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Under the Dome: Summer update

Recalls, special sessions, petitions, campaigns, tweets, Facebook, CNN, Fox News. Yikes, let’s go fishing. Sometimes it’s just overwhelming. Madison talks about factions in politics in Federalist 10, and we’ve always had quarreling factions in American politics, but it seems that right now we have enough friction between factions to start a forest fire — at least there are no big actual forest fires yet this year.

I debate with myself about what to talk about in the many town halls and civic meetings where I get to choose the topic. I usually lose the debate and try to cover everything — a mistake. What’s more fun though is to skip the bad stuff and talk about the good. Or at least the things I’m doing that I think are good.

I’m continuing as the co-chair, with the commissioner of education Dr. Anthes, of the Education Leadership Council. It’s a bipartisan council made up of educators and stakeholders from across a broad spectrum with the mission of guiding the future of education in Colorado. We had a significant influence on bills in the 2019 legislative session, including two that I sponsored along with bipartisan members of both houses. The Reading to Ensure Academic Development or “READ” act passed both houses unanimously, unusual to say the least for a big expensive bill. We plan to continue the council with emphasis on four areas; reading, early childhood programs, transition to higher education and community involvement.

I believe we made significant steps during the session to lower health care costs, a major issue in western and rural Colorado that I’ve been working on for years. The reinsurance bill will reduce the costs of individual premiums by over 25% starting next year based on supporting actuarial analysis. Reinsurance is just a band-aid on the Affordable Care Act and underlying costs, so we have to continue to work on the cost issue.

Bills and resulting actions on transparency, enacted with the cooperation of the Colorado Hospital Association will help both state programs, group policy purchasers, and allow individuals to shop for the best quality service at the best price. And the issue is not the same across the state. We find significant variations between geographic areas because of access and utilization. Local cooperatives, like the Summit County initiative, can use transparent data to negotiate with providers. I’m looking for good news as the reinsurance program kicks in and local cooperatives take the lead to provide quality health care access at a fair cost.

I’ll be going into my sixth year as a member of the Joint Budget Committee. I’ll keep advocating and voting for rural and western Colorado as we start up the process in November. We’ve had several exceptionally good budget years, and I’m concerned that we have overcommitted going forward, but we have added most of the new funding to roads and schools. We will be budgeting about $40 billion, approximately $13 billion of which is from income and sales tax. That’s a lot of money, but there’s less flexibility than we would like because of federal programs and programs in existing law.

Joyce and I will be on the road when we don’t have to be in Denver, so we hope to see a lot of our constituents this summer.

Senator Bob Rankin writes the monthly column “Under the Dome” hoping to inform and engage the constituents in his district and the Western Slope. He serves on the Joint Budget Committee and represents Garfield, Rio Blanco, Moffat, Routt, Grand, Jackson and Summit Counties.

Tri-State commits to major push for renewable power, expediting closure of Nucla Station

Tri-State Generation & Transmission unveiled its new Responsible Energy Plan this week, which will transition the company’s power portfolio further into renewables to reduce electric rates for its members.

Among the highlights of the new plan is the closing of Nucla Station in early 2020.

Currently, almost half of Tri-State’s power generation comes from coal, and about one-third comes from renewable sources.

“Our membership and board are unified in our pursuit of a cleaner, reliable and lower-cost resource portfolio,” said Rick Gordon, chairman of the cooperative’s board of directors, in a Wednesday news release. “We are making a strong and unequivocal commitment to transform Tri-State’s resource portfolio in a prudent and responsible manner.”

In May, Tri-State refused an offer by Denver’s Guzman Energy to buy and subsequently shut down the remaining coal-fired generators at Craig Station.

According to Guzman, the offer involved a “substantial cash infusion into Tri-State” worth about $500 million and would have closed and remediated the mine feeding Craig Station unless another customer is found for the coal.

Guzman recently finalized a deal with the Kit Carson Electric Co-op in northern New Mexico to help the co-op leave Tri-State in order to build its local renewable base. Once the co-op pays off an exit fee loan from Guzman sometime in 2022, KCEC officials say their member’s electricity costs will plummet to $47MWh, well below Tri-State’s 2017 wholesale average of $75MWh.

In May, Lee Boughey, Tri-State’s senior communications and public affairs manager, said Kit Carson’s power has been more expensive after making the deal with Guzman.

“According to documents filed with the New Mexico Public Regulatory Commission, it would appear that Kit Carson in 2018 paid about 40% more for power than Tri-State’s members,” Boughey said.

The details

Among the details of Tri-State’s newer, cleaner power portfolio will be a partnership with former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter and the Center for the New Energy Economy, a research initiative at Colorado State University seeking to help transition the country to a clean-energy economy.

“My team and I welcome the opportunity to work with Tri-State in facilitating this stakeholder process,” Ritter said. “At a time when the power sector is transitioning in a dynamic way, assisting Tri-State in developing a resource plan that reflects that transition is a true privilege.”

Tri-State Chief Executive Officer Duane Highley said the company understands that in order to achieve major carbon reductions, renewable energy planning requirements, grid reliability, and affordability through lower wholesale rates under their new plan, Tri-State will have to work directly with those most affected.

“As a cooperative, we understand that transformative change requires understanding and engagement with stakeholders,” Highley said. “Governor Ritter and the Center for the New Energy Economy will convene for Tri-State the best and brightest to surface ideas that will inform and advance our planning.”

Tri-State has been criticized for its cap on local renewable generation to 5% of the area’s electricity, so much of the new plan centers around allowing local communities more flexibility to develop and build their own renewable power sources like solar arrays and wind farms.

“Our members are developing recommendations to make their wholesale power contracts more flexible,” said Rick Gordon, chairman of the cooperative’s board of directors. “With partial requirements contracts, members could increase local renewables while also maintaining the value and security of being a member of Tri-State.”

Tri-State hinted at several other areas of the plan, including a probable expansion of hydroelectric capacity.

“Tri-State will address key issues, including developing Western regional electricity markets, assisting impacted energy-producing communities, continuing and developing new tax incentives, addressing permitting for transmission line and power plants, and reconsidering the value of hydropower to ensure the Responsible Energy Plan’s success,” the release stated.

Tri-State and other electric co-ops have all had to deal with a shifting regulatory climate in Denver as new rule-makings related to new state laws are soon to be decided.

“We recognize that Tri-State facilities, employees and communities will be affected by the changes ahead,” Highley said. “Regulatory rulemakings and significant study must be completed to understand how to comply with new laws while preserving reliability and affordability, but we know our system and operations will change.”

As for Nucla Station in southwest Colorado, Tri-State will provide about $500,000 over five years to help support the Nucla community after the plant shuts down in early 2020. The plant currently employs 35 people and was on track to be retired in 2022 as part of Colorado’s State Implementation Plan to improve air quality.

“For decades, Nucla Station has been part of the fabric of Nucla and Naturita, and we understand the retirement of the plant impacts our employees, their families and the community,” Highley said. “We will work to support the community through this difficult transition.”

Residents discuss Yampa Building issue at Moffat County School District town hall

Dozens of people turned out to get answers from the Moffat County School District Board of Education during a community town hall held on July 16 at the former East Elementary School.

The meeting was one of the first public MCSD meetings broadcast live through the Moffat County Proud Facebook page.

After hearing heated testimony from the public in June, board members scheduled a community town hall to answer any remaining questions surrounding the future of the district’s oldest building. 

The nearly 100-year-old Yampa Building, located at 775 Yampa Ave., was destined to be transferred to the county for a nominal fee for use by Memorial Regional Health’s nonprofit and investors to build a for-profit treatment center for individuals struggling with substance abuse, before the MCSD Board of Education voted in June to table a decision on the matter until July.  

At a special meeting of the Memorial Regional Health board of directors held July 9 at MRH, Board Chair Cathrine Blevins said one of the main investors of the proposed rehabilitation project expressed he was no longer interested in the Yampa Building

As a result, the Yampa Building is in limbo at the moment, as it is no longer being used by the school district and no other offers have been made, district officials said.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Superintendent Dave Ulrich apologized for a perceived lapse in communication between the district and the general public.

“I can always get better at communication,” he said. “I thought I was doing a good job, but what we saw at the board meeting in June tells me that I was not doing a good enough job.”

When the district learned that the MRH partnership had fallen through, Ulrich said he approached the board about whether or not they still wanted to hold the question-and-answer session.

“What I wanted to do was say, ‘OK, this is the opportunity with a group that is not normally engaged with the school,” he said. “We have the opportunity tonight to put the Yampa Building in a larger context with our long-term maintenance needs. …This is what I should’ve done a year ago in January with you guys that way you would’ve been informed along the way.”

Ulrich passed out flyers with a timeline of events that took place surrounding the Yampa Building decision, the BOE’s goals, and, on the opposite side, a breakdown of commonly referenced numbers associated with the property.

“I know there was something out there that allegedly I had said, or I had some book in my office that said, that the building had been assessed at $5.8 million,” he said. “That is not true. What I have is this ‘Best’ assessment that says if that building needed to be redone in its current format what would the cost be to build it exactly like it is. And that’s the cost they gave us.”

Moffat County School District/Courtesy Image

He said the $1.6 million county assessment was not equal to a market value estimate of the property. And the $3.3 million dollar number, he said, was a cost estimate of necessary renovations the building would need over the next five years provided by the Colorado Department of Education’s Best assessment completed in 2017.

Consultants from the Denver-based TreanorHL, a company contracted by the district to assist in formulating a master facilities plan, were invited to speak about the state of the district’s facilities and future community outreach events planned to gather input about facility needs and proposals.

TreanorHL Consultant Patrick Johnson said his team was impressed by how well the district has maintained its aging facilities, however he added that the district has almost too much square footage to maintain.

“I think the big takeaway as we see as outsiders is that there’s nothing wrong with the bones of these buildings,” Johnson said. “You’ve got good buildings that can go on for another generation at least, but with that you have ongoing maintenance issues. … The Yampa decision was kind of inflight before we were hired. But this is typical of districts with older facilities; they have ADA (American with Disabilities Act) problems, technology problems, cost of maintenance and upkeep issues. And it gets to a point where the building is functionally obsolete for the purpose of education.”

After TreanorHL finished their presentation, the question-and-answer portion of the meeting commenced. Audience members were asked to write their questions down on notecards. Ulrich read each notecard aloud to the board. BOE Treasurer Chip McIntyre and President Jo Ann Baxter were unavailable to attend the town hall. Vice President Jobeth Tupa, Secretary Dr. Elise Sullivan, Chris Thome, Jnl Linsacum and Cindy Looper were in attendance Tuesday.

Many questions from the audience surrounded the district’s future plans for the Yampa Building.

Moffat County School District/Courtesy Image

“We don’t know,” Ulrich said. “We had a plan, and that has fallen through. Hopefully we’ll see something come clear for us here in the next couple of months.”

One audience member asked if the board could give the public an estimate as to how much the Yampa Building is worth. Ulrich cautioned the board before answering that question.

“I think any guess we give is just going to be out there and another number that’s causing confusion,” Ulrich said. The district will likely seek to finish an appraisal for the building that was put on hold in November and Ulrich has said that he will share the appraisal value when that number becomes available.

Another notecard questioned the perception that the Yampa Building was chosen to be vacated because it could return the most money to the school district.

“We’ve done really smart budgeting and have really made our financial position stronger and I’m not sure that money rose to the top of our decision-making,” Dr. Elise Sullivan said. “It was, ‘don’t be a landlord.'”

Sullivan added that finding a way to aid community members was a goal.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think we landed where everyone thought we were helping the community,” she said. “Where we started out was not about how much money we were going to get.”

Looper also reiterated that renting out the Yampa Building was not the board’s mission. 

“Our mission is to help educate students,” she said. “I have a rental property and I don’t even want the one I have. I don’t want to be on a board that has rental properties.”

“When you sell anything, what it’s worth is what someone is willing to pay for it,” Looper said.

Ulrich emphasized the board’s goals detailed on the district’s flyer. 

“I want to reassure you that the goal was to keep it in public hands with a transfer,” he said. “There’s not a line item for revenue generated by the Yampa Building. That was the goal of the board from the very beginning was to keep it in the public’s hands.”

When asked if the building was offered to the city and county for the same nominal amount it was offered to the county for use by MRH, Ulrich confirmed that he pitched the same offer to multiple similar taxing entities.

The board also was asked why they haven’t put the building on the market.

“I think everybody thinks that could be a good thing, but I also have some fears as to what that could be,” Sullivan said, citing concerns about what would happen to the building once it changed hands. 

Ulrich said that if the district were to list the property for sale on the open market it would take some of the control out of the district’s hands.

“Once we put a ‘For Sale’ sign out there, we cannot discriminate,” he said. “I can’t say, ‘I don’t like what you’re going to use the building for,’ and then sell it to somebody else for less. We have to be super careful when we do that.”

Ulrich declined to name MRH’s treatment center investors in response to an audience query.

“That’s fallen through, and that’s the relationship between the county and the hospital, so that wouldn’t really be appropriate for us to comment on,” he said.

As to whether the district has plans to advertise the property on the local market, Thome said that depends on “feedback from this group.” However, members of the audience were not allowed to speak publicly during the town hall.

Two board members had differing opinions when asked about pitching the Yampa Building to the Craig City Council and county commissioners one more time.

While Sullivan said she was unsure about the financial status of the government entities, Thome seemed open to the idea.

“There’s a new city council and a new mayor,” he said. “The city may have a different point of view. But in 2017, I was there, there was no interest, they didn’t want another property to maintain. That was the city. The city at that time was clear that they didn’t want it.”

The MCSD Board of Education will meet in the Colorado Northwestern Community College Cedar Mountain conference room on July 30 for a workshop and special session meeting.

The work session will last from 8 a.m to 4 p.m. The special session is scheduled for 4:30 p.m.

Feds looking for public input on Uinta Basin Railway, proposed route through Moffat County

The federal Surface Transportation Board is seeking public comment for a new rail line that could connect Craig and Moffat County’s energy industry to markets in Salt Lake City and beyond.

The agency held a public scoping meeting Tuesday night at Moffat County Fairgrounds Pavilion to begin the process of introducing the proposed project to Craig residents. The meeting offered perhaps the first glimpse of the Uinta Basin Railway — a proposed line that will end near Craig — but also served to determine who the stakeholders are, and what the range of impacts will be on air quality, wetlands, and recreation.

“The board has to consider the environmental impacts of construction,” said Joshua Wayland, an environmental protection specialist with STB.

Wayland said his office has determined such impacts to the environment will be profound, so a thorough environmental review process is tantamount to the project’s success.

“My office has made the determination that the project will have significant environmental impacts,” Wayland said Tuesday.

In a notice of intent filed June 19 with the federal Surface Transportation Board, the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition in Utah announced it is considering a 185-mile stretch of railroad from Myton, Utah to Craig. The Craig route is one of two proposed alternative routes that would transport coal, crude oil, gilsonite, and other agricultural and mined products.

As about a dozen residents trickled into the scoping meeting Tuesday, Greg Miles said he wants Moffat County residents to know the rail will be good for business.

“The rail line is important for Moffat County to move their natural gas to the Jordan Cover (Energy) Project and it’s equally important to our county,” said Miles, a county commissioner for Duchesne County in Utah.

He added that the new rail line would bring more work to Moffat County.

Nick Charchalis, of the Charchalis Ranch, agreed that Craig and Moffat County would benefit from the project.

“This adds new life to this rail line, which if we don’t add some new life to it, it could be bad,” Charchalis said. “I think it’s great.”

Charchalis said Craig has always had the potential to benefit from its geographic location as a rural hub for commerce and other big business moving along U.S. Highway 40, and adding a new rail line could finally make Craig into that rural hub.

“We’re located in a great spot here and we’ve never been able to take advantage of it,” Charchalis said. “This will help.”

Wayland said Tuesday’s scoping meeting was the first of six meetings across the region to encourage public input. Once a draft of his environmental impact statement is issued, Wayland said STB will hold another series of meetings, followed by a third set of public meetings once a final environmental impact statement is issued.

Wayland said the process could take several years, but he didn’t have a definite timeline on when the environmental review process would end.

“It’s really impossible to say,” Wayland said. “…it’s our review process and we’ll take as long as it takes to do a thorough job on our environmental review process. That being said, we are committed to moving forward expeditiously.”

In a June 25 county commissioners meeting, Moffat County Commissioner Don Cook stated STB had not consulted with the county and lacked the experience to effectively manage the rail project.

“The board hasn’t gotten together and approved a railroad in 50 years,” Cook said. “…No one there has ever done this.”

Wayland argued that STB does have recent examples of approving major rail projects, including the 2012 Tongue River railroad in Montana and the 2017 Great Lakes Basin Railroad in WisconsinIllinois, and Indiana.

“It’s a larger railroad project than typically proposed, but we are familiar and well versed in how this environmental review process works,” Wayland said. “It’s not done every day, but there are some recent examples.”

Comments on the rail line can be submitted via mail to the following address:
Joshua Wayland
Surface Transportation Board
c/o 9300 Lee Highway
Fairfax, VA, 22031
Attention: Environmental filing, Docket No. FD 36284

Comments can also be submitted electronically via the project website uintabasinrailwayeis.com or to the email address uinta.eis@icf.com.

Sen. Michael Bennet hosting Aug. 6 listening session in Craig

Colorado’s United States Sen. Michael Bennet will host a listening session with a member of his staff from 12:30 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, August 6 at Moffat County Courthouse, 221 W. Victory Way, in the basement conference room.

Matt Kireker, Bennet’s Central Mountains Regional Representative, will meet one-on-one with Craig residents about their concerns, such as Department of Veterans Affairs, IRS, Social Security Administration or other federal agency.

Other suggestions for Congress about community issues are welcome.

For more information or to schedule an appointment, email Matthew_Kireker@bennet.senate.gov with a brief description of the issue you want to address or call 303-883-3119.

Workshop in Craig to address sage grouse habitat issues for land owners

Bird Conservancy of the Rockies and Pheasants Forever will present a rangeland health and sage grouse habitat workshop in Craig.

The presentation takes place from 7:30 to 11:45 a.m. Friday, July 26 at  Colorado Northwestern Community College’s Craig campus, Room 185, 2801 W. Ninth St.

Bird Conservancy of the Rockies is a Colorado-based nonprofit that works to conserve birds and their habitats through an integrated approach of science, education and land stewardship, according to its news release.

“Created especially with working lands owners and managers in mind, this event provides an opportunity to learn more about conservation practices that can improve rangeland health while simultaneously enhancing rangeland habitat for the greater sage grouse and other wildlife species in sagebrush habitat,” the release stated. “Practices discussed include cross-fencing to facilitate a prescribed grazing plan, which helps working lands be more sustainable and productive. Other actions include conifer removal, weed control, rangeland planting and projects to provide water to livestock outside of sensitive wet areas. Funding is available to help landowners improve the health and productivity of their land while also benefitting the greater sage grouse and other wildlife. Attendees can learn more about Natural Resources Conservation Service practices that landowners can implement in order to receive Farm Bill cost-share dollars.”

US Fish & Wildlife Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Bureau of Land Management will also share information about their programs and funding opportunities, while a private landowner will share his personal perspective and experiences with CPW’s Habitat Partnership Program.

For more information or to RSVP, contact Jen Perkins at jennifer.perkins@usda.gov or 970-879-3225 Ext. 109.

Keep detours in mind as Craig intersection closes July 23 for roadwork

From 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 23, US Highway 40 will be closed in both directions near the intersection of Lincoln Street in Craig for paving operations, according to a news release from Colorado Department of Transportation.

“This closure is necessary due to the size of the work areas and equipment needed to apply the asphalt,” the release stated. “The full closure will keep crews and traveling public safe during this phase of the project.”

There will be two detours in place, one for each direction of traffic.

Highway 40’s westbound traffic will be routed along First Street onto Colorado Highway 13, while drivers heading east can travel along Fourth Street and turn onto Bellaire Avenue to avoid the roadwork on the bridge.

Detour signs will be posted to direct traffic safely around the work area.

Working hours for the project are 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

For more information on the bridge project, contact 970-717-0100 or bridgemaint@publicinfoteam.com.

Biggest US land agency moving from Washington to Western Colorado

DENVER (AP) — The Trump administration will move the headquarters of the U.S. government’s largest land agency from Washington to western Colorado, Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, said Monday.

Gardner said the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters will move to Grand Junction, but he did not say when the move would occur.

An agency spokeswoman in Washington said she couldn’t confirm or deny the move. She declined to give her name.

Moving the headquarters to a Western state is a key part of the Trump administration’s plan to reorganize the Interior Department, the parent agency of the Bureau of Land Management.

Interior Department officials have said they were considering Grand Junction as well as Denver; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Boise, Idaho; and Salt Lake City for the new headquarters.

Grand Junction is a city of about 63,000. It is 250 miles (400 kilometers) west of Denver.

The Bureau of Land Management oversees nearly 3 88,000 square miles (1 billion square kilometers) of public land, and 99% is in 12 Western states.

Gardner and other Western politicians have long argued the agency headquarters should be closer to the land it manages.

The headquarters of the U.S. government’s largest land agency will move from the nation’s capital to western Colorado, a Republican senator said Monday, a high-profile component of the Trump administration’s plan to reorganize management of the nation’s natural resources.

Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner said in a statement that the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management would move to Grand Junction, a city of about 63,000 people 250 miles west of Denver.

A spokesman for Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop said Colorado, Nevada and Utah could each gain 50 bureau jobs as part of the reshuffling of the agency, and another 150 bureau jobs could be moved to other Western states.

The spokesman, Austin Hacker, said it was not yet certain whether all 300 relocated positions would come from Washington — where the bureau has only about 400 workers — or if any would move from other parts of the country.

A Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman who declined to give her name said she couldn’t confirm or deny the move. An announcement about the agency’s plans was expected Tuesday.

“The problem with Washington is too many policy makers are far removed from the people they are there to serve,” Gardner said in a news release. “This is a victory for local communities, advocates for public lands and proponents for a more responsible and accountable federal government.”

Bishop said public lands decisions would be made in the West, “not by bureaucrats from thousands of miles away.”

The bureau, part of the Interior Department, oversees nearly 388,000 square miles of public land, and 99% is in 12 Western states including Colorado. The lands are rich in oil, gas, coal and grazing for livestock, as well as habitat for wildlife, hunting ranges, fishing streams and hiking trails.

The bureau is in the vanguard of Donald Trump’s campaign to step up fossil fuel production on public land, and it has often been in the crosshairs of Democrats and conservationists who say the administration is more interested in mining and drilling than in protecting the environment.

Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, D-Arizona, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, attacked the headquarters move and noted that Grand Junction is not far from Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s hometown of Rifle, Colorado.

“Putting BLM headquarters down the road from Secretary Bernhardt’s hometown just makes it easier for special interests to walk in the door demanding favors without congressional oversight or accountability,” Grijalva said. “The BLM officials based in Washington are here to work directly with Congress and their federal colleagues, and that function is going to take a permanent hit if this move goes forward.”

The bureau has 9,000 employees, most of them scattered among 140 state, district or field offices.

Grijalva said he suspects the bureau’s true motive is to force out some employees who would not be willing to move. The Interior Department has previously denied that was a reason.

Key details of the move were unknown, including how much it would cost, how many employees would remain in Washington and, most importantly, whether the move would have a significant impact on land-management decisions or would be more a symbol of the administration’s determination to decentralize the bureau.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, welcomed the change but included a reference to his party’s disputes with Trump over protecting the environment and recreational access on public lands.

“Hard to think of a better place to house the department responsible for overseeing our beloved public lands,” he said in a written statement.

Interior Department officials have said they also considered Denver; Salt Lake City; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Boise, Idaho, for the new headquarters.

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke initiated the plan to reorganize his department. Zinke stepped down in January amid ethics allegations, and Bernhardt has continued the planning but with less fanfare.

“The problem with Washington is too many policy makers are far removed from the people they are there to serve,” Gardner said in a news release. “This is a victory for local communities, advocates for public lands and proponents for a more responsible and accountable federal government.”

Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, attacked the move and noted that Grand Junction is not far from Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s hometown of Rifle, Colorado.

“Putting BLM headquarters down the road from Secretary Bernhardt’s home town just makes it easier for special interests to walk in the door demanding favors without congressional oversight or accountability,” Grijalva said. “The BLM officials ba sed in Washington are here to work directly with Congress and their federal colleagues, and that function is going to take a permanent hit if this move goes forward.”

About 400 of the bureau’s 9,000 employees are in Washington. The rest are scattered among 140 state, district or field offices.

Grijalva said he suspects the bureau’s true motive is to force out some employees who would not be willing to move.

The Interior Department has previously denied that was a reason for the move.

The ‘hemp gold rush’: A look at the Routt County businesses leading the charge

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Twenty years ago, as a sophomore at University of Colorado Denver, Nathan Brough wrote an economics paper on hemp’s potential to grow the nation’s gross domestic product. 

As he described, people have identified more than 25,000 uses for the plant, from textiles to building materials to homeopathic medicines. It was among the most important crops during the 18th and 19th centuries as colonists were cultivating the land into an agricultural powerhouse. 

Many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were hemp farmers. 

“Even the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper,” Brough said. 

But since 1936, the plant has been effectively banned in the U.S. — that is, until Congress passed the 2018 Farm Bill in December. The legislation legalized the production of hemp nationwide and removed it from the list of controlled substances. 

The move comes amid a growing interest in the plant, particularly for its medicinal potential. Hemp differs from marijuana in that it contains less than 0.3% THC, the cannabinoid that gets people high. Instead, it contains higher levels of CBD, which has become a popular alternative to pharmaceutical medications. 

Since the passage of the Farm Bill, farmers and business owners have flooded into the industry, trying to stake their claim. Brough, who owns Mountain Strong Hemp Co. based in Routt County, calls it the “hemp gold rush.”

While analysts hail the crop as a money boom — cannabis researchers BDS Analytics and Arcview Market Research say nationwide sales of CBD could surpass $20 billion by 2024 — much confusion remains over how to regulate the industry and differentiate hemp from illegal marijuana.

Turning a new leaf

Brough discussed the benefits and challenges to the industry at his business’ farm in Oak Creek, owned by his fiance, Sulee Robin. He had never planned to own a hemp company, and before November, was indifferent toward the use of CBD. 

That changed the day before Thanksgiving, when he broke his back snowboarding with his kids. His doctor put him on a regimen of painkillers, but by the time his prescription ran out, he still was in pain and suffering withdrawal symptoms from the medications. 

He gave CBD a try and, within days, noticed an improvement. 

“It’s the only thing that works,” he said.

After the Farm Bill passed, he wanted to better understand the plant that assuaged his pain and help others find similar relief. 

Mountain Strong Hemp is Brough’s line of CBD-infused products, which range from lotions to dog treats. He and Robin also operate Evergreen Biotech, a genetics company seeking to cultivate hemp strains that have the maximum amount of CBD and the minimum amount of THC. 

So far, business has been booming. He has built partnerships with farms in about 20 other states, a number that grows with time as more farmers see the monetary value of hemp. 

According to Brough, a single acre of hemp can bring anywhere from $40,000 to $120,000 of revenue, depending on the amount of CBD in the particular strains. By comparison, corn and soybean farmers in the Midwest averaged about $700 in revenue per acre last year, according to a study from a Minnesota-based consulting firm. 

“For the American farmer, this crop (hemp) is huge,” Brough said.

That is why he does not want to just be a part of the industry — he wants to lead it.  

“We’re trying to build the first national brand in the hemp industry,” he said. 

A walk through the garden

On Friday, Brough gave a tour of his company’s grow operation, housed in a humble, nondescript log barn near the home where he and Robin live. Hundreds of small hemp plants grew under lights, clones of a few mother plants selectively bred to contain high levels of CBD. 

As he explained, Evergreen Biotech will grow the clones until they are ready to ship to four partner farms in other parts of the state with more favorable growing conditions than the Yampa Valley. There, they will reach maturity and produce flowers, which contain the greatest amount of CBD. 

Through a crop-sharing contract, Brough will receive a portion of the mature plants to turn into CBD oil, which will go into Mountain Strong’s range of wellness-focused products. 

Before that happens, the plant has to go through an extraction process, a similar process for making moonshine. That was how Steve Herron described it at his hemp business, Natural Path Botanicals, in Hayden. 

Like Brough, the cornerstone of Herron’s company is its genetics program. He partners with several small, family-owned farms in the Gunnison Valley, giving them clones grown in a two-story, vertical farming system. In exchange, he gets large bags of hemp flower and leaves. 

In a lab attached to the grow facility, his employees break down the plant material into a dark, viscous substance Herron called “hemp crude oil,” an homage to his years in the petroleum industry. 

“It’s gooey, it’s sticky — it’s not the kind of stuff you want to get on your hands,” he said. 

The substance contains about 90% CBD, which often will be distilled into a clearer, honey-like oil that can be put into devices like vaporizer pens for smoking. 

But, as Herron made a point of mentioning, his products are meant to help people recover from workouts, manage pain, relieve anxiety or for other wellness purposes — not get people high.

“We throw a very hard line between cannabis and what we do — industrial hemp,” he said. “We are a company that’s committed to making health supplements that are legal in all 50 states.”

Legal confusion

While the distinction is clear to Herron, the newness of the industry has raised more questions than answers. Legislators, banks and the farmers themselves still struggle to interpret and maneuver the laws, creating frustration for business owners like Brough.

In June, two shipments of his clones bound for a farm in Kentucky were mistaken for marijuana, which remains illegal to transport across state lines. The confusion cost him hundreds of dollars and delayed delivery of the plants. 

The troubles continue. Just last week, a bank shut down Brough’s account because of its association with his hemp company, he said. Advertisements that he and his associates try to post to social media get flagged for inappropriate content and taken down. As of Friday, he was still banned from Facebook because so many of his posts had been mistaken for marijuana. 

“It does cause me some migraines here and there,” he said of the legal snags. 

Brough is not alone in his frustration. In a letter to federal financial regulators, Colorado’s U.S. Senator Michael Bennet urged them to provide greater guidance and certainty to hemp farmers and processors.  

“In my home state of Colorado, farmers cultivated hemp on over 21,000 acres of land last year,” Bennet wrote in the letter. “Nonetheless, farmers generally continue to lack access to the banking system even though hemp is no longer a Schedule 1 drug.”

Taking root

Despite the headaches and confusion, hemp growers and producers in Routt County remain optimistic the industry will thrive. 

Brough continues to get calls from farmers in different states wanting to form partnerships. By next year, he hopes the clone operation turns a profit of about $400,000. 

In June, Hayden Town Council members approved a financial incentive package to support Herron’s company, Natural Path Botanicals, seeing it as a way to provide jobs and bring in tax revenue. 

Herron has plans for a significant expansion project, which he plans to announce in the coming days. He also is investing in technology to isolate other cannabinoids in hemp, such as CBN, a supposed sleep aid. 

Like Brough, he has seen firsthand the medicinal benefits of hemp and was able to stop using prescription medication to manage his pain by taking regular doses of CBD. He wants others to find similar relief.

“As a company, we want to see what we can do to better the lives of our customers,” he said.

Yampa Valley Regional Airport gets $2.6M in grants for expansion, improvements

The Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden is set to receive about $2.6 million in grant money to pay for upcoming expansion and improvement projects, including the construction of a new terminal. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the funds as part of its Airport Improvement Program, which is allocating almost $48 million to 28 airports across Colorado this year.

“Infrastructure projects funded by these grants will advance safety, improve travel, generate jobs and provide other economic benefits for local communities,” Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao said in a news release. 

As Routt County’s airport seeks to expand its flight services and bring more visitors to the area, it is also looking for ways to make operations more efficient. 

Kevin Booth, the airport’s director, said most of the grant funds, about $1.6 million, will help pay for the addition of a new terminal. Once completed, it will allow an additional airline to offer flights and should improve the flow of passengers moving from the security check to their respective gates. 

Booth expects the total cost of the new terminal to be about $2 million to $3 million. He and other airport officials are negotiating prices with a potential contractor. 

“Our hope is we will find a mutually agreeable total cost to the project and move forward with it by the end of next week,” Booth said.

The remaining grant money will go toward snow removal equipment and maintenance work on the runways ahead of the upcoming winter season.

As Booth explained, each year, the airport receives federal funding based on its total number of passengers, which has stayed steady for the past four to five years. 

So far this summer, passenger numbers have exceeded those from last year, with a 25% increase in passengers this June compared to last, according to Booth. This comes despite the loss of a direct flight to Houston, a casualty of a cut in funding to the city’s air program, which subsidizes flights to attract more visitors to the area. 

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Booth said, pointing to increased service to Denver as a possible reason for the spike in summer passenger numbers. 

“I suspect that we are still getting probably the same number of Houston visitors,” he added. “They are just coming here with a stop in Denver on the way.”

Each year, the airport usually receives about $1.3 million in grant funding from the Department of Transportation, according to Booth. The extra money this year is coming from Aspen’s airport, which did not have a use for its grant money.

In the coming years, the Yampa Valley Regional Airport will reimburse Aspen’s airport.

“It’s not a gift,” Booth said. “It’s something we have to pay back, basically through a withhold (of grant funds) in subsequent years.”

Another development at the airport, the expansion of Atlantic Aviation’s fixed-base operator facilities, is on schedule for completion by October, according to Booth. The project is not associated with the airport, so it is not receiving any grant funds. It includes the construction of a terminal and apron space for planes to park. 

In previous reporting, Booth said the project should allow more room for commercial flights to operate and improve safety by reducing congestion on the runway.