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Rep. Joe Neguse pushes for better access, funding for federal lands

Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse discusses the Ski Fee Retention Bill with U.S. Forest Service officials and Summit County commissioners during a roundtable May 24 in Breckenridge.
Photo by Ashley Low

Rep. Joe Neguse is pushing to improve access and funding for public lands in Colorado and around the country.

Last week, Neguse, who chairs the U.S. Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, presented the subcommittee with three bills targeted at improving access to public lands and supporting Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy. By and large, the bills would help to simplify the permitting process for allowing guide services and individual parties to access public lands, ensure local communities get their fair share of ski fees paid by resorts, and promote the digitization of outdoor recreation mapping records around the country.

Neguse, who serves Summit County as part of Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District, is in a unique position among his colleagues in Washington, D.C., to advocate for the conservation and improved use of public lands, not only via his position with the subcommittee — which oversees some of America’s most iconic landscapes and the agencies in charge of protecting them — but also because of the vital role those landscapes play in his district.

Neguse said more than 50% of his district is composed of federal public lands, including Rocky Mountain National Park, the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, and the White River National Forest here in Summit County, the most visited national forest in the country. With public lands playing such a vital role in the quality of life for residents, and as the primary economic driver for the region, Neguse said he owes it to his constituents to make sure the lands are taken care of.

“First and foremost, I’m a Coloradan,” Neguse said in an interview with the Summit Daily on Thursday, June 10. “I’ve lived in this state since I was 6 years old, and I’ve never left. I grew up with a deep and abiding love of our great outdoors in our wonderful state. As a citizen, as a father who wants to ensure that his 3-year-old daughter and her generation can enjoy these public lands that we hold in public trust, I think it’s just incredibly important and a top priority of mine in the United States Congress.”

Among the bills Neguse is advocating for is the Ski Hill Resources for Economic Development Act, or SHRED Act. Currently, ski resorts operating on federal lands pay a permit fee to the U.S. Treasury. The White River National Forest alone is home to 11 ski areas, including Breckenridge Ski Resort, Copper Mountain Resort and Keystone Resort.

If passed, the bill would establish a Ski Area Fee Retention Account, wherein forests that receive less than $15 million in fees would get to keep 75% of it — or 60% for forests making more than $15 million — to use for wildfire preparedness, processing ski area improvement proposals and more. The remaining 25% would be earmarked for visitor services, avalanche education activities and other purposes.

Neguse said the move would serve as a good short-term solution to help local land agencies reinvest funds to support trailhead improvements, backlogged maintenance projects, increased staffing and more, all of which have become especially important as officials deal with ever-growing volumes of visiting recreationists. But Neguse said there would still be a need for more robust and sustainable funding from the federal government in the future.

“The longer-term solution is Congress mustering the political will that is necessary to fund the Forest Service at appropriate levels,” he said. “… It’s something that is reflected within the Civilian Conservation Corps proposal, which would scale up the Forest Service’s maintenance and other important accounts. We’re just going to have to keep pushing. But the current situation is simply unsustainable and unacceptable.”

Neguse declined to comment on why some members of Congress opposed increased funding for agencies like the Forest Service and said that position is “refuted by the facts on the ground.”

“Any member of Congress who feels differently can come to the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, come to Rocky Mountain National Park, come to the White River National Forest and see the real unmet needs for themselves,” he said.

In the meantime, Neguse is hoping to pass a pair of other bills that would improve access to public lands for recreation enthusiasts. The first is called the Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation Act, or SOAR Act. The bill is essentially meant to modernize and remove barriers to obtaining recreation permits for outdoor guides, educational organizations, higher-education programs and others.

Neguse said the processes used by many agencies to issue permits is currently outdated, overly complex and time consuming.

“As a result, federal land management agencies are often unable to issue the permits for guided outdoor recreation activities, even when the activities ultimately are within the capacity limits established for the given landscape,” Neguse said. “At the end of the day, the unintended consequence of that is that local economies don’t end up receiving the benefit of those outdoor recreation visits.”

Neguse is also advocating for the passage of the Modernizing Access to Our Public Land Act, or MAPLand Act. The bill would direct federal land management agencies to standardize and digitize their mapping records, which in turn would help the agencies identify areas with limited access points to open them up to the public and provide users with better and more easily attainable information on the lands.

Neguse said in order to find the best outcomes for public lands, lawmakers would need to strike a balance between making sure everyone has the access they desire and ensuring management agencies have the resources they need to support that usage.

“It’s important that we ensure the outdoor recreation industry in Colorado remains a robust one,” Neguse said. “It has a significant economic impact on Colorado and certainly my district. Through legislation like the MAPLand Act and the SOAR Act, we can ensure Coloradans and others are able to access our wonderful outdoors that is core to who we are as Coloradans. At the same time, we need to take the necessary steps to maintain our public lands and ensure we are investing the necessary federal resources so these lands can be protected for future generations.”

Bolstering local transportation infrastructure

As Neguse works to improve access and funding for federal lands, he’s also made progress in helping to fund local transportation infrastructure projects.

Last week, more than $11 million for Summit County infrastructure projects was included in the INVEST in America Act, which, if passed, would provide funding for the Gap Project, the Frisco Transit Center and Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel improvements.

“It would certainly be the largest infusion of federal transportation dollars for local Summit County projects in decades,” Neguse said. “The fact that the transportation committee ultimately included the three projects, which are critically important to Summit County, was a great step forward. Now, we’re going to have to make sure we work hard to have these projects survive the rest of the legislative process and get to the president’s desk for a signature.”

Senior Colorado Parks and Wildlife manager reinstated after investigation for meddling with wolf reintroduction

A senior Colorado Parks and Wildlife manager has been reinstated after a 12-week investigation into a whistleblower’s allegations that the manager tried to sabotage the voter-directed reintroduction of wolves — using tactics including hiring an outside group to post videos on YouTube and Facebook targeting pro-wolf state commissioners.

CPW Northwest Region Manager JT Romatzke has served in the agency for 23 years and is widely regarded as a star game warden. He was put on paid leave during the investigation and resumed work in April.

State investigators found “some” of the alleged offenses occurred, but officials last week wouldn’t specify. Following the investigation, “appropriate action was taken,” a state spokesman said, declining to give details. Romatzke wrote in an April 23 email that his “integrity and professionalism is intact,” and he will “face the future with positivity and regain credibility.”

Colorado Department of Natural Resources and CPW officials declined to discuss the matter but said in a statement, “there is no question” that they are “fully committed to restoring wolves to Colorado as required by state law.”

In November 2020, voters narrowly approved Proposition 114, which requires CPW to reintroduce a self-sustaining wolf population in western Colorado before 2024. Gov. Jared Polis supports this and has emphasized there must be “paws on the ground” by the deadline.

But wolf reintroduction is unpopular in parts of rural Colorado where wolves are seen as a threat to cattle. It’s also unpopular among some Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists.

Documents and recordings reviewed by The Denver Post show CPW officials based on the Western Slope working to subvert voters’ directive to bring back wolves. Agency directors prohibited Romatzke and other regional agency officials from talking with media before the 2020 election — including The Denver Post.

Romatzke was the subject of an official complaint filed January 18 with the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, with 11-year CPW employee Randy Hampton accusing him of:

• Using state money to hire an outside group to anonymously post YouTube and Facebook videos casting negatively two pro-wolf commissioners appointed by Polis — Taishya Adams and Jay Tutchton. The complaint said Romatzke initially asked Hampton to “find a video editor,” saying “it couldn’t cost more than $5,000,” and “we can find a way to (for) pay it.” Hampton refused. In a Jan. 5 legally inadmissible taped phone call, which was shared with The Denver Post, Romatzke told officials, “I’ve got an outside group doing just that. Don’t share that with anybody.” It’s unclear whether videos were posted.

• Instructing the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado to obtain information that Polis had sent to CPW commissioners urging them to move faster than the deadline for wolf reintroduction. Polis urged consideration of completing work sooner because lawsuits could force the federal government to reinstate endangered species protection for wolves.

• Guiding the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado to push anti-wolf perspectives in two northwest Colorado newspapers.

• Sharing details of targeting the commissioners with other managers in a conference call, according to a taped version provided to The Denver Post by the national whistleblower law group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which represents Hampton.

The HR department’s investigation concluded “some” of the alleged misdeeds occurred but didn’t provide details in an April 18 letter that closed the case. Department of Natural Resources Spokesman Chris Arend cited privacy requirements around personnel matters and said officials were not available.

In an April conference call with the human resources director, CPW Director Dan Prenzlow and Romatzke, Hampton was given a choice of “onboarding” back to his position under Romatzke or resigning, according to a recording shared with the Post. Hampton voluntarily resigned, citing fears about safety for himself and his family in Grand Junction.

After moving to Denver, he then moved out of state.

Hampton said in an interview he was reluctant to file a complaint because Romatzke was a friend. He did so only at encouragement of Colorado Department of Natural Resources director Dan Gibbs, who Hampton said called him on a Sunday assuring him that if he filed the complaint he’d “‘be taken care of.'”

He said he resigned out of concern for the integrity of the CPW and believes many “really great, passionate employees” are working under what he sees as ethically compromised conditions.

“I am anti-forced reintroduction, anti-ballot management of wildlife, for sure. But the voters spoke, and our job is to get it done — not go out and interfere,” Hampton said.

Gibbs and Romatzke didn’t respond to requests for comment. Adams declined to comment publicly. Tutchton said he wasn’t fully informed of what happened and was glad to have “survived” what felt like a very difficult confirmation process.

“On their own time, people are free to trash me. … But the part about using state resources in that effort, that is inappropriate. People should not be doing that in their uniform or on state time,” he said in an interview.

While he has “heard the skepticism” about wolves, he believes many at CPW “are doing their best to implement the will of the voters.”

Hampton’s PEER attorneys say Colorado leaders need to better protect whistleblowers so that they don’t face retaliation.

“The people of Colorado voted for wolves reintroduction, and when civil servants reject the will of the voters and substitute their own, they are forsaking the democratic principles our nation was founded on,” senior attorney Kevin Bell said.

“He reported his supervisor, the supervisor was placed on leave for a few months, and our client was assured by the state that either the supervisor would be removed, or he would be reassigned to another position so he would not have to work under the same person he reported afterwards,” he said. “Neither of those things happened. The state substantiated the allegations and then did nothing.”

Earlier this week, state officials announced the first wolf pups that were born in the wild since the 1940s, but it still needs to decide the number of wolves needed to achieve a self-sustaining population and where they’ll be released.

Grand goes to Stage 1 fire ban

In response to a heightened fire risk, Grand County commissioners unanimously approved Tuesday a move into a Stage 1 fire ban that goes into effect at noon Wednesday.

Under Stage 1 restrictions, campfires are banned outside designated, permanent fire rings and portable stoves. Smoking outside near vegetation, welding, using a chainsaw without a spark arrester and using explosives, such as fireworks are also prohibited.

Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin and Grand Fire Assistant Chief Schelly Olson told commissioners Tuesday that conditions prompted them to request the fire ban.

The ban covers public lands in Grand, including the national forests and BLM land.

The ban comes as temperatures reached into the 80s on Monday and Tuesday, and recent drought maps show all of Grand County in a drought, ranging from abnormally dry to exceptional drought.

Hot air absorbs moisture from the soil, plants and bodies of water, leaving behind dry fuels ripe for burning. With conditions creating an increased fire risk, the county may move quickly into a Stage 2 ban based on Tuesday’s discussions.

Officials from the local fire districts, the Bureau of Land Management’s Kremmling Field Office, the Sulphur Ranger District of the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and the Routt National Forest also collaborated on the decision.

The following activities and uses are also prohibited under Stage 1 Restrictions:

• Smoking, except within an enclosed vehicle or building, a developed campground or picnic area or while stopped in an area of at least six feet in diameter that is barren of all combustible materials.

• Operating a chainsaw without an USDA or SAE approved spark-arresting device properly installed and in working order.

• Welding or operating torches with open flame, except in an area of at least ten feet in diameter that is barren of all combustible materials.

• Incendiary devices (excluding permissible fireworks).

The following activities and uses are allowed under Stage 1 Fire Restrictions:

• Open fires in developed campgrounds with fees and hosts or picnic areas with permanently constructed fire grates and/or charcoal grills.

• Fires contained within liquid or gas fueled stoves, lanterns or heating devices, and approved wood pellet grills and stoves.

• Open fires at private residences within permanent or portable outdoor fireplaces, fire pits, chimineas, and/or grills.

• Permissible fireworks according to state statute. The permitted, professional fireworks displays in Grand County are allowed.

Trout Unlimited gets $255K for watershed restoration

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the national Trout Unlimited group received the funding and to clarify exactly what the money will pay for.

Trout Unlimited has received funding for the Colorado River Connectivity Channel to be built in Grand County.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation awarded Trout Unlimited $255,695 for restoration work on the natural function and habitats. The work will take place on 164 acres of riparian habitat, 111 acres of wetland habitat and 4.3 miles of stream habitat. The goal is to improve the environment for native species, including the boreal toad, northern leopard frog, bald eagle, Lewis’s woodpecker, short-eared owls and river otter.

Trout Unlimited is one of 10 groups to receive grant funding from the NFWF’s Restoration and Stewardship of Outdoor Resources and Environment (RESTORE) program. This year, over $3 million in projects were awarded.

Other projects include restoration work in the Swan River Valley in Summit County for improved trout habitats and efforts to restore sagebrush shrublands and wet meadows in Northwest Colorado by the Wildlands Restoration Volunteers.

The RESTORE program is run in partnership with Great Outdoors Colorado, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Occidental, Bureau of Land Management, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Gates Family Foundation, US Forest Service, US Natural Resources Conservation Services and Corteva Agriscience.

Wildfire burning 2 miles north of Routt County border in Wyoming

The North Fork Fire on Tuesday. (Courtesy photo)

A wildfire is currently burning in Wyoming just 2 miles north of the Routt County border, according to Wyoming officials.

The North Fork Fire is located in the south Sierra Madre Range in Carbon County, Wyoming. It is believed to have been ignited by lightning and was first reported Sunday.

The blaze was initially believed to have reached 26 acres as of Monday, according to the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests and Thunder Basin National Grasslands. Though, better mapping of the fire Tuesday showed it is only 12.5 acres.

The North Fork Fire as seen Monday from the air is burning in Wyoming just north of the Routt County border. (Courtesy photo)

Two crews have hiked in and engaged the fire with suppression and line construction. Bucket work with helicopters has continued, according to an update provided at 2 p.m. Tuesday by the forest service.

No people or structures have been threatened.

Raptors cause more Lumpy Ridge closures in Rocky

Rocky Mountain National Park announced more closures in the Lumpy Ridge area for raptor nesting.

The additional climbing closures will affect the Left Book, Bookmark and Bookmark Pinnacle because of aggressive behavior from nearby nesting Peregrine falcons. Falcons are known to dive at humans near their nest at speeds of up to 200 mph.

In addition, if falcons experience repeated disturbances near their nest, they will abandon it and leave any eggs to die.

“For the safety of both visitors and this federally protected wildlife species these additional climbing closures have been put in place,” a release from park officials said.

In February, Rocky closed many parts of the Lumpy Ridge and Loch Vale areas earlier than in previous years because of an uptick in nesting behavior. Closures include Cathedral Wall, Checkerboard Rock, Lightning Rock, Batman Rock, Batman Pinnacle, Sundance, Thunder Buttress, The Parish, The Book, and Twin Owls and Rock One.

Closures include all climbing routes, outcroppings, cliffs, faces, ascent and descent routes and climber access trails to the named rock formations. The closures are currently scheduled through July 31, but park officials may extend or shorten the closures based on nesting activity.

Check the park’s website at www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/area_closures.htm for updated information.

Top 5 most read stories on SkyHiNews.com, week of May 30

Large lodgepole pine trees are unloaded for processing at the Montrose sawmill in this 2006 file photo. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

1. The slow fade of Colorado’s mountain pine beetle is triggering a massive shift in the timber industry

Colorado’s forests have been waging a losing battle against tree-killing beetles for more than 15 years. Now, after marching across the state and killing millions of acres of pine forest, the burrowing, fungus-spreading mountain pine beetles are slowly losing steam.

While other beetles have thrived in Colorado’s drought-ravaged mountains, the mountain pine beetles have reigned as the state’s most nefarious pest. But the mountain pine beetle epidemic was always going to end, as there are only so many ponderosa and lodgepole trees in the 3.3 million acres affected by the tree-killing insects in Colorado.

And with that decline, a timber industry that has thrived on a once seemingly endless flow of dead pine trees is transitioning to new types of timber and logging.

— Jason Blevins, Colorado Sun

2. Man arrested in connection with Fraser bank robberies

Authorities have arrested a man they believe is connected to two bank robberies in Fraser, including one Wednesday at the United Business Bank and the robbery of the same bank in January.

James W. Smith, 57, is facing two charges of aggravated robbery after being arrested around noon Wednesday in Empire.

According to police, an officer at a car wreck on Berthoud Pass recognized a dark Toyota sedan and its driver as matching the descriptions from the Fraser Winter Park Police Department.

3. Police: Fraser bank robbed again

Police have released images of a man they say robbed the United Business Bank in Fraser on Wednesday.

According to Fraser Winter Park Police, someone at the bank reported the robbery at 11:34 a.m. Wednesday. Within an hour police had posted several images of the robber and a vehicle on social media.

Police said the suspect closely resembles the man who robbed the same bank on Jan. 6, who entered the bank and gave employees a note demanding money. That man was also tied to a Jan. 14 bank robbery in Frisco.

4. Colorado cities will be able to require developers to build affordable housing in new rental projects

A 20-year-old court precedent that has blocked Colorado cities and towns from forcing developers to build affordable housing in new rental projects is no more, after Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill into law Friday.

“Communities are strongest when people who work in a community can live in the community, and that’s something that sadly we have been losing,” said Polis, a Democrat, at a bill signing ceremony Friday.

House Bill 1117 modifies state land use statutes so local governments can require below-market-rate units in new or redeveloped rental projects without running afoul of the state’s rent-control prohibition. It reverses the effects of a 2000 Colorado Supreme Court ruling that restrained local governments for years.

— Thy Vo, Colorado Sun

5. Granby Corner Mall owner will miss running antique store

Filled to the brim with an eclectic assortment of goods, the floors of the Granby Corner Mall creak with every step.

The unique antique store sits inside a 100-year-old building on the corner of Granby’s main street. The ceiling is covered with its original tiles, an intricate pattern above the amalgamation of people, tales — and maybe even ghosts — as interesting as the goods Shannon Kerber sells.

Kerber initially had a booth at the antique store and took over the business a couple years ago when the owner died. Now, the Corner Mall is changing hands.

The slow fade of Colorado’s mountain pine beetle is triggering a massive shift in the timber industry

Large lodgepole pine trees are unloaded for processing at the Montrose sawmill in this 2006 file photo. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s forests have been waging a losing battle against tree-killing beetles for more than 15 years. Now, after marching across the state and killing millions of acres of pine forest, the burrowing, fungus-spreading mountain pine beetles are slowly losing steam.

While other beetles have thrived in Colorado’s drought-ravaged mountains, the mountain pine beetles have reigned as the state’s most nefarious pest. But the mountain pine beetle epidemic was always going to end, as there are only so many ponderosa and lodgepole trees in the 3.3 million acres affected by the tree-killing insects in Colorado.

And with that decline, a timber industry that has thrived on a once seemingly endless flow of dead pine trees is transitioning to new types of timber and logging.

This also means the end is near for the coveted blue-stained wood the pests leave behind. They spread a fungus in trees, leaving a distinctive blue hue that has made beetle-kill lodgepole a high-value wood for cabinetry, paneling and trim work.

Dave Sitton’s Aspen Wall Wood mill in Dolores transitioned from pure aspen paneling to mostly beetle kill almost 20 years ago. Now he’s preparing to transition back.

To continue reading this story, go to ColoradoSun.com.

Bear euthanized after attacking Routt County man near home

A Routt County man is in stable condition after a bear attacked him outside of his home in the Whitewood subdivision to the southwest of Steamboat Springs, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

The man is in stable condition after having surgery to treat serious lacerations on his arms and legs. The injuries are not considered life threatening. CPW officers euthanized the bear.

“This is an unfortunate reminder that we need to stay vigilant and bear aware at all times,” said Kyle Bond, district wildlife manager for CPW. “Easy access to food will always override a bear’s natural fear of people, so we humans have to stay on top of keeping all food sources secure.”

Around 11 p.m. Sunday the man noticed the door to his garage where he stored birdseed was open. When he went to close it, he came upon a mother bear with two cubs. When he tried to back away slowly, the bear attacked, according to CPW.

When officers arrived they began a search for the bears, quickly finding the mother near the home. The bear’s remains will be sent to CPW’s labs for a necropsy.

The two cubs have not yet been located, and wildlife officers are looking for them. When found, they will be trapped and sent to a wildlife rehabilitation facility.

Forest Service reminds recreators to secure food

The US Forest Service is requiring campers and visitors use bear-resistant food storage in Grand County’s national forests.

Both the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest and the Medicine-Bow Routt National Forest have forest orders for developed sites that require food to be in a bear-proof storage or inside sealed containers in a car, unless it’s being prepared or eaten. Refuse must also be properly contained.

The orders are in place to try and cut down on human-bear encounters, which increased in Grand County last year.

“Proper food storage is such an important thing for our Forest visitors to be aware of,” USFS Law Enforcement Patrol Captain Shawn Graef said. “There are no winners when unwanted human-bear encounters take place. This order helps cut down on those undesirable encounters and is important for keeping our public safe.”

Developed sites include such as campgrounds, trailheads, visitors centers, picnic areas and day-use sites.

Other bear attractants that visitors should store safely include BBQ grills, utensils, pet food and dishes, fish, bait, game meat, toiletries and bug spray.

Any harvested animal carcasses should be properly stored and if hung, it should be at least 100 yards from the campsite.