Playing hardball on the Roan Plateau
Aspen, CO Colorado
Coloradoans love authenticity in our politicians. I’ve never met a voter who likes a faker, but we are particularly susceptible to the Cincinnatus, rancher-turned-politician narrative. I learned this the hard way as a volunteer for Tom Strickland’s 2002 Senate campaign. Strickland had Wayne Allard dead to rights on almost every score: He’s smarter, more articulate and more dynamic.
He just couldn’t match Allard for authenticity, and Dick Wadhams, Allard’s campaign manager, made sure we knew it. Wadhams ran so many ads calling Strickland a “millionaire lawyer-lobbyist” that you would’ve thought it was his given name. I cringed when Strickland told a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News that his favorite food is sushi: more fuel for the fire.
The same dynamic played out in the 2004 Senate race. Pete Coors has the kind of name recognition that no amount of money can buy, but he came across as a stuffed shirt ” more the work of a team of campaign consultants than a real person. By con-trast, U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar hammered relentlessly on his San Luis Valley roots. Sometimes it seemed like he had only one campaign spot running on endless loop: that hokey clip of him with a cowboy hat riding his pick-up around the valley.
There’s only one problem with this tendency, which is that in the scrum of congressional politics, upstanding ex-ranchers don’t often win. Just because our Senators and Representatives are people we’d like to be our aunts and uncles doesn’t mean they should get our vote. Sometimes, distasteful as it might be, we need to vote for the guy or gal who’s a cold-eyed operator.
Let’s say you’re one of the many people who thought Strickland came off as too slick in ’96 and ’02. Looking back now, wouldn’t you rather have had him working his Rolodex in Washington than Sen. Allard? Don’t you think he could’ve done more for the state? Quick, name Sen. Allard’s top three legislative accomplishments in 12 years in the Senate. Having trouble? I thought so.
Now, I am no fan of Ben Nighthorse Campbell. But say what you will about his ethics or personal style, he is a born operator. He was a natural at cutting backroom deals. One night as a Senate aide, I had dinner with my boss at the Monocle, a restaurant just behind the Senate office buildings. In the private room across from ours, Sen. Campbell was backslapping with a bevy of plump casino-gaming lobbyists. The scene was gross, a caricature of what Americans hate about Congress. Yet is it possible we need another Campbell or two in our delegation?
I am driven to this unwholesome conclusion by one issue in particular: the fight to save the Roan Plateau. For those who haven’t tracked this debate, the Roan covers 115 square miles of pristine wilderness near Rifle. It is home to just about every large mammal and bird species in the state, and also to one of the largest untapped natural gas reservoirs in the continental U.S. As such, it is now an irresistible target of the booming oil and gas industry.
Last June, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved a resource extraction plan for the Roan that could have been drafted by industry lobby-ists. In March of this year, the BLM ratified the earlier plan, ignoring a compromise plan put together by Gov. Ritter, and favored by Colorado’s entire Democratic congressional delegation. That plan was no radical environmental manifesto; rather, it would’ve allowed for the extraction of more than 80 percent of the gas in the Roan, while protecting twice as much acreage as the BLM plan. Industry lobbyists fought the Ritter plan tooth and nail because they know they might never again have a BLM that is this industry-compliant. They’re desperate to cash in to the max before the window closes in January 2009.
Having lost the battle before the BLM, Colorado Democrats now must take the fight to Congress. The bill to override the BLM and implement the Ritter plan is classic parochial legislation ” it matters a lot to our lawmakers and very little to anyone else. In a perfect world all it would take to get a Congressman from Georgia interested in the Roan would be Mark Udall buttonholing him on the House floor and showing him a photo of a dewyeyed pronghorn antelope. Sadly, that’s not the way the game is played. Instead, when Rep. Udall or Sen. Salazar try to get support for this bill, the response is likely to be, “What have you done for me lately?” This is where it pays to play hardball. The only way the Roan legislation is going to pass is as a rider, a term for bills that are tacked onto must-pass legislation. Typically, that means appropriations bills, which keep the federal government’s lights on. Every year, dozens of bills that never got a vote on the floor of the House or the Senate are signed into law because the committee chair or the party leadership agrees to let it ride on another bill.
Everyone in Congress has a pet bill, and almost all of them die on the vine. Very few make it through as riders, particularly if the bill is controversial, as is this one. My hunch is that the Roan bill isn’t going to make it and that the administration is going run roughshod over the wishes of thousands of Colorado hunters, fishermen and backpackers. Am I wrong to wish for some arm-twisting? Someone who has a drawer full of chits he can call in? I don’t like the means, but I sure would be happy with the result.
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