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2018: Year of drought, wildfires, political change

After a weak winter, low reservoirs, fires troubled community

Major wildfires, drought, a large marijuana drug bust, an officer-involved fatal shooting, large hospital layoffs and a hard-fought election topped the news charts for Montezuma County in 2018. Other highlights included fraud on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation, new logging plans and expansion of Phil’s World. Through it all, the county’s green chile shone.

Wildfires shut down parts of forest

Beginning June 8 in Bear Creek Canyon, the Burro Fire burned through about 4,600 acres before it was extinguished with the help of rains in late July. Hundreds of federal firefighters fought the fire and established containment lines that kept it within the canyon. Because of the wildfire danger, the San Juan National Forest was closed to the public on June 12, then reopened on July 20 after significant rainfall. The Burro Fire started near the Gold Run Trail and is still under investigation. The cost of the fire was more than $2.6 million.

The Plateau Fire was started by a lightning strike in dense forest north of Dolores on July 22 and burned nearly 18,000 acres before being contained in mid-August. The fire grew aggressively southward in early August and jumped from Plateau Canyon into Beaver Canyon, then pushed south toward private property and the town of Dolores. On Aug. 8, pre-evacuation orders were issued for Granath Mesa neighborhoods north of Dolores but were lifted a few days later. The cost of fighting the fire was an estimated $3 million.

Authorities raid marijuana operations

On Aug. 27, federal and local authorities raided multiple properties in Montezuma County that were growing large amounts of marijuana. The bust led to the arrest of nine Chinese-speaking people and seizure of $500,000, 4,300 plants and 500 pounds of processed pot. The raids were related to an operation that had been under investigation since a large bust in Rifle in 2016, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency. Charges of cultivation of more than 30 plants against five of the defendants were dropped by 22nd Judicial District Attorney Will Furse, citing lack of evidence. Four other suspects were arrested as part of the bust are facing federal indictments over the grow operations. Three of the four defendants facing federal charges own Chinese restaurants in Cortez, according to court documents.

McPhee Reservoir approaches bottom

Last winter’s 50 percent of average snowpack left McPhee Reservoir at a historically low level and severely dried out soils. The drought caused water shortages for farmers, but thanks to good carryover from the previous winter’s record snowpack, cuts were contained to 25 percent. There was no whitewater release on the Dolores River below the dam for boaters. During an average winter, total runoff into the Dolores River from snowpack is 295,000 acre-feet. In 2018, models predicted runoff of just 50,000 acre-feet. McPhee has very limited carryover storage going into the 2019 water season, a major concern for farmers if this winter also is dry.

Hospital struggles to stay afloat

In August, management of Southwest Memorial Hospital announced layoffs of 40 employees as part of a reorganization plan to bolster the hospital’s struggling financial position. A study showed staffing levels were too high based on patient volume and revenues. The hospital now has 380 employees. In June, the hospital hosted an open house for a completed $32 million expansion project, including a new patient wing, birthing center, medical office building, pharmacy, EMS station and front entrance.

Elections: Candelaria comes out on top in commission race

Republican Jim Candelaria, a local hemp promoter, builder and former firefighter, was elected to the Montezuma County commission on Nov. 6. Candelaria won over Democrat candidate MB McAfee in a hard-fought campaign that included six well-attended public forums. Although McAfee outspent Candelaria $54,179 to $13,434, the Republican received 40.78 percent of the vote to McAfee’s 37.41 percent. A ballot question to increase the term limits of the 22nd Judicial District Attorney from two terms to three terms was rejected by voters, with 63 percent voting against the measure and 36 percent voting for it.Ballot Question 6A, which asked voters whether they would increase the mill levy for the Lewis-Arriola Fire Protection District passed, with 847 (57.42 percent) voting for it and 628 (42.58 percent) voting against it.

Shootout in McElmo Canyon

Republican Jim Candelaria, a local hemp promoter, builder and former firefighter, was elected to the Montezuma County commission on Nov. 6. Candelaria won over Democrat candidate MB McAfee in a hard-fought campaign that included six well-attended public forums. Although McAfee outspent Candelaria $54,179 to $13,434, the Republican received 40.78 percent of the vote to McAfee’s 37.41 percent. A ballot question to increase the term limits of the 22nd Judicial District Attorney from two terms to three terms was rejected by voters, with 63 percent voting against the measure and 36 percent voting for it.Ballot Question 6A, which asked voters whether they would increase the mill levy for the Lewis-Arriola Fire Protection District passed, with 847 (57.42 percent) voting for it and 628 (42.58 percent) voting against it.On Feb. 15, a suspect died in a McElmo Canyon shootout involving former Montezuma County sheriff deputy Ed Oxley. While pursuing a vehicle that left a traffic stop on County Road G, Oxley was fired upon by a passenger and returned fire. After the suspect vehicle crashed just across the Utah border, the gunfight continued, and Fordell Hill was fatally shot by Oxley. After an investigation, Oxley was cleared on Aug. 31 by the U.S. Attorney’s office, which concluded Hill’s shooting was “unquestionably justified.” However, Oxley was fired Sept. 17 by Sheriff Steve Nowlin, who cited policy violations during the incident, including shooting at or from a moving vehicle.

Lumber mill eyes public timber

Montrose Forest Products announced in February that it plans to expand operations at its Montrose mill to process ponderosa pine harvested from the San Juan National Forest. The plan for more large-scale logging was welcomed by federal forest officials, who have been struggling with how to thin out the ponderosa forest to lessen the risk of larger wildfires and major beetle infestations. The company has requested enough ponderosa stock to process 20 million board-feet per year over the next 20 years.

Phil’s World biking area expands

In January, the Bureau of Land Management’s Tres Rios Field Office approved an expansion of the Phil’s World trail system east of Cortez. The plan will add 22.5 additional miles of single-track, nonmotorized trails, plus two new trailheads and parking areas. The plan is being challenged by two local wildlife advocates who argue the new trails will disrupt wildlife. A temporary stay on construction while the appeal is being decided was denied, so trail construction has begun, including the newly completed Poquito Burrito trail.

Ute Mountain Ute fraud case grows

The Ute Mountain Ute fraud case expanded in 2018 to a total of more than $1.1 million in embezzled and stolen funds involving 13 people. Prosecutors alleged that employees of the tribe’s Financial Services Department fraudulently dispersed checks written to people they selected, including nontribal members and prison inmates, according to court documents. Between 2011 and 2015, prosecutors said, finance employees took advantage of tribal programs intended to help community members. The case was investigated by the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service after a 2016 audit and was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Pegeen D. Rhyne. So far, 13 have pleaded guilty, and sentences involving restitution have been handed down.

Murder case focuses on mental competency

In October, Jeremiah Paul Damron, who is charged with first-degree murder of his mother last summer, pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. The plea set in motion a mandatory mental health evaluation to determine whether he was insane at the time of the slaying that occurred at residence in Montezuma County. In an insanity defense, doctors determine whether a defendant knew right from wrong at the time of the offense. If they determine he was insane, their recommendation will be reviewed by the district attorney and judge. If the prosecutor and judge agree, the judge can make a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity. At that point, Damron would be committed to the Colorado Mental Health Institute and could be released only at the recommendation of doctors. If there is disagreement on the recommendation, a mental health evaluation could be sought, or the case could go to trial. If the recommendation finds that Damron was sane at the time of the slaying, defense attorneys could seek another evaluation. If deemed sane by the court, Damron could then go to trial, or negotiate a plea bargain. On Aug. 1, the court found Damron competent to proceed.

Mesa Verde horse removal plan

In April, Mesa Verde National Park released a report stating that it favors removing free-roaming horses and cattle from the park within five years. The animals are not considered wildlife, and the park does not allow livestock grazing under its management policy. The horses at Mesa Verde do not fall under the protection of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act. That law identifies specific public lands in the West where wild horses are managed long-term, and Mesa Verde National Park is not one of them. According to the park’s preferred plan, horses would be captured using baited pen trapping as the primary method of removal during the first two years at Morefield Spring, Chapin Mesa, Wetherill Mesa, Far View wastewater lagoons and Moccasin Mesa. A tamed “Judas horse” trained to lure horses into a pen or corral might be used. After livestock have been removed from an area of the park, wildlife-friendly fences would be installed around the park and water sources to prevent livestock from recolonizing the area. A remote camera would determine whether livestock were still in the area. Water would be restored if remaining livestock are in distress. The unclaimed livestock would then be offered by public or private sale, auction, adoption or donation on-site, with the National Park Service issuing a bill of sale.

Sheriff seizes 18 emaciated horses

In April, Mesa Verde National Park released a report stating that it favors removing free-roaming horses and cattle from the park within five years. The animals are not considered wildlife, and the park does not allow livestock grazing under its management policy. The horses at Mesa Verde do not fall under the protection of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act. That law identifies specific public lands in the West where wild horses are managed long-term, and Mesa Verde National Park is not one of them. According to the park’s preferred plan, horses would be captured using baited pen trapping as the primary method of removal during the first two years at Morefield Spring, Chapin Mesa, Wetherill Mesa, Far View wastewater lagoons and Moccasin Mesa. A tamed “Judas horse” trained to lure horses into a pen or corral might be used. After livestock have been removed from an area of the park, wildlife-friendly fences would be installed around the park and water sources to prevent livestock from recolonizing the area. A remote camera would determine whether livestock were still in the area. Water would be restored if remaining livestock are in distress. The unclaimed livestock would then be offered by public or private sale, auction, adoption or donation on-site, with the National Park Service issuing a bill of sale.In April, the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office seized 18 emaciated horses from a property on County Road N. Daisy Stenzel was charged with 18 counts of animal cruelty but agreed to plead guilty to one count if the other 17 counts were dismissed. As part of a deferred sentence, she cannot own a horse for two years and must pay $6,120 in restitution to cover costs of rehabilitating the seized horses.

Ute Mountain Utes get safety grant

In September, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe was awarded a $1.6 million Department of Justice grant to improve public safety. Of that amount, $898,918 was for public safety and community policing, and $748,013 was awarded to the tribe for justice systems and alcohol and substance abuse. Ute Mountain Public Safety Director John Trocheck said the funding is a big boost for tribe services. “We’re in the process of rebuilding our law enforcement department,” he said. “We have had trouble recruiting for qualified officers, and this funding will help us in that effort and to provide training.”

Green chile rates in state’s Top 10

In April, green chile fever hit Southwest Colorado. Beny’s in Cortez, Absolute Bakery in Mancos, and Oscar’s in Durango were on the top of the leaderboard for the best chile verde in Colorado as part of a USA Today 10 Best Readers Choice contest. When the votes came in, Oscars took third, Absolute came in fourth, and Beny’s was sixth. Victor Nuñez, Jr., part of the family that owns Beny’s Diner, said being considered for the Top 10 list has helped the restaurant’s business. “We’ve been selling so much green chile, even more than before,” he said.

Sep 28, 2021
Deputy cleared in fatal McElmo Canyon shootout, then is fired
Sep 28, 2021
Four indicted on federal charges after Montezuma pot raids
Sep 28, 2021
UPDATE: At least eight face charges in Cortez after pot raids
Sep 28, 2021
Plateau Fire 93 percent contained
Sep 28, 2021
McPhee Reservoir supply drops to a historic low
Sep 28, 2021
Durango, Mancos and Cortez chile verde finish in Top 10
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