CARBONDALE — U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet weighed in on two controversial public lands issues during a Monday afternoon town hall at The Gathering Place, pledging support to valley conservationists.
Bennet said he wants to begin working on a law creating new wilderness protection for the Pitkin and Gunnison County portions of the Hidden Gems wilderness proposal. He also told the 70-plus constituents in attendance that he is currently working on legislation to preserve the Thompson Divide from natural gas drilling.
The Democrat senator is on a three-day swing of public meetings on the Western Slope. He spent more than an hour answering questions from valley residents Monday.
Gems: ‘Ready to start’
Bennet praised the outcome of the sometimes-heated debate over the Hidden Gems wilderness proposal, and said he is willing to work to make it law.
“I’m ready to start working on it and I think the process has been very, very helpful,” the senator said.
He had been asked whether he would support legislation for the portions of the Gems in the 3rd Congressional District, which includes Pitkin and Gunnison counties.
Rep. Jared Polis last year introduced a House bill seeking to designate the portions of the proposal in Summit and Eagle counties, which would protect about 166,000 acres of public land as wilderness. It died because Congress failed to pass an omnibus land bill, but Polis is expected to re-introduce it.
The Pitkin/Gunnison portion, which Polis did not include, has not previously had a congressional sponsor. The proposal, drafted by the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, would protect about 62,000 acres.
The proposal sparked widespread controversy in some recreational factions of western Colorado, as all mechanized and motorized use — including snowmobiling and mountain biking — is banned in federally designated wilderness areas.
More than half of the areas in the original Gems proposal in Pitkin and Gunnison counties have been dropped over the last two years.
Bennet acknowledged the local battles over the proposal as “some bumps in the road.”
Thompson Divide: ‘Getting closer’
The senator said he has been working with Rep. Scott Tipton and that a bill is in the works to protect the Thompson Divide from natural gas drilling.
“My own sense is that we’re getting closer and closer on the Thompson Divide,” he said.
Answering a question from Dorothea Farris, the former Pitkin County commissioner and current board member for the Thompson Divide Coalition, Bennet praised the coalition’s work as “amazing.”
He said the broad representation of interests in the organization has created a mandate for legislative action.
“I hope that we can come to a place where we can assert that level of agreement and move forward with legislation and protect this incredibly important asset,” he said.
The Thompson Divide area includes more than 220,000 acres of public land between Carbondale and McClure Pass. Gas companies hold more than 70 drilling leases in the area, but none have broken ground.
Opponents believe gas drilling in the area would harm the watershed and ranching operations, and building roads through the largely roadless forest would disrupt its wildlife and ecology. Opposition has been led by the Thompson Divide Coalition, which includes local officials, environmentalists and ranchers.
Last year former Rep. John Salazar pledged to introduce a bill to stop drilling in the Thompson Divide. He lost in the November election before bringing the legislation to Capitol Hill.
The draft legislation he adopted had been written by the coalition and endorsed by the county commissioners from Pitkin, Gunnison and Garfield counties.
Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
Energy Smart: ‘Drives me completely crazy’
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet answers questions during a town hall meeting at The Gathering Center in Carbondale on Monday.
Bennet also blamed the “bureaucratic indifference” of federal mortgage lenders for killing a local loan program to support renewable energy improvements.
The local Energy Smart Loan program had been designed to use voter-approved government bonds to back loans for homeowners to install on-site renewable energy and more efficient energy systems. Voters in Pitkin, Gunnison and Eagle counties backed the program, which would have allowed homeowners to pay back the loans through an addition to their property taxes that stayed with the home if it was sold. A similar effort was also moving forward in Boulder County, using federal Property Assessed Clean Energy bonds.
But mortgage providers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac derailed the programs last year, saying they would not back mortgages with such loans attached.
“This is one that drives me completely crazy,” Bennet said, “because I know that people in this part of the state and in Boulder used it extremely well before it got shut down by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”
Bennet has been frustrated by the roadblock, he said, especially since the programs have been widely supported here, around Colorado, and the United States.
“The way I would describe the reaction so far has been bureaucratic indifference around these issues,” he said.
He said he will press Fannie and Freddie to find a way to back energy loans.
“This is a conversation I intend to have,” he said, “because we’ve got to find a way to work out something here, so that [it] works for these guys and for you.”
Bennet was asked about the troubled loan program by Amelia Potvin, of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency.
Other notable attendees from local government included Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman, state Rep. Roger Wilson, former Garfield County Commissioner Tresi Houpt and Aspen School Board member Elizabeth Parker, who Bennet, a former Denver Public Schools superintendent, recognized fondly as “the long-suffering school board member from Aspen.”
Warren Klug, chair of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, asked the senator if he would support immigration reform legislation. Klug and the chamber have been lobbying federal legislators on the issue in recent months, pushing for legal ways to employ undocumented workers, and met with a White House representative earlier this summer.
“Nothing is going to happen in the short-term because of the dysfunction [in Congress],” Bennet said.
But he encouraged Klug and other business people to continue building support for immigration reform.
“We have to build a very broad-based coalition to get comprehensive immigration reform passed and businesses can be a big part of that,” he said.
Throughout the meeting, Bennet bashed the currently polarized state of Congress, its lack of legislative progress, and the drawn-out debt ceiling debate which ultimately hurt the nation’s credit rating.
“I feel like our politics right now is so cartoonish, and so unhelpful, and so small compared to the challenges we have to confront,” he told the crowd. “I wish I could tell you that things are less dysfunctional in the United States Congress than they appear to be. It’s worse than you think.”
Editor's note: After the initial publication of this story, we received the following statement from Sen. Bennet's communication's office:
"Sen. Bennet continues to review the Hidden Gems proposal and listen to Coloradans on the issue. What he does support is working with stakeholders to find a solution and he is open to supporting a bill that reaches consensus. He believes that open debate and local feedback is vital and he is eager to continue the dialogue." -- Adam Bozzi, communications director