This quarter, the work session was held at the 4H Event Center in Ridgway, and the topics ranged from low-flying military jets to tourism dollars to private hunting preserves.
Only one of the nine commissioners missed the work session; that was San Miguel’s Art Goodtimes, who was traveling. All of the others were present: Ron Henderson, Gary Ellis and David White from Montrose; Heidi Albritton, Lynn Padgett and Mike Fedel from Ouray; Elaine Fischer and Joan May from San Miguel. May acted as meeting chair.
Differences in style and outlook were apparent from the beginning. Early on, Jerry Otero from Senator Mark Udall’s staff asked the commissioners if they had any feedback from constituents on the proposed LATN flights – Low Altitude Tactical Navigation training – that the Air Force wants to conduct in the mountains of southern Colorado.
“I have heard very little support,” said May of the training missions that the Air Force says are necessary for combat readiness. “People (in San Miguel County) are very concerned about noise,” she said. The minimum proposed altitude for the aircraft is 200 feet above ground level. The Air Force proposes three flights per day, not more than 688 missions per year.
Padgett of Ouray wanted Otero to pass on to the senator her county’s concern that overflights at such low-altitudes could conceivably trigger avalanches. Her constituents also had concerns about potential impacts to wildlife, tourism and communication with local air traffic and emergency responders.
But Henderson of Montrose had no such worries. “I just hope we don’t divest ourselves,” he said, “of this opportunity to keep our armed forces at the ready.”
His compatriot David White elaborated. “Our topography is very different from Ouray and San Miguel. We have a lot of canyons and adobe hills. And other than some very scarce wildlife, there’s not much out there. We do have a very nice airport with a very long runway they can use,” he concluded, although LATN makes no mention of using civilian airfields and, in fact, prescribes avoidance of non-military airfields.
Montrose County didn’t have much to say on the issue of the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act, which Otero brought up along with his counterpart from Senator Michael Bennet’s Western Slope office, Monica Piergrossi. Otero said that Udall, who sponsored the bill in the 111th Congress, is “interested in reintroducing the bill” in this legislative session. “We have a meeting scheduled for this week with Congressman Tipton. Ideally, we would get Congressman Tipton to co-sponsor. We understand that this was a community-based initiative, and we want to honor that.”
Piergrossi said that her boss, Sen. Bennet, is “still on board” in support of the wilderness, which affects lands in Ouray and San Miguel counties, but none in Montrose. Piergrossi then addressed her remarks to Ouray’s Mike Fedel, who had cast the one dissenting vote in Ouray County’s resolution of support for adding to the existing Mount Sneffels Wilderness. Fedel had voiced concern that wilderness designation would prohibit mining in the area, specifically mining for so-called rare earth minerals, which may or may not exist within the wilderness boundary. “As far as mining tunnels, directional drilling and access in the wilderness,” Piergrossi said, “Sen. Bennet is asking for a legal opinion on that.” Fedel nodded his approval.
May spoke for the majorities in the two uplands counties when she said: “I’m really impressed with this citizen process [vis à vis the wilderness]. All the landowners and stakeholders have been involved and their concerns addressed. While at the same time preserving ecologically sensitive landscapes that support our only sustainable economy, which is tourism and recreation.”
Padgett, a passionate advocate for the wilderness expansion, then introduced the next topic, which she called the Critical Wildlife Designation Initiative. She introduced Ryan Bidwell, executive director of Colorado Wild in Durango. Bidwell was seeking county support for a bill soon to be introduced in the Colorado legislature that would allow landowners with agricultural status to “manage some or all of their land for active wildlife management” and still retain their ag tax exemption.
The idea, Bidwell said, was for certain critical wildlife habitats – a stream with native cutthroat trout in it, for example – to be removed from ag use, from grazing, say, but still afford the landowner his ag exemption for that acreage.
Rep. Jerry Sonnenburg, of Sterling and the House agriculture committee, is interested in introducing a bill soon, Bidwell said. “And the hope is that the counties would be supportive.”
But San Miguel’s Fischer spoke up quickly to paint a very different picture. “In our county we might have a 12,000 square-foot house that pays only $1,500 in property taxes because they run a few sheep or cattle for a few days. That’s what concerns me – what I see as abuse. What is ag, and what is not? The counties are trying to collect the correct amount of tax,” and this proposal, she implied, had the potential to muddy those waters further.
“We all want to see legitimate ag recognized,” Padgett said. But she, too, had a “laundry list” of questions about the legislation, none of which could be answered until there is actual language being proposed.
“There is a fear factor from the counties,” Albritton suggested, in explaining her fellows’ hesitation, “because we’re being asked to come in with support at the last minute. We don’t have actual language yet.”
Bidwell responded: “My understanding is there will be a bill for you to react to by the end of this week. And that our coalition will work to amend it, to address the concerns of everyone here.”
Jesse Smith, the Montrose County Manager (Ouray’s manager, Connie Hunt, attended as well), didn’t need to see the bill to articulate his objections. “Let me preface by saying that I have been a hunter for 50 years. I have been an outfitter. I am very concerned about preserving our wildlife. But I have a real problem with the use of tax dollars to help establish private hunting preserves, while in the national forest there is a hunter behind every other tree.”
A fourth topic of discussion enjoyed no more unanimity than the first three. And it also involved a tight timetable. This was the project, presented to each of the counties separately over the last few weeks by GREAT, the Gunnison River Economic Attraction Team, and MC4FF, Montrose Citizens For Funding our Future. They want Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel counties to band together in a six-county Regional Tourism Authority (along with Gunnison, Delta and Hinsdale) to apply for state sales tax rebates for regional tourism development.
Time is of the essence, according to Richard Harding representing GREAT, as the deadline for submitting applications to the state is March 21. A temporary task force, consisting of one commissioner from each county will hold its first meeting Friday, Feb. 18, to see if there is enough interest in an RTA, unwieldy as it may seem, to move ahead.
May asked the assembled commissioners how each county was “feeling about it at this point?”
Speaking for Ouray, Padgett expressed caution. “I think the municipalities, Ridgway and Ouray, need to speak for themselves. And they haven’t had a chance yet. I’m also concerned about the emphasis on ‘capital projects’ funding in what we’ve heard from GREAT. We would love to build trails, for example. But I cannot find authorization for that kind of thing in the actual language of the bill.”
“Capital projects?” said May of her San Miguel board. “We weren’t creative enough to come up with any that would benefit the whole region. It’d be great if this thing works out, but . . . in this economy?”
Heidi Albritton reiterated a caution based on the finite amount of time and energy commissioners possess. “We are also trying to get on board with the governor’s economic development efforts,” she said. Proposals to the governor’s office are due this spring. “It’s the rushing through that’s troubling. We have lots of questions.”
Ron Henderson of Montrose had no such qualms. There is a possible $50 million at stake. “I’m in this whole hog,” he said. “I’m astounded this has not been done sooner. This would do nothing but enhance the lifestyle, as well as gain monies. To not go ahead and use the state of the art – all this that’s already in place – to go ahead and use what God has given us, this is a remarkable opportunity.”
With that, the Montrose contingent excused themselves to leave; they had another meeting.
The remaining commissioners listened, in the short time left, to rather rushed updates from Barbara Sharrow of the Montrose Field Office of the BLM, and from Tammy Randall Parker of the USFS. They had lots of interesting things to report on, including a Ridgway trails project brought to the BLM by the Ridgway Trails Group, and a year-one update on how the first $500,000 was spent on the Uncompahgre Plateau Forest Restoration Project.
Randall Parker elicited surprise from Commissioner Albritton when she said that the Forest had not heard from Mount Sneffels Mining Company on an avalanche mitigation study. “No application?” Albritton asked. “No,” replied Randall Parker. Albritton knew that if the Ruby Trust Mine was to expand its operations in Yankee Boy Basin, as they have said they want to do, they must first complete the avalanche study.
But there was no time for further exchange. All of the public servants present had pressing afternoon schedules – the actual demands of governance reasserted over the relative luxury of informative but informal conversation.