Ask T. Wright Dickinson to pick his title, and he'll insist upon "rancher."
A closer look reveals that this Republican from the town of Maybell wears more than just a cowboy hat when he rides into the political arena.
"He's just a good gentleman to have in place when we need to get things done," said Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association.
Dickinson wrangles a variety of statewide leadership positions and political appointments when he's not out in Browns Park working his family's Vermillion Ranch.
He's the chairman of Great Outdoors Colorado's board of directors, chairman of the executive committee of Club 20, a director on the Colorado River Water Conservation District board, an appointee on the Northwest Resource Advisory Council for the Colorado Bureau of Land Management, and an active member of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association. He was a Moffat County commissioner until term limits ended that career in January 2003.
"T. Wright is a slow-talking, country-sounding kinda guy, but he's probably one of the most intelligent people you'll ever meet," Eagle County Commissioner Tom Stone said.
Recently, in between long days of running hay in the remote high desert valley that he calls home, Dickinson found time to join Western politicians and special-interest groups in Denver at the inaugural meeting of Partnership for the West. Attendees included Gov. Bill Owens; Democratic Rep. Mark Udall of Boulder; Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave of Fort Morgan; Republican Rep. Bob Beauprez of Wheat Ridge; Greg Walcher, at the time, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources; and representatives from oil-and-gas, surface-mining, off-road-vehicle, agriculture and small-business interests.
Partnership for the West is a self-proclaimed "grass-roots army that can be unleashed to support public policies that promote economic growth, stronger local control and reduced government regulation." After attending the inaugural Sept. 26 gathering, Dickinson said he was intrigued.
Public-land management, particularly access, was often a hot topic for Dickinson during his eight years as a commissioner in Moffat County, where more than 53 percent of the land is owned by the federal government.
"T. Wright was exceptional as a county commissioner, a true partner, a talented collaborator," said Marianna Raftopoulos, Moffat County's first female commissioner. She served with Dickinson for six years. Raftopoulos described Dickinson as "visionary" for his take on multiple use for public lands.
But many of his visions for northwest Colorado's public lands have angered environmentalists.
As a commissioner, Dickinson helped create the Northwest Colorado Working Landscape Trust, a plan that seeks to move management of Moffat County's public lands out of the hands of federal agencies and into the hands of local officials.
"T. Wright's whole mission is that ranches get expanded and not have public lands for conservation, nonmotorized recreation and roadless areas, said John Fielder, a well-known Colorado photographer and anti-sprawl activist.
Moffat County's 1.8 million acres of public land include Dinosaur National Monument, Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge and four Bureau of Land Management wilderness study areas. Also included in the tally is Vermillion Basin, a 77,067-acre potential BLM wilderness study area, near Dickinson's sprawling family ranch.
As a commissioner, Dickinson led Moffat County's use of the 1866 Mining Law to reclaim management rights for thousands of acres of historic "rights of way" that cut through lands managed by the federal government.
The local government has claimed jurisdiction over historic routes, many of which no longer are visible, that pass through most Moffat County public lands, including the wilderness study areas and the national monument.
Moffat County's action has been widely opposed by environmental groups, including the Colorado Environmental Coalition, Colorado Wilderness Network, the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, Western Colorado Congress, Colorado Mountain Club, National Parks Conservation Association and Natural Resources Defense Council. These groups criticize the county's plan for opening roadless areas to off-road vehicles, jeopardizing the wilderness character of these areas and setting a bad precedent for counties in other Western states to do the same thing.
"I don't appreciate his values at all. He's a bad thing for Colorado," Fielder said about Dickinson's land-management agenda.
According to Raftopoulos, Dickinson continues to participate in Moffat County's Land Use Board and lobby for local control over federal lands.
And it doesn't look as though Dickinson will be pulling out of the public-land-management debate any time soon. In August 2003, Interior Secretary Gale Norton appointed Dickinson to a three-year term on the citizen-based Northwest Resource Advisory Council for the Colorado Bureau of Land Management. The regional council provides advice and recommendations to the BLM on the use and management of nearly 5 million surface acres of public lands and more than 6.5 million subsurface acres with mineral-development potential.
Dickinson is chairman of the board for Great Outdoors Colorado, a voter-approved government trust that uses lottery proceeds to fund protection of open space, wildlife and outdoor recreation. Gov. Owens appointed Dickinson to the 17-member GOCo board in April 1999 as a representative of agriculture and the 3rd Congressional District.
During his time on the GOCo board, Dickinson has led a campaign to allow less binding "term easements" as an alternative to perpetual conservation easements for GOCo-funded open-space projects. This is an unpopular option with most of the state's land-conservation organizations and several former GOCo board members who prefer to invest GOCo funds in permanent protection projects.
Fielder, a founding member of GOCo who served two years on the GOCo board with Dickinson, criticized Owens' appointment as "thoughtless in choosing who is in charge of our remaining wild lands and open space" in a letter to the editor published in the Rocky Mountain News on Aug. 20, 2003.
"T. Wright is attached to his multi-generational heritage, but he's not working in the interest of Colorado," Fielder said.
Yet, according to Fankhauser at the Colorado Cattlemen's Association, Dickinson "carried the torch" in setting up state legislation that gives tax credits to landowners who donate perpetual conservation easements.
He said Dickinson also spearheaded the creation of the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust, the nation's first land-conservation organization formed by a mainstream agriculture organization.
Since 1995, the cattlemen's land trust has protected more than 132,000 acres of ranch and farm land in Colorado.
These contrasts make Dickinson a hard character to pin down.
"And I think he likes to keep it that way," said Reeves Brown, executive director of Club 20.
Dickinson and Stone had the recent distinction of being two in a minority of Western Slope politicians to support Referendum A, Colorado's proposed $2 billion water bonding initiative that voters overwhelmingly turned down Nov. 4.
"I've been in the minority many times in my life," Dickinson said about politics.
Brown thinks Dickinson would single-mindedly like to see more water-storage projects in the state, a point people on both sides of the debate tend to agree upon. But Brown made it clear Club 20 decided "the referendum puts the cart before the horse." Club 20 had serious concerns about a lack of language in Referendum A that addressed mitigation for water resources that would likely be diverted from the Western Slope to the Front Range with new water projects.
"Mitigation is a legitimate concern," Dickinson said.
But he added, "People that are out there stealing the water don't need Referendum A. They are just going to keep right on doing it."
He said that's why he supported the failed measure.
Ask Dickinson whether Colorado voters will see him run for political office any time soon and he declines comment -- with a chuckle.
"I've not bought into the rhetoric of either side of the political argument," he said.