Mountain Town News: Aspen adds a hefty tax to all tobacco products |

Mountain Town News: Aspen adds a hefty tax to all tobacco products

ASPEN, Colo. — A $3 tax will be added to the price of a pack of cigarettes in Aspen. About three-quarters of voters last week also agreed to incrementally increase the tax by 10 cents a year until the local tax hits $4. Other tobacco products will be taxed at a rate of 40 percent.

Aspen voters also raised the minimum age for tobacco products to 21, the first in Colorado to adopt that age threshold. Aspen, notes the Aspen Daily News, banned indoor smoking in the 1980s, among the first jurisdictions in Colorado to do so.

The newspaper reports the new tobacco tax could generate up to $325,000 in its first year, although the city will have to forego $75,000 in state tobacco taxes now collected within the city and returned to the city by the state. A 1970s state law prevents state tobacco tax funds from flowing back to communities that pass their own tobacco regulations.

A fitting punishment for soldier from Sun Valley

HAILEY, Idaho – President Donald Trump, when on the campaign trail, called for the execution of Bowe Bergdahl, the soldier in Afghanistan who deserted his post in 2009 and was captured and tortured by Taliban warriors for five years.

Bergdahl grew up in Hailey, near Ketchum and the Sun Valley Resort.

The U.S. Army was more forgiving than Trump. Instead of imprisonment for life, as military law allowed, he was given a dishonorable discharge and reduced in rank, but given no time in prison.

Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen told the Idaho Mountain Express that he figures that’s about right.

“Bowe Bergdahl made a serious mistake and took responsibility for it, paid a price already for it and, interestingly, the army took full advantage of it,” he said.

After Bergdahl was released in 2014, his debriefing yielded information that was reportedly a “gold mine” for military intelligence officers. But at least one family grieves still, the result of critical injuries to a soldier who was dispatched to try to rescue Bergdahl. The soldier survived but suffered injuries that severely crippled him.

Bob and Jani Bergdahl, parents of the soldier, shared an essay that they told the Mountain Express epitomizes their views on the attitudes toward their son. That essay, by Matthew Hoh, said there “is no logic to our violence, only the unending and insatiable requirement for more war and more destruction.”

Hoh, a former Marine Corps captain with combat experience in Iraq, went on to say: “And there is is no forgiveness in this loudly and righteously proclaimed Christian nation, only the scapegoating of a young man and his family for the failures of immoral and unwinnable wars.”

New Mexico town lost its mine, but vows to remain

QUESTA, N.M. – Questa is a former mining town about 20 minutes from Taos. Molybdenum mining continued there for about a century, but in 2014 the mine was shut down, laying off about 300 people.

What comes next? Malaquias Rael, a former mayor who now works on a local economic development committee, has accepted that mining has ended. “We have to be able to determine what our own future will look like,” he told Solutions Journalism Network.

The network explored the schism between rural and urban. Jobs in farming and mining sectors have declined. Cities have gained. This shift to cities has been going on for a long, long time. But the presidential election last year put a focus on that rural-urban divide.

Don Albrecht, author of “Rethinking Rural,” a book about western economic development, and executive director of the Western Rural Development Center at Utah State University, says rural communities can benefit from technology, allowing telecommuting when rural jobs are lost to mechanization.

In Questa, Rael sees a future. “We’re money poor in the valley, but land rich. We’re not going to go anywhere.”

Aspen in the national news again, for the wrong reasons

ASPEN, Colo. – Once again, Aspen has become the setting for a national controversy, this time the sexual improprieties of comedian Louis C.K. The New York Times last week reported that five women, including other comedians, were accusing him of the improprieties. In one case, two of the women said he masturbated in front of them in an Aspen hotel room in 2002.

The Four Corners methane anomaly, and why it matters

DURANGO, Colo. – In 2014, a paper was published in a scientific journal called “Geophysical Research Letters” that contained a startling report about methane emissions in the Four Corners area.

The paper, by Eric Kort and others, said a study of significant methane sources in the United States using a spectrometer on a satellite found a “vast but previously undetected spot.” The emissions, said the study team, could make up roughly 5 percent of total U.S. methane emissions from natural gas, coal mining and petroleum extraction combined.

Whew — that’s a lot. And methane is a worrisome greenhouse gas, about 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide as measured over a century’s time.

What caused the methane hotspot? Some scientists believe the methane is natural, coming out of the many coalbed methane deposits in the San Juan Basin south of Durango. Others, however, suspect that methane plume has to do with the 35,000 oil and gas wells in the region.

With that as the background, both the Durango Telegraph and Durango Herald report a protest of Trump administration policies. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke — who comes from Whitefish, Montana — proposes to roll back Obama administration rules governing oil and gas drilling intended to reduce methane emissions. Those rules were modeled on regulations adopted by Colorado in 2014.

“Zinke wants us to trust the oil and gas industry will take care of leaks,” said Shelley Silbert, executive director of Great Old Broads for Wilderness. “That’s not happening folks.”

“We have over our heads, right now, a methane cloud the size of the state of Delaware,” said La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt.

In New Mexico, environmental groups are making this same argument on economic grounds. The Environmental Defense Fund estimates that New Mexico has been losing more than $27 million annual in tax revenue and royalties because of the escaped and hence untaxed methane. The group’s Jon Goldstein told the Associated Press that the emissions occur on state and federal lands, but also on private and tribal lands.

Whistler imagines how legalized pot looks

WHISTLER, B.C. – With legalization of marijuana in Canada looming, Whistler municipal officials have indicated how they see it evolving there.

The municipality is thinking that marijuana should be available for recreational purposes at age 19, the same age as alcohol.

They also would like to see certain areas designated for public consumption, although acknowledging the need for a “more fulsome understanding” of designated consumption areas such as cannabis lounges. The municipality appears “amenable,” in the word of Pique Newsmagazine, to cannabis shops in the resort.

They also want to see tax revenues from sale of cannabis products.

California ski town not sure of cannabis sales

TRUCKEE, Calif. – Cannabis sales for recreational purposes will become legal in California this coming January. Will skiers on their way to Northstar, Squaw or other resorts in the region be able to buy a joint on their way to the slopes?

Not in Truckee, it appears, at least for the time being. The town has not settled on a policy, but town attorney Andrew Morris says the town council may enact a moratorium, as authorized by California law, until a decision is made.

The town has been mulling its choices for months and has had several well-attended stakeholder meetings. But there is no consensus yet about the best way forward. Town staff members have recommended a model for legalization unlike that found anywhere else: delivery only instead of brick-and-mortar stores.

There is, however, strong support for not allowing any sales to anyone under 21, thus keeping it at the same age as liquor sales.

Cannabis medicinal sales have been allowed in California since 1996, but not in Truckee.

Morris, who is also the attorney for Mammoth Lakes, California, reports that municipality has not yet decided whether to allow sales and how. Across California, municipalities are “all over the map” about how to go forward with the new authority.

In this, California is much like Colorado. Aspen and Telluride in 2014 immediately allowed marijuana sales with regulation similar to that of liquor stores. Others have been more restrictive, and some have chosen not to allow marijuana at all — medicinal or recreational.

An effort at Tahoe to end 1,400 short-term rentals

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Three people in South Lake Tahoe have set out to gather signatures necessary to put a proposition on the election ballot in November 2018. If passed, the measure would all but eliminate use of private homes for short-term rentals such as is accomplished by Airbnb and other internet-based rental services.

Ken Weitzman told the Lake Tahoe News that he and his cohorts are seeking the ballot measure because “the city has not done anything to alleviate the problems created by vacation rentals in neighborhoods. There are so many people who are tormented weekend (sic) and week out.” Noise, they said, is a major issue.

Currently, South Lake Tahoe allows 1,400 vacation-home rentals outside the tourist area. They propose to eliminate all those rentals within a year of the ballot’s passage.

The city, says Lake Tahoe News, has held dozens of meetings, revised the ordinance governing short-term rentals multiple times since 2003 and commissioned an economic study. Council members next week will decide whether to cap the number of vacation-home rentals at 1,400.

South Lake Tahoe gets $2.8 million in tax revenues from the vacation rentals.

Nancy Kerry, the city manager, warns of unintended consequences of taking all the units off the short-term rental market. “Many of those homes would likely be placed on the market to sell, which would flood the market immediately, reducing property values,” she said.

E-bikes find a niche in Canmore, but not Banff

CANMORE, Alberta – Electrically assisted bicycles, called e-bikes, are gaining in popularity in Canmore, the gateway town to Banff National Park.

The Rocky Mountain Outlook tells the story of one local resident who moved from central Canmore to a suburb. “By bicycle, it’s’an hour plus a shower,’” she says of her commute to work. With her e-bike, the commute is just 14 minutes — and a lot less expensive than maintaining a car.

A meeting was held recently in Canmore about e-bikes, and a crowd made up mostly of retirees showed up, eager to learn more.

E-bikes must be pedaled to move, unlike a scooter or motorcycle. They usually come equipped with governors that limit speed to about 20 mph.

Canmore allows e-bikes on all its trails, but Parks Canada bans them on trails in Banff National Park. Banff, the town, is reviewing its policy to see if they may provide another solution to traffic congestion.

How about on backcountry trails? The International Mountain Bike Association released a study in 2015 that found e-bikes damaged trails no more than regular mountain bikes.

Lake Louise in trouble for cutting down pine trees

LAKE LOUISE, Alberta – The Lake Louise Ski Area will be going to trial in December on charges that staff members in 2014 illegally cut down whitebark pine trees.

The Rocky Mountain Outlook explains that whitebark pine is listed as endangered in Canada. It is considered an important tree of the high-elevation forests.

Fire suppression, a warming climate and mountain pine beetles have combined to threaten the survival of the species. Also at work is a disease called white pine blister.

Steamboat house goes for less than $500,000

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. – In housing, it’s all relative. Searching the for-sale listings, Steamboat Today’s Tom Ross came upon just one single-family house below $500,000 — and not that many below $1 million in Steamboat Springs.

In Aspen, that was the news 15 or 20 years ago. Steamboat always has had lower price points. The result is that outlying towns haven’t boomed the way those in the valleys near Aspen and Vail have.

But Hayden, located a half-hour drive down-valley from Steamboat along the Yampa River, is finally experiencing a mini-building boom. This year, 15 residential permits were issued. And for $150,000, you can buy a small, three-bedroom house.

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