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Mountain News: Driving while stoned? That's a hard case to prove in court

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo.—More than five years into what former Gov. John Hickenlooper, now a presidential candidate, called the "great experiment," Colorado is still trying to figure out parts of its marijuana legalization.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo.—More than five years into what former Gov. John Hickenlooper, now a presidential candidate, called the "great experiment," Colorado is still trying to figure out parts of its marijuana legalization.

For example, when is a driver stoned? "Much uncertainty remains about how the drug impairs the body and at what point someone becomes too high to drive," pointed out the Steamboat Pilot.

Colorado law said that driving when blood contains more than five nanograms of active tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psycho-active agent in cannabis, is sufficient for one to be prosecuted for driving under the influence.

Does that amount really impair a driver? Marijuana users, particularly those who partake for medicinal purposes, worry that their blood will exceed the limit even when they are not impaired.

But what is clear evidence of impairment?

Cory Christensen, the police chief in Steamboat, told the Pilot that sobriety tests for alcohol have been researched and standardized over the decades. The tests have been honed such that recent studies find an accuracy rate of 91 per cent to 94 per cent.

Much less research has been done in regard to effects of cannabis. There is the blood test that can determine if the driver has crossed the limit of five nanograms.

The state's highway patrol has drug recognition experts. Many of the criteria they use seem similar to alcohol, such as the one-leg-stand test.

It doesn't all add up. "There is no go-to tool that is considered reliable across the board to determine if someone is impaired by marijuana," said Matt Karzen, the district attorney for northwestern Colorado. "Right now, we're stuck with body camera footage and an officer's assessment."

In most cases, prosecutors seek a plea of driving while ability impaired, or DWAI, a traffic infraction that typically results in a fine and revoked driving privileges for 90 days. A DUI is a criminal offense with a stiffer sentence.

In practice, many people suspected of driving under the influence of marijuana also have an illegal amount of alcohol in their systems, Karzen told the Steamboat Pilot. If that is the case, prosecutors typically pursue a DUI conviction, because jurors feel better versed at recognizing when someone is drunk.

When a vice president passes the hat in Aspen

ASPEN, Colo.—The Aspen Times found out about the planned Republican fundraiser featuring Vice President Michael Pence in a very round-about way.

The executive chef of the Caribou Club had been arrested and charged with assaulting his female friend. She said he choked and punched her in the face. In his advisement before a district court judge last Friday, the chef said he needed to show up on Monday to cook for the vice president and hence needed to stay out of jail. His request was approved after he posted a US$2,500 (all funds in U.S. currency) cash or surety bond.

Political fundraisers are not unusual in Aspen, even those on behalf of Republicans. This is despite the more liberal bent of the community. But Pitkin did give almost 25 per cent of its votes for the Trump-Pence ticket in 2016 and, of course, it does have some high rollers.

Bob Jenkins, vice chair of the Pitkin County Republicans, said he expected about 25 couples to attend the $35,000-per-couple VIP reception. Of $875,000 collected, $62,500 would go directly to the Trump campaign and the rest to the Republican National Committee.

The Aspen Daily News further identified one local couple, Tatnall and Roberta Hillman, who were expected to be there. Tatnall Hillman had contributed more than $1 million to Republican causes in 2018.

The event was held at the Caribou Club, which is owned by two gay men. Pence, both in Congress and as a governor of Indiana, repeatedly opposed efforts to legalize gay marriage and other measures meant to improve the lives of gays and lesbians.

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo estimated it would cost the county $10,000 to $20,000 to provide security. If officials such as Pence meet the general public, there is no charge for the security. Pence did not. In most cases, DiSalvo told the Times, campaigns agree to pay the costs.

Woman wins big settlement in Neo-Nazi case

WHITEFISH, Mont.—Aided by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a woman in Whitefish has received a $14 million judgment against the publisher of a neo-Nazi website.

Andrew Anglin's Daily Stormer had published 30 articles urging his followers to launch a "troll storm" against Tanya Gersh. Gersh, her husband, and then 12-year-old son received more than 700 harassing messages in a five-month span before the complaint was filed. She continues to get harassing and threatening messages even now, 2.5 years later.

The campaign escalated into early 2017 when Anglin planned an armed march in Whitefish that he threatened would end at Gersh's home. In promoting the march, he superimposed a photo of Gersh and several others on the front gate of the Auschwitz concentration camp, according to a press release issued by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The march never happened.

The Whitefish Pilot reported that Gersh issued a statement. "This lawsuit has always been about stopping others from enduring the terror I continue to live through at the hands of a neo-Nazi and his followers, and I wanted to make sure that this never happens to anyone else."

Coming to terms with the deaths and risks of forests

FRISCO, Colo.—The forests of Summit County, Steamboat Springs, or Vail look so different than they did in 2006. Today you see standing dead trees here and there, but the forests have mostly become green once again.

Dull red and orange was the dominant color in 2007, the needles dead and soon to drop to the ground. The bark beetle epidemic had begun in 1996, spreading substantially through aging forests. After 2002, a year of drought unprecedented in the historical record matched with unprecedented heat and mild winters, the beetle populations exploded.

A study conducted in 2007 in towns across the 3.4 million acres affected by the epidemic in north-central Colorado gauged community attitudes. Researchers recently returned, to see how those attitudes had changed. Not surprisingly, they found that community attitudes had shifted.

Perceptions of socioeconomic risk, such as impacts on tourism and property values, have generally declined while some perceptions of risk, such as forest fires and falling trees, have remained the same or even increased.

There's also greater acceptance and even support of active forest management. But what constitutes acceptable forest management varies by location and even by neighbourhood. Logging of forests is still not acceptable everywhere. There's still some wariness about prescribed burns.

"Much of this had to do with communities' local economics and histories," explained Jamie Vickery, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Several of the towns—Kremmling, Walden, and Granby—had sawmills and, more broadly, had been resource extraction towns. Breckenridge once upon a time made its living in resource extraction, but now sells recreation and amenities. That's also true of Vail, a resort built on ranchlands.

In Summit County, Vickery and Elizabeth Prentice, a doctoral candidate and graduate research assistant at the University of Missouri, found a higher level of satisfaction with forest management than some of the former logging towns. In the latter, there was grousing about restrictions on federal lands.

Risk of fire is one common worry. For several decades, land managers have wanted to set fires, to mimic what nature does. Prescribed fires have not been universally welcomed. A prescribed fire for Vail proposed in the mid-1990s eventually happened, but over initial protests and then was much pared down.

Land managers in Colorado suffered a setback in 2012 when embers of a prescribed burn in the foothills southwest of Denver several days prior were flamed by high winds, creating a wildfire that killed three people and destroyed 23 houses.

For still other reasons, getting "good fire" on the ground remains difficult, three university professors concluded in an essay published in Pique.

The three researchers—Courtney Schultz of Colorado State University, and Cassandra Moseley and Heidi Huber-Stearns, both of the University of Oregon—talked with 60 land managers, air regulators, and others to define the significant obstacles.

"The law doesn't necessarily impede prescribed burning so much as do some of the more practical realities on the ground," one land manager told them, as quoted in Pique. "You don't have enough money, you don't have enough people, or there's too much fire danger."

The researchers note that prescribed fire has limitations and risks. It will not stop wildfires under the most extreme conditions and is not appropriate in all locations. And, on rare occasions, such as that in Colorado, planned burns can escape controls.

Parking meters may be still in future

JACKSON, Wyo.—You want some quiet, mountain tranquility, don't go to downtown Jackson. The nerve centre of the valley called Jackson Hole, the town square also happens to be a segment of the highway to Yellowstone National Park.

Still, this place with a town square and antlered arches has free parking. It's free, that is, if you can find a parking space.

The Jackson Hole News&Guide reported that the Jackson Town Council has another report about the measures needed to stave off paid parking. Parking spaces are subjected to limits. You can't just park all day. But escalated fines might do the trick if the limits are enforced. But ultimately, paid parking may be in the cards, despite the vehement opposition of business owners who fear it will scare off customers.

Why some people object to this neighbourly solar farm

ASPEN, Colo.—What's not to like about this proposed newcomer to the Aspen neighbourhood? It would create no noise, water or air pollution, nor will it disrupt wildlife, sponsors say. Furthermore, it would move onto a former industrial site, 35 of the 55 acres that had previously been used to spread biosolids from a sewage treatment plant.

But in fact, some people who live near the proposed solar farm outside Aspen just don't want to see it there. The Aspen Times reported one speaker at a recent planning commission meeting said the 18,000-solar panels on the 35-acre plot would create a "monstrosity."

Another accused Holy Cross Energy, the local electrical utility that would be a solar-farm partner, of wanting to construct an electromagnetic field that would give her family cancer. Others worried about views and slipping values. There were also disagreements about just what impact it would have to wildlife.

The project comports with the climate change goals adopted in Pitkin County but also figures somewhat into the effort to make Aspen more resilient. Last year, a wildfire nearly caused Aspen to lose its imported energy during a fire in early July. The solar farm would provide five megawatts of local generation but has no plans for battery or other storage technology.

But the commissioners did hear some testimony in favour. "I knew I needed to be here as a millennial," said a local student at Colorado Mountain College. "We are concerned for our future."

Mona Newton, the executive director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, pointed to surveys that revealed 78 per cent of Pitkin County residents want and would pay for more renewable energy.

As for the visual impact, Newton said that not doing anything to reduce carbon emissions will have an impact, too. "We have 10 years to really make a difference in carbon emissions before there's no turning back," she said.

With success proven, calls for more wildlife overpasses

BAYFIELD, Colo.—Colorado wildlife officials expect a widening of U. S. Highway 160 between Pagosa Springs and Durango to include features to help keep hooves away from hoods.

The project near Chimney Rock National Monument will include two wildlife crossing structures, one of which may be an overpass, with the other sure to be an underpass. New fencing will be designed to influence animals to move to the overpass, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation (C-DOT). Construction is to begin in 2020.

The Southern Ute Tribe has committed to spending $1 million, Colorado Parks and Wildlife $75,000, and the National Wildlife Foundation $317,000 to supplement funding by C-DOT.

The highway splits summer big-game range and the Weminuche wilderness to the north and excellent winter range—mainly on the Southern Ute lands—to the south.

This will supplement another underpass of U.S. 160 farther west, between Durango and Bayfield. In the 10 years prior to its completion in 2016, C-DOT documented 472 vehicle-wildlife collisions, mostly involving mule deer. Many collisions go unreported.

Mark Lawler, a biologist with the Colorado Department of Transportation, said that research throughout the world shows clearly that underpasses and overpasses dramatically lead to a decline in collisions.

"At the new underpass we're seeing a large number of mule deer going through the structure daily," Lawler said. "Animals are using the structure; we're not just moving the problem."

Another wolf in Colorado, but no evidence of a date

WALDEN, Colo.—Coloradans visiting Wyoming is not news. They're called "greenies" in Wyoming, because of Colorado's white-and-green license plates.

But one particular tourist from Wyoming to Colorado has attracted plenty of attention. Colorado Parks and Wildlife announced last week that a male grey wolf recently sighted in Colorado's North Park had come from the Snake River pack. The pack normally dens just inside Yellowstone National Park. In February, the Wyoming Game and Fish's telemetry instrumentation last recorded this particular wolf being near South Pass, at the southern tip of the Wind River Range.

It's not the first dispersing male wolf from Wyoming since reintroduction of the species in the Yellowstone area in the 1990s. The first known wolf arrived in Colorado in 2004, and there have been several since.

But unless these lone male wolves bring dates, wildlife biologists say, there's no real chance for a permanent population in Colorado. Colorado's wildlife commission two years ago heard again a proposal to reintroduce wolves, but, as before, said—no, not now.

Banff e-bikes protested by environmental groups

BANFF, Alta.—Parks Canada has decided to allow pedal-assisted e-bikes on some of the trails open to other bicycles in Banff National Park. At least two environmental organizations are unhappy.

They said the greater speed, range, and relative silence of the e-bikes will likely lead to increased visitor and wildlife conflicts, but also degradation of wildlife values.

"The new policy will allow motorized bicycles in the backcountry capable of going faster than the current speed limit on Banff Avenue," said the Bow Valley Naturalists and Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. Banff Avenue, the town's main street, has a 30-km/h speed limit.

Jasper National Park announced it would allow e-bikes on some trails as part of a pilot project. The same has occurred in the Lake Louise, Yoho, and Kootenay unit of Parks Canada.