Despite an ironically timed thunderstorm, various state officials toured the Yampa Valley on Tuesday, hoping to see firsthand the effect of this summer’s drought.
The group included John Salazar, state agriculture commissioner; John Stulp, policy advisor on water; Al White, former Colorado Senator in District 8 and current director of the state tourism office; and representatives from other state and federal agencies.
The officials made three stops along the tour to meet with local ranchers and agriculture officials.
For White, a Hayden resident, the tour was mostly about showing his colleagues at the state capital what life has been like for ranchers and farmers in the Yampa Valley.
“Living in Hayden I’m fairly well familiar with what the situation here is, but I wanted to come along with my colleagues to see the perspective through their eyes,” White said. “In particular for some of the ones from Denver, this is a real eye-opener for them.”
The tour’s first stop was the Pankey Ranch, which runs cattle and grows hay and feed, on U.S. Highway 40 just east of Craig.
There, officials met with local ranchers Keith Pankey, owner of Pankey Ranch; Albert Villard; T. Wright Dickinson, who serves as president of the Colorado Cattleman’s Association; and Karin Utterback-Normann, president of the Routt County Conservation District.
Officials also heard from, among others, J.D. Sexton, Moffat County Extension Office agent, and Wendy Reynolds, field manager for the Bureau of Land Management’s Little Snake Field Office in Craig.
The other two stops were both in Routt County, first at the Carpenter Ranch on U.S. Highway 40 east of Hayden, and lastly at the Rocking C Bar Ranch in the lower Elk River Valley about 9 miles west of Steamboat Springs.
In Routt County, officials were able to hear from Geoff Blakeslee, Yampa River Project Director for the Nature Conservancy and Yampa/White River basin representative to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, who lives on and manages Carpenter Ranch with his wife, Betsy.
Officials also heard from, among others, two ranchers who lease land on Carpenter Ranch, Lee Curby and Terry Jost — who also serves as president of Mountain Valley Bank — as well as local ranchers Jay Fetcher, Jocko Camilletti, Kurt Frentress, and Doc and Marsha Daughenbaugh, who own the Rocking C Bar Ranch. State officials also heard from Ron Cousineau, a forester with Colorado State Forest Service, as well as from members of the recreation industry and municipal officials.
While the conversation at each stop touched on the effects the drought already has had this summer — such as ranchers deciding to liquidate their herds and hay their fields months earlier than normal — both ranchers and state officials voiced concerns about how the effects of the drought could extend into winter and spring.
“I think a real big question is the impact on what’s going to happen to growth next year,” Utterback-Normann said.
Being a farmer by trade, answering that question is something Salazar, a Manassa resident, has a personal stake in.
“I wanted to show all of these folks that agriculture is really suffering, and the impact isn’t even now, it’ll be in the winter time and beyond,” he said. “Especially if we have a heavy winter, we’re going to be in big trouble."
Although the drought hasn’t had a big impact on his department yet, it is something that will affect everyone, he said.
“So far we’re not seeing any tourism impacts as a result of the drought, unless you want to make the nexus of the drought and wildfires,” he said. “It’s been an issue particularly for the ag community, and that impacts us all.”
Aside from voicing concerns, local ranchers also had the opportunity to tell state officials how government can help, a crucial part of the tour, said Taryn Hutchins-Cabibi, drought and climate change technical specialist for the Colorado Water Conservation Board and one of the tour's organizers.
“It was good for the policy makers to get out there and hear what’s been going on,” she said.
Dickinson said ranchers could use help from Denver by way of better weather forecasting.
“Information about weather changes is something the state can help with,” said Dickinson, citing a difficult National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website as an example of what could be improved.
Additionally, local ranchers and agriculture representatives told state officials they could help with irrigation, installment of water tanks, development of new springs and ponds, requests for water from the Colorado Water Trust, and arranging water releases from area reservoirs.
Hutchins-Cabibi said she thought the tour was successful.
“(Visiting state officials) certainly felt like they got a really good gauge for what was going on on the ground, and where they could help and where they couldn’t help,” she said. Salazar echoed that sentiment.
“I’m here to help and do whatever I can do,” he said. “I mean, I’m a farmer and a rancher, and we’re suffering the same way.”
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