launched an online survey in hopes of gathering public input on creative concepts and messaging for a new marijuana-impaired driving campaign.

The survey, part of CDOT’s ongoing “Cannabis Conversation” initiative, will help to create a new awareness campaign that better resonates with cannabis users in Colorado.

“We want as many people as possible to weigh in on these concepts,” said Sam Cole, safety communications manager with CDOT. “Our goal is to capture feedback that spans a wide range of views, lifestyles and demographics to get a well-rounded perspective of how these messages are connecting with different audiences.”

Members of the public can take the survey at http://bit.ly/CDOTCannabisConvoSurvey, or view the creative concept animatics at http://bit.ly/CDOTCreativeConcepts. For more information on the campaign, visit ColoradoCannabisConvo.com.

Colorado River groups study options after Trump signs drought contingency plan

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — President Donald Trump tweeted this week that he “just signed a critical bill to formalize drought contingency plans for the Colorado River.”

It was the first time that Trump had ever mentioned the Colorado River in a tweet.

And the drought contingency planning, or DCP, bill the president signed Tuesday had been whisked through Congress in just six days.

For water managers used to working in slow-moving “water time,” it was a surprise to see the federal legislation necessary to implement the DCP agreements happen so fast, and compelling for the Colorado River to be in President Trump’s hands, however briefly.

“That did go through fairly quickly, and in a relatively non-confrontational manner,” Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, told the district’s board of directors Tuesday morning during a quarterly meeting.

And by the end of the meeting, Mueller was announcing that Trump had just tweeted about signing the bill.

The brief DCP bill authorizes the Interior secretary, now David Bernhardt of Rifle, to implement the DCP agreements negotiated by water managers in the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico and the lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada.

Perhaps less surprising to regional water managers was that the Imperial Irrigation District, which is the biggest user of water in the lower basin, wasted no time and filed a lawsuit Tuesday in an effort to halt, or at least influence, the DCP agreements. The district is seeking funding to help restore the shrinking Salton Sea and had been vocal in its dissent when the DCP bill was before Congress.

It is not clear yet how Imperial’s lawsuit will affect the still unfolding DCP process, but James Eklund, who represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Commission and would sign the DCP agreements for Colorado, said Tuesday he was still optimistic the agreements would be signed this month.

If the DCP agreements are finalized, it means Colorado and the upper basin states could store up to 500,000 acre-feet of conserved water in Lake Powell, and other upper basin reservoirs, and do so in a new regulatory framework that shields the water from the current operating guidelines dictating how Lake Mead and Lake Powell are operated.

Those guidelines, which sunset in 2026, seek to balance the levels of the two big reservoirs, which have been falling due to a 19-year drought, of which this past snowy winter was a welcomed exception. (The Bureau of Reclamation announced Monday that it was forecasting runoff into Lake Powell would be 112 percent of average, up from 43 percent of average in 2018.)

In balancing the levels of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the upper basin states feel that the guidelines require the release of too much water from Lake Powell, and they want to create a savings account they control in the big reservoir to raise the surface level and protect against a violation of the Colorado River Compact, which requires the upper basin to deliver a set amount of water to the lower basin.

With the passage of the DCP legislation, that savings account in Lake Powell is almost a reality, as is authorization for the Bureau of Reclamation to release water from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs down the Green, Gunnison and San Juan rivers to help keep Lake Powell above minimum power pool.

And next comes the part where the upper basin states each have to figure out a demand management, or water-use reduction program, to fill their new water savings account.

The conserved water is supposed to come from the reduction of consumptive use, which in Colorado means it will mainly come from applying less water to fields, pastures and urban lawns.

In Colorado, it is the job of the Colorado Water Conservation Board to figure out how, and if, to start up a demand management program.

To investigate its options, the state agency plans to create eight small working groups to tackle various aspects of demand management, and officials have given people until the end of day Friday to express interest in serving on the various work groups, which are expected to meet throughout the year.

Mueller, the manager of the Colorado River District, has informed the CWCB that the district wants to place a staff member on every one of the eight work groups, given the importance of the potential demand management program to the 15 Western Slope counties the district covers.

The River District’s board wants to ensure that a demand management program is voluntary, temporary, compensated and equitable for water users across the state.

And while the CWCB has adopted a policy that includes those goals, it has confirmed that the state also is studying how an involuntary reduction in water use might happen if necessary to avoid violating the Colorado Compact.

“The state has been working on a study that evaluates the legal elements of compact compliance,” CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell said Thursday. “This is being done through a variety of evaluations that focus on avoiding the need for compact compliance and for options that the state engineer may want to take into consideration in case administration of the compact is necessary to address a compact deficit on the Colorado River.”

Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. More at www.aspenjournalism.org.

First bear of season killed by Colorado wildlife officers after relocation attempt

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A bear relocated from Steamboat Springs last week was killed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers Monday after it disturbed a farmer’s beehive near Meeker.

This marks the first bear the agency has destroyed in the state this year. Kris Middledorf, the Steamboat area’s wildlife manager, assisted in the bear’s relocation and was disheartened to learn of its death.

“It’s the worst day for wildlife officers who go into this business to conserve wildlife, and then they have to go put an animal down,” he said.

He posted an update on the incident on Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Facebook page Thursday morning, urging local residents to be vigilant about securing their trash and other wildlife attractants, as well.

“Please realize that the fate of this bear and others is dependent on our actions as a community to minimize and eliminate human-supplied food sources,” he wrote in the post.

The 2-year-old male black bear had been relocated to an area outside Milner last Monday after getting into several residential dumpsters in Steamboat and dragging trash bags across the street. Officers tranquilized the bear after it approached a day care center. They claimed the animal posed a threat to children in the area.

They transported the creature to a rural area outside Meeker, hoping it would find enough food there to keep it away from people.

“We wanted to give this bear another opportunity,” Middledorf said.

When Parks and Wildlife officers handle a nuisance bear for the first time, they mark it with a tag. A two-strike system necessitates that officers kill the bear if it causes another problem.

This bear’s second strike occurred when it came across an apiary and destroyed a bee farmer’s hive to get to the honey inside. As Middledorf explained, Parks and Wildlife is liable for agricultural damage caused by big game wildlife and has to prioritize the interests of the farmer over the animal.

As a mitigation measure, the agency sometimes provides electric fencing to apiaries, which tend to attract more bears than other types of farms. Unfortunately for those honey-loving animals, privately owned beehives have become more common in the region.

“Over the last 10 years, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of apiaries in the area,” Middledorf said.

As a result, the agency can only afford to provide fencing to apiaries where bears are most active.

Every year, Parks and Wildlife officers have to put down bears deemed a threat or nuisance to the public. The number varies from year to year and depends on the weather and availability of natural food sources, according to Mike Porras, the agency’s public information officer for the northwest region.

“In many case, bears have found they can find plenty of food in residential areas,” he said.

Last year, officers relocated 18 bears in the region, which includes Routt County, but had to kill eight after rehabilitation efforts failed. Of those eight bears, five were killed in the Steamboat area, according to Porras.

Many people, including some local residents, argue Parks and Wildlife officers should be more lenient with bears and allow them to go free as long as they do not hurt anyone. The problem, Porras explained, is officers put down these animals as a preventative measure before they can harm anyone.

“Ultimately, this is all about human health and safety,” he said.

That is why Middledorf encourages residents to take more responsibility to keep wildlife away from town. The city has certain rules about securing trash, bird feeders and other attractants, as well as fines for people who violate those rules.

“It is ultimately the responsibility of our community to co-exist with these animals,” he said.

Judge denies Aspen man’s request to withdraw guilty plea

An Aspen man who pleaded guilty to burglary and indecent exposure charges last year will have to suffer the consequences of that action after a District Court judge refused Thursday to let him withdraw his plea.

District Judge Chris Seldin said that though Benjamin Morton, 30, didn’t have a lawyer at the time of his plea, he was still properly advised of the consequences of his guilty plea, including the fact that he’d have to register as a sex offender.

Allowing Morton to withdraw the plea would “make a mockery” of the court’s regular, detailed efforts to ensure defendants pleading guilty understand what they’re doing, Seldin said. The judge routinely goes through a lengthy series of questions to make sure defendants who plead guilty know the consequences of their actions and understand the rights they give up in such situations.

Seldin, who handled Morton’s case from beginning to end, said he was always under the impression that Morton was able to make rational, adult choices about his case.

“There was no reason to doubt that his answers to my questions were accurate and truthful,” Seldin said.

However, Morton’s lawyer, Michael Fox, said his client had a “fundamental misunderstanding” of what he’d done and what punishments he was in line to receive. Morton, who has a learning disability, didn’t even know what charges he’d pleaded guilty to, which was a just reason to allow the plea withdrawal, Fox said.

The judge disagreed.

Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies arrested Morton in May after a woman reported seeing him enter her apartment and masturbate in her roommate’s room. He later admitted the behavior to a deputy.

In October, he pleaded guilty to felony burglary and misdemeanor indecent exposure. The burglary plea was in exchange for a two-year deferred sentence, meaning the felony conviction would not appear on his record after two years provided he wasn’t charged with another crime.

The indecent exposure plea, however, came with no strings. That meant Morton would have to register as a sex offender for a minimum of 10 years, prosecutor Don Nottingham said.

Nottingham said he wrote in the plea paperwork he gave to Morton in October that he would have to register as a sex offender, and repeated that information in an email he sent him.

The May offense was not the first time Morton had been in trouble for his behavior.

In April 2018, Morton pleaded guilty to misdemeanor public indecency after Snowmass Village police arrested him for allegedly masturbating in a condominium complex hot tub. He received a year of unsupervised probation in that case. He was originally charged with indecent exposure when he was arrested.

Morton is scheduled to be sentenced under terms of his October plea deal next month.

jauslander@aspentimes.com