Editorial: Interior secretary’s media ban is astonishing

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When the Craig Daily Press heard that U.S. Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell and Gov. John Hickenlooper were visiting Moffat County sage grouse territory, the newspaper saw it as an excellent opportunity to further inform the public about various measures being taken to evaluate the bird.

Editorial board

Tom Cramer, community representative

Jo Ann Baxter, community representative

Noelle Leavitt Riley, newspaper representative

Renee Campbell, newspaper representative

Amy Fontenot, newspaper representative

The community, public officials and newspaper staff were excited to see a federal official taking time to visit the northwest corner of Colorado. Moffat County holds the largest stake in the sage grouse debate in Colorado, with 75 percent of the county’s land comprising sage grouse habitat.

Therefore, residents, businesses, elected officials and conservation groups in Moffat County are extremely concerned about the happenings of sage grouse and have been for more than a year. No one seems to want the bird to be listed as an endangered species, and everyone wants to protect the bird while ensuring private and public land use rights are not violated.

Jewell’s visit, however, was marred by a negative decision she made regarding a public meeting. She held a meeting at the American Legion in Craig after a sage grouse habitat tour.

Members of the press were invited on the tour but were not allowed at the meeting. Craig Daily Press reporter Erin Fenner was kicked out of the meeting twice by Jewell’s staff. What’s concerning about the situation is that members of the public were allowed in the sage grouse meeting but not the media.

We’d like to remind the secretary that members of the press are also members of the public. Additionally, the governor, all three county commissioners — who posted information about the meeting and personally invited the press — were in attendance at that meeting, as were elected officials from Routt, Rio Blanco and Garfield counties.

Although Jewell, officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management entertained the press on the sage grouse tour, they set a bad precedent on the nation’s First Amendment rights by closing the meeting after the tour.

Jewell’s communications manager told the Craig Daily Press in an email that “after spending more than 60 minutes engaging with your reporter at the ranch, our intent was to provide an opportunity for the secretary to hear directly from the community in an open and frank manner and one in which everyone felt comfortable expressing their differing views.”

In order to foster frank discussion, Jewell didn’t want the media in attendance.

We’re not on a crusade against Jewell, we just want her to acknowledge the double standard that was created Tuesday. If every elected official in America decided to close the press out of meetings to foster frank discussion, well, we would not have a democracy.

If Jewell continues to hold such meetings across the nation where she kicks local media out of public meetings, we think her tenure as secretary of interior will be shadowed by criticism from the press and the public, and the hard work she undertakes as a federal official will fall by the wayside.

The Craig Daily Press contacted the Colorado Press Association lawyer to see if Jewell broke the law by banning the press from the meeting.

Apparently, she did not. According to Colorado media lawyer Steve Zansberg, federal officials do not have to abide by the Colorado Sunshine Law. Zansberg also said that federal sunshine laws are very weak.

Despite the information provided by Zansberg, we hope that federal officials who visit Colorado abide by the state’s open meetings laws.

Zansberg shared another distressing piece of information with the newspaper: Hickenlooper as a single government official is not considered a public body and therefore is not subject to the Sunshine Law.

Yet, the governor’s Director of Communications Eric Brown wrote in an email that “the governor went into the meeting with every expectation that it was open to reporters. He didn't know your reporter was asked to leave until I told him the day after.”

In other words, everyone wanted the media there except Jewell. Perhaps it’s time for the secretary of interior to rethink her approach to how she deals with members of the press.

With that said, we trust our opinion on the open meeting violation won’t have any negative bearing on Jewell’s decision regarding sage grouse as the bird is too important to the geography, business and outcome of sage land in Moffat County, the nine other Colorado counties that house sage grouse habitat and the 10 other states that also hold stakes in the federal government’s decision about the bird.

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