Originally published in The Aspen Daily News on August 16, 2014

$5 million endowment would be first in the 49-year history of local nonprofit

Mountain Rescue Aspen (MRA) launched a campaign to raise a $5 million endowment this week in an effort to secure the organization’s financial future.

MRA is made up of about 50 volunteer members, who are trained to perform technical rescues in the backcountry. The organization is an arm of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, and is called on in search, rescue and recovery situations.

Since the all-volunteer organization officially started in 1965, it hasn’t had an endowment, said Doug Paley, vice president of MRA. An endowment would provide funding for four items essential to the organization, he said.

First, it would pay for insurance if members get injured during a rescue and it would provide a member’s family with benefits in the case of a death.

There’s an inherent risk associated in performing backcountry rescues, and that’s why it’s important that MRA members have financial backing in the worst case scenario, Paley said.

“The most important thing for us is to protect our members,” Paley said. “And we just haven’t had the funds to take care of them in the past.”

The point is particularly timely this summer, Paley noted. On Aug. 6, two MRA members were hospitalized after a climber triggered a rock slide that sent trash-can-sized boulders down on them while they were recovering a body near Capitol Peak.

“It would provide [members] with protection that mirrors the risk they take,” he said of the endowment’s insurance fund.

Funding also would go toward enhancing training. In order to perform rescues, members have to be trained in a variety of disciplines, including areas like emergency medicine, trigonometry and advanced rock climbing techniques, Paley said.

“What we deal with is incredibly sophisticated,” he said. “It’s not cookie cutter — we’re solving problems based on what the environment offers us.”

After taking the logo off the exterior, Mountain Rescue Aspen  members this week pack up the contents of the cabin on Main Street that has been their headquarters since 1965. The volunteer search and rescue organization is moving to a new headquarters on Highway 82 near the airport, and is launching a campaign to raise a $5 million endowment.

Those training courses take a lot of time, effort and expertise. An endowment would not only help pay for those courses, but it also would help pay for new gear that members use during rescues.

The endowment would help fund public education efforts on how best to prepare for traveling in the backcountry. MRA offers avalanche awareness courses in the winter and distributes pamphlets with tips on traveling in the backcountry.

“We really believe that through public awareness and education, we can prevent a lot of problems,” Paley said.

Finally, it would pay the utility bills at the new MRA headquarters along Highway 82 near the airport. MRA has operated out of a 3,500-square-foot cabin off of Main Street since 1965, and in recent years the organization raised $5 million to pay for the land and construction of the new facility, which includes a 45-foot-tall training tower. The new 13,000-square-foot headquarters also will serve as a functional dispatch center, incident command post and emergency management location as a back-up for the sheriff’s office.

“We are very much dependent on this to support our operation, which is minimal” in terms of its expenses, Paley said.

He noted that the nonprofit’s bylaws explicitly state that the organization cannot have any salaried employees. That rule is unlikely to change, he added.

The organization will hold its first fundraiser on Sept. 1 during the opening of the nonprofit’s new headquarters.

MRA leases its current space on Main Street from the city. The lease will end in October. The organization held its last meeting there last Monday. After the lease ends, city officials are considering temporarily moving municipal offices to the old MRA headquarters, but the issue will go before Aspen City Council before a final decision is made, according to Barry Crook, assistant city manager.

People interested in making a donation to MRA can email support@mountainrescueaspen.org or contact Paley directly at (970) 710-1044.

Originally published in The Aspen Daily News on August 13, 2014

Guests staying in Aspen hotels could be allowed to smoke marijuana in their rooms if the hotel had smoker-friendly units, but few if any local lodges do.

Assistant city attorney Debbie Quinn noted the potential way to provide tourists with a place to smoke during a panel discussion Tuesday between Aspen Chamber Resort Association (ACRA) members and the Valley Marijuana Council. The session covered the impacts of retail marijuana on the hospitality industry.

The city restricts marijuana consumption in public, however Aspen hotels are free to create their own policy allowing or prohibiting guests to consume marijuana inside their hotel rooms, Quinn told ACRA members.

“If you have private rooms where guests can only be, that does not fit our definition of public,” Quinn said.

Quinn noted there is a state law making it illegal for businesses to advertise as being marijuana friendly to residents outside of Colorado. That means hotels have to be careful when they’re advertising their smoking rooms, she said.

Most Aspen hotels have no-smoking policies in most rooms, said Warren Klug, general manager of the Aspen Square Condominium Hotel.

“We don’t want smoking in our rooms — it’s offensive to our guests,” Klug said of his hotel.

Klug also asked whether it would be legal for guests to smoke on their hotel balconies.

Unless hotels allow smoking in their rooms, there is no legal place for their guests to consume weed in Aspen, said Jordan Lewis, owner of Aspen’s Silverpeak Apothecary. If hotels don’t create a way for guests to consume marijuana, they’ll likely do it anyway, Lewis added. That’s why it’s important that hotels offer smoke-friendly rooms and provide pamphlets with information about local pot laws to guests.

ACRA members in the room liked the idea of providing information to guests, and asked about ways hotel managers can educate staff.

In some hotels, employees are allowed to take home food that’s left behind by guests, Klug said. Employees might mistake marijuana edible products, which look like regular candy when out of their packaging, for common treats and eat it, he said.

“The issue of our hospitality workers taking it home is huge,” Klug said, referencing an incident in June when a 7-year-old Basalt girl was hospitalized after eating a pot candy her mother, an Aspen hotel worker, brought home without knowing the edible’s nature.

Lewis admitted marijuana edibles can be extremely potent and they’re currently designed in a way that can confuse people who don’t know it’s marijuana, which is dangerous. That’s why it’s important both pot shop proprietors and the hospitality industry try to educate guests, he said.

“Familiarity is what we need here,” he said.

About half of Silverpeak’s business comes from selling edibles, Lewis said

Quinn noted there is a legal “gray area” around whether or not guests at private events in hotels are allowed to consume marijuana legally. The city currently prohibits private businesses like restaurants and bars from converting into marijuana clubs where people can visit and get high. Hotels are not currently in that category, she said, so if the hotel was rented for a private event, guests could consume marijuana there.

“If it’s truly a private event, then it’s allowed,” Quinn said, adding that small events are not likely to draw police attention.

“Just don’t supply cannabis,” advised local attorney Lauren Maytin, who specializes in marijuana laws.

Since pot became legal, the Aspen Police Department hasn’t issued any tickets related to people smoking herb in public, Pryor said. Meanwhile, Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies have made one arrest for driving while under the influence of marijuana, DiSalvo said.

Quinn added that Aspen City Council’s approach to regulating the industry has been conservative, because the federal government might decide to make Aspen an example due to its reputation of having a drug-friendly culture.

DiSalvo noted that it’s better be proactive and deal with the potential issues that may rise in the community in light of marijuana legalization instead of taking a “head-in-the sand” approach.

Marijuana has always been a part of the culture partly because of its connection to skiing, he said, adding that one of the first times he smelled marijuana was in 1980 when he was riding an Aspen chairlift.

“Whether we want to believe it or not, marijuana has been a part of the community for a long time,” DiSalvo said.


Originally published in The Aspen Daily News on April 19, 2013

I have become a kind of a connoisseur of reusable bags since Aspen City Council passed a plastic-bag ban over a year ago.

I’ve tried out bags made out of recycled plastic bottles, which are sturdy, but not easily compacted when you’re not using them. I’ve used bags that are lined with a silver, thermal layer intended to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. I’m not a fan of those either, because the bag’s technology seems unnecessarily advanced and not very effective considering there’s no way to close the top.

By far, the best bags I’ve found are the ones that are made by Equinox, a company that sells outdoor camping products. Equinox’s Ultralight Tote Bags are made out of nylon and silicone, they weigh less than an ounce and can carry over 100 pounds. They also fold into a small pouch when you’re not using them, making it easy to tuck them away into your purse or pocket and pull out if you happen to swing by the store on a whim.

I grew up in Miami where using reusable bags for shopping and recycling in general is as foreign of a concept as skinning up a mountain. For example, Miamians understand in a broad sense what recycling is and they get that they should probably be doing it. But they have no sense of urgency about it. If you happen to toss your soda bottle in the trash no one shoots you the evil eye or launches into a rant about the environmental harm of single-use plastics. Generally, nobody really cares.

In Aspen, things are different. The city has a car-share program made up of a fleet of hybrids that locals can use at their leisure instead of opting to buy their own gas-guzzling vehicles. At special events, there are always three trash bins. One is designated for compost, one for plastics and a third for actual trash — the differences of which would be lost on an average person from Miami. At Belly Up, people are paid to go through the trash after shows to separate any recyclable items that were thrown away.

None of those things happens in Miami and I think it’s fair to say they don’t happen in most other American cities either. What makes this town unique compared to the rest of the world is that the importance of being environmentally conscious permeates our culture. Although the local government spearheads the effort through “green” programs, people here genuinely want to do the right thing partly because it also happens to be the cool thing to do. I have plenty of friends who show off their reusable bags, water bottles and coffee cups arguing one style over another practically on a daily basis.

That’s why, regardless of what reusable bag style you chose, they’re all winners. At the end of the day, you’re making the conscious choice to do the right thing, and, at least in Aspen, you might even get a high-five for doing it.

Get Your Own
Equinox tote bag upstairs at Carl’s Pharmacy