Craig Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper met with Northwest Colorado residents in Craig Monday morning and discussed a wide variety of issues, including the sage grouse initiative, the coal industry, education and the new gun laws.
The forum was held at the Moffat County Fairgrounds Pavilion where more than 200 people from Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routt counties attended to speak their minds about how state legislation has impacted rural communities.
The event was part of the governor’s efforts to “lean in and listen” to people living on Colorado’s Western Slope.
Hickenlooper was scheduled to speak for 45 minutes but stayed for nearly an hour after being 30 minutes late because of unfavorable flying weather. He originally was scheduled to land at the Craig/Moffat Airport but had to reroute to Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden.
He opened the forum by thanking various community members and organizations for inviting him to visit Northwest Colorado. He spoke for roughly five minutes before he began answering questions from constituents.
“We’ll all get a lot more out of this if I answer your questions and let you get at me directly,” Hickenlooper said to the crowd.
Craig resident and business owner Frank Moe kicked off the Q-and-A session, addressing the governor with a three-part question.
“What does ‘lean in and listen’ truly mean? Will your listening translate into true concern and representation for rural Colorado, especially Moffat County, and will you come back to Craig and Moffat County after the 2014 legislative session so we can discuss what legislation was passed and signed by you?” Moe asked.
Hickenlooper said his goal is to ensure that Northwest Colorado feels as represented as the rest of the state, which includes discussing issues presented by Colorado legislators. He added that getting perspectives from all sides is vital.
“Too often we’re trying to make decisions with different facts, so my commitment is to take that true concern and do a better job of actually communicating,” he said. “Will I come back after the legislative session and discuss the bills passed? Absolutely. Yes, on all three" questions asked by Moe.
Next, Audrey Danner, interim executive director for the Craig Moffat Economic Development Partnership, spoke to the governor, asking him to listen carefully to all the questions and concerns from citizens.
“Our natural resources drive our economy,” Danner said. “You will hear many questions and comments today on all of our natural resources. We ask for the same respect for coal-fired power plants as we do for those renewable energies. They are all important.”
Hickenlooper responded by saying he would indeed listen and that he understands. He highlighted that he’s now the chair of all of the Western governors.
“What we’ve been trying to do is work with the industry in each of the regulatory areas and get to a point where we can get the Republican governors and the Democratic governors to agree to the same regulatory framework,” he said. “I understand the balancing act of how difficult it is between extraction industries and our environment, and that there are competing needs there that are very difficult to balance.”
Brandi Meek, chair of the Moffat County Republican Party, stood up and spoke on behalf of her party.
“I talk to a lot of the rural counties here in Colorado, and we all kind of have the same sentiment that all of Colorado is not being represented by you. I had high hopes when you came into office that that would not be the case; however, it seems that every piece of legislation that was put on your desk from a liberal legislator this session was passed by you. As governor, it’s your job to create a checks-and-balances system for rural Colorado,” Meek said, highlighting the renewable energy bill, gun legislation and the sage grouse issue as reasons why she thinks rural communities feel they are not being represented by Hickenlooper.
In the 2013 legislative session, the governor signed Senate Bill 252, which set renewable energy standards for rural Colorado. The bill requires rural electric co-ops throughout the state to get 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. That represents a 100 percent increase from the previously required 10 percent.
The governor also signed House Bills 1224 and 1229. HB 1229 requires background checks before the transfer or sale of a gun. HB 1224 limits the sale of large-capacity ammunition magazines. Many residents in Northwest Colorado have spoken out against these bills.
The governor highlighted reasons and facts as to why the gun bills were passed, specifically pointing out the results of background checks that took place in 2012.
“These are the facts. In 2012 — just getting half the background checks — there were 38 people convicted of homicide trying to buy a gun, 133 people convicted of sexual assault who tried to buy a gun, 620 burglars, 1,300 people convicted of felony assault … there were 420 people who had judicial restraining orders trying to buy a gun, and we stopped them,” Hickenlooper said. “So again, I don’t think we did a very good job communicating that, and it became a big partisan battle around the Second Amendment, and certainly, that was the last thing on my mind. We weren’t trying to take anyone’s guns from them. Our goal, really, was this seemed to make Colorado safer. Those people trying to buy guns were not just in Denver or Colorado Springs, they were all over the state.”
The discussion shifted away from guns as community members began asking Hickenlooper about the greater sage grouse issue.
The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife currently are trying to protect the sage grouse species — a bird that is dwindling in numbers. Sage grouse is not on the endangered species list but is under close government watch to ensure it doesn’t get on that list, according to Sasha Nelson, Moffat County field organizer for Conservation Colorado.
The birds live on land in western Colorado that could be drilled for natural gas, which has caused a huge uproar in how the bird is handled. Additionally, people want to be able to hunt the birds.
“I’m really concerned about the sage grouse because it’s a land-use decision that can really adversely affect a rural community,” Tom Kourlis said, noting that perhaps the issue with the decline in sage grouse is because of its predators. He suggested managing the birds' predators — like coyotes — in order to protect them.
The governor said he understands the importance of the issue and wants to find a balanced resolution.
“I think the word that we need to look at is balance, and how do we get back into a state of balance,” Hickenlooper said.
After the forum, Hickenlooper met with more than a dozen elected officials from Moffat, Routt, Garfield and Grand counties to continue the sage grouse discussion.
In the meeting, he promised to help find the balance that all sides crave.
Overall, community members seemed pleased that Hickenlooper took time to visit Northwest Colorado.
“I thought he spoke very well and that he addressed what was questioned of him and that he had very good things to say. I think he does care about the problems of rural Colorado,” Craig resident Rosalie Crane said.