Top stories 2019

Jake and Larry Coulter worked to remove the letters from their scaffolding in the fall of 2017. (Photo courtesy of Tim Walters)

The top Watch stories of 2019 were a mixture of hard news and fun features. From Western Slope health care to tarantulas in the West End, the past year seemed to have a little bit of everything. 

‘OBAMACARE’ IN THE SAN JUANS

Most people get their health insurance through their employer(s). The fate of their coverage is not in doubt.

If you have purchased insurance through the Affordable Care Act (ACA), however — aka ‘Obamacare’ — you can be forgiven for questioning whether your insurance is about to be repealed.

Indeed, you may have been wondering about that for the past two years.

So far, the Trump administration has failed to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, but that hasn’t stopped the president from bringing up the idea repeatedly. And a month ago, the Justice Department took what many say has amounted to the administration’s most significant attempt to dismantle the ACA: It announced its intention to support a decision by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, of Texas, who last December ruled the ACA completely unconstitutional.

O’Connor’s ruling is under appeal. But if his decision stands, 20 million people across the U.S. stand to lose their health insurance, including 170,000 Coloradans. (An additional 400,000 Coloradans would lose their Medicaid coverage.)

Montrose retiree David Swedlow, 64, is one of those people.

“I had this outrageously expensive health-insurance policy. The cost kept going up and up,” Swedlow recalled. “It got to the point where there was just no way I could afford it anymore. I was paying close to $1,300 a month.”

A friend told Swedlow about Connect for Colorado, the state’s health insurance marketplace, and put him in touch with Alicia Plantz, a health coverage guide who assisted him in applying for a much-less-costly policy. He’s now had an Obamacare policy for several years — ever since the plans have been in existence. “I had terrific help picking out my plan and I’ve been pleased with it,” Swedlow said. “Because of my low income, I was able to qualify for an affordable policy. It helps you rest at night, knowing you’re covered for any major anything.”

Swedlow is not alone. Health insurance rates on the Western Slope are some of the highest in the state, but for those who qualify — and most do — Obamacare offers financial relief in the form of tax credits, which makes the coverage much more affordable. The good news is the coverage has gotten less expensive. According to Connect for Health’s most recent statistics, premiums are down an average of 14 percent compared to last year, “and many rural and frontier counties saw an even greater decrease.”

FIVE GUYS AND A SIGN

“Let’s get this straight. She’s beautiful,” says Louis Fogleman, as he steers his glossy black Jeep through an aspen glade and rumbles toward the tip of a rocky promontory high above Ouray.

Glynn Williams, riding shotgun, gazes at the view that fills the windshield. “She is beautiful,” he agrees.

In the backseat, Tim Walters is as pale as his bleached-blond hair after the brief, harrowing drive leading out to this broad-shouldered, brazen beauty we have come to admire.

“She” is the iconic “Box Canon” sign, erected in 1909. And Fogleman is right. She’s a sight to behold, with her newly fortified, steel-clad, six-foot all-caps; fresh coat of paint; and an array of solar-powered LED lightbulbs replacing the antique incandescents that shone their last sometime in the 1960s or 1970s.

“And let’s just get this straight – It is a she,” insists Fogleman, a part-time Ouray resident who has been bewitched by the Box Canon sign for the past 35 years. Williams nods a familiar nod. He, too, has been fascinated by the sign, ever since he moved to Ouray in 1975.

Walters, the lone millennial of the group, and a native of New York City, remains respectfully noncommital on the question of the sign’s gender identity. But he admits he has been equally smitten by this historic landmark for the past eight years that he has made Ouray his home.

Together, Fogleman, Williams and Walters comprise three-fifths of the five guys who came together in 2017 to fix the sign up, and succeeded against all odds in bringing her back to “light” last summer.

Around Ouray, they are collectively known as the “Five Guys and a Sign.”

We unfold ourselves from Fogleman’s Jeep and ease into the sunny late-May morning to take a closer look at the 30-foot wide by 20-foot tall historic masterpiece. Hummingbirds burr the air with song. Somewhere below, in the narrow, damp quartzite depths of Box Canyon, the black swifts have returned for the summer. So have the tourists, who pay $5 apiece to venture out onto a metal walkway for a thrilling, close-up view of Box Canyon Falls as it thunders through its sculpted chasm.

WOLVES ON THE BALLOT

For millions of years, gray wolves roamed this continent.

Thousands of them once lived in Colorado, but by 1935, wolves were effectively extinct here — scientists call it “extirpated” — from gunshots, poisoning and trapping. No one knows for sure where the last wolf died in this state. One writer believes it was in the South San Juans in 1938 (the South San Juans are where Colorado’s last grizzly bear died in 1979). Another speculates the year was 1945, and the wolf’s place of death was Conejos County, on the border of New Mexico.

Wherever that animal took its last breath, one fact about its locale is known for sure. As Fort Lewis College history and environmental studies professor Andrew Gulliford has written in “The Last Stand of the Pack:” “National Park Rangers killed the last wolf in Yellowstone in 1926. In Colorado it took longer because of our vast mountainous terrain and the many plateaus, buttes, prairies and canyons where wolves roamed.”

Wolves hung on longer here than in northwest Wyoming, where they’ve since been successfully restored. If a group of conservationists is persuasive — and the voting public agrees — it could well be the western Colorado wilderness that restores and protects wolves again.

A lot has happened since 1945, after all: wolves have not only been returned to Yellowstone National Park and resided there for 25 years, they’ve roamed (which is what wolves do) across much of the Northern Rockies. Today, they can be found in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon, even California — where a female from the “Lassen pack” gave birth to pups in April. Reviled by many (but not all) ranchers and livestock producers, Canis lupus has morphed into a cash cow in Yellowstone, at least, which takes in an estimated $35 million annually in “wolf tourism.”

Now a group of passionate conservationists, which has been studying this issue for years, aims to let the voting public decide the wolf’s fate in Colorado. They are giving the public what it says it wants: For years, bipartisan polling has consistently found that voters want the wolf restored here. (A bipartisan, statewide survey conducted in March, for example, found that two-thirds of likely voters agree that wolves should be restored to western Colorado, and only 15 percent opposed it.)

ARACHNOPHOBIA!

Every fall, Ailene Smith imagines this horrible scenario.

Some kid picks up a roaming male tarantula while he’s waiting for the school bus on a fine fall Nucla or Naturita morning. He stuffs it into a Crayola box, perhaps, or an empty disposable cup, and decides to take it to school, just for fun.

The bus comes along. The kid and the spider get on that bus. The spider somehow gets loose. It crawls down the length of the school bus aisle. It eases its hairy little legs up the pant leg of the driver. The driver feels a little tickle. Glances down. Freaks out. And, crash!

“It could happen,” Smith says. “I imagine wrecks like that. And it’s actually not just me. There are a lot of kindred spirits. You hear about bees getting in the car and causing accidents all the time. Why not a tarantula?”

All her life, Smith has dreaded the season of the wandering tarantulas in the West End. The hairy black arachnids that crawl haphazardly across the countryside around Nucla, Naturita, and Dove Creek and tap-dance their way through the shimmer of heat-miraged highway, stumbling around with their eight beady close-set eyes and eight hairy legs, and venom glands, and fangs, hoping to encounter a female and get lucky.

A lifelong resident of Nucla, Smith never actually saw very many West End tarantulas until she started working as a custodian at the elementary school down in Naturita.

“They come right down off the mountain and right into the building,” she said. Crawling across the gym floor. Easing their way out of the lockers where kids have stowed them as “pets.”

This year hasn’t been quite so bad. “But last year, there was a lot,” Smith said. “So many.” Between the kids picking them up and letting them crawl on their hands and jackets, and the kids chasing her down the hallway with them because they know she’s scared, and the kids who are stepping on them because they’re as scared as she is, tarantula season pretty much sucks for Smith.

“I wouldn’t step on them myself,” she adds. “I don’t want to clean it off my shoe. It would be ‘ick’ for sure. But I do run over a couple of tarantulas a year. As many as possible.”

CLEANING UP THE PAST

As the 20th century progressed, the mining industry in Ophir waned and ultimately shut down entirely.

The mines were abandoned and the land was left to continue the story.

Ophir was saved by the growing ski industry and avoided the ghost-town fate that befell many mining towns. Yet mining’s legacy lived on, in the form of orange-colored sludge lining the creeks and rivers near the mines, waters laced with a cocktail of heavy metals, and toxic piles of mine tailings scattered across the land. The men and their carts of precious metals were long gone, but new residents now began to read the story of the troubled land and wonder how best to write the next chapter of Ophir’s story and its decaying mines.

By the mid-1990s, local residents and environmental officials had identified problematic mine sites in Ophir and began to formulate plans to remediate the land. By the early 2000s, various agencies, including the Forest Service, the EPA, San Miguel County, the Town of Ophir and private landowners, were working on addressing the biggest sources of heavy metals contamination, including the Carribeau Mine.

In 2005, Harley Brooke-Hitching bought the property along the south side of the Howard Fork of the San Miguel River, acquiring the stretch of land immediately below the old Carribeau millsite.

On a crisp bluebird morning in early November, not long after the season’s first snow, this reporter drove the mile from Ophir to Brooke-Hitching’s house, to talk with her about her nearly 15-year saga remediating the land.

As we sat at the kitchen table, Brooke-Hitching recalled the state of the land when she first arrived on the property.

“It was absolutely beautiful, but it was yellow,” she reflected. “There were tailings everywhere, but over the years things had grown on it. There was a huge forest, and a pond, and it was really, really beautiful. But it was contaminated. So I worked with the state and did about $40,000 of reclamation on my own, but I just couldn’t continue. It would’ve taken a lot more money.”