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Senate candidates split on fees, drilling

The four candidates for Colorado’s open U.S. Senate seat are split on whether more protections are needed from exploration and drilling of natural gas in the White River National Forest and other public lands.

The candidates were split on party lines. Democrats Mike Miles and Ken Salazar said they would consider additional protection for public lands.

Republicans Pete Coors and Bob Schaffer said they believe ample protections exist.

The Aug. 10 primary will narrow the field down to one candidate per party.

The candidates were also split on another important public land management issue ” user fees for hikers, cyclists, off-road enthusiasts and other recreationalists. But this time it wasn’t along party lines.

Coors and Salazar opposed fees for recreation uses of national forests. Schaffer and Miles were more supportive.

Whoever wins election as Colorado’s next senator will have ample opportunity to help form national positions on public land management issues. The long-term fate of the national recreational fee demonstration project is under debate in Congress but might not be settled before the November election.

Colorado is experiencing unprecedented levels of applications by the oil and gas industry to drill in the state. The exploration interest has sparked debates about the appropriate use of land in the White River National Forest and the nearby Roan Plateau, which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Salazar said mining and energy development must be “consistent” with local interests. He said a more thorough analysis must be made on the suitability of some public land for exploration and drilling.

In the bigger picture, Salazar wants the United States to improve its energy efficiency. “We need to put a national priority on ridding us of our dependence on foreign oil,” he said.

Miles said a balance must be sought between meeting U.S. energy needs and protecting sensitive land.

“We are really skewing the balance,” he said. “We’ve gone way overboard.”

Like Salazar, he said the key to the issue is increasing efficiency and decreasing dependency on foreign sources.

“We keep putting off the inevitable,” said Miles, who wants to increase incentives for hybrid vehicles and other efficiency achievements.

Schaffer, a former three-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives who stepped down in 2003, said gas and oil exploration is a legitimate use of public land that was set aside for multiple uses. He said it is also an “important source of revenue.”

He supports oil and gas extraction as long as it is done within limits already established. Those existing rules demonstrate a “federal sensitivity” to protecting land, he said.

Schaffer couldn’t recall if he voted on specific bills about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska that were separate from broader energy bills during his tenure in Congress. “I would have voted for it,” he said.

Coors labeled himself a proponent of multiple uses of federal lands. “I’m an advocate of full utilization of our natural resources,” he said.

He said he doesn’t believe the United States will ever become self-sufficient on energy but he supports tapping into what is available.

As a multiple-use advocate, Coors believes public lands were put aside, in part, for the enjoyment of the country’s residents. As a senator he would not support recreation fees in national forests but acknowledges they are an accepted and necessary part of managing national parks.

His opponent, Schaffer, said that if the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, did a better job of managing lands and collecting fees for extraction of natural resources, a recreation fee wouldn’t be necessary. But existing conditions have put an “increasing burden on people who use the forest for recreation.”

A fee is more preferable than subsidies from the general budget, according to Schaffer. Recreationalists should be willing to “chip in a fair amount” for use of the forest, he said.

Miles said he preferred recreation fees to an increase in taxes to fund improvements and maintenance of national forests and parks.

Salazar’s position was less clearly defined. He initially said he was “not opposed to fees for recreation purposes as long as they’re reasonable” and the funds are used efficiently. When asked to elaborate later in an interview, he said that recreation fees weren’t historically charged for use of national forests and he would like to see it stay that way. Still later, he definitively said he would not support a recreation use fee in national forests.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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