The normally sedate state Senate confirmation hearings took a tense turn last week during the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee's review of six nominations to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission.
The commission is one of the most high profile in the state, according to state Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee. That profile will be much higher in 2020, with a ballot measure in November on bringing wolves to Colorado, and a bill that Donovan is sponsoring on the same issue. The parks and wildlife commission would have a major role to play in overseeing the wolf program, developed by the parks and wildlife department, should voters approve it.
Two nominees, Elizabeth "Betsy" Blecha of Wray and Eden Vardy of Aspen, drew an unusual level of scrutiny from committee members during the hearing Thursday over concerns that the choices go against the goal of geographic representation and that their qualifications don't address the needs of the commission.
Under state law (CRS 33-9-101), members are required to come from geographically-balanced "diverse areas of the state." Four of the 11 members are to come from west of the Continental Divide.
With the six new appointees, the commission's membership is comprised of six members west of the Continental Divide, four from communities along the Front Range and I-25, from Boulder to Trinidad, and just one who represents 22 counties in Eastern Colorado.
"I shouldn't be concerned as a Western Sloper, but this committee is so heavily weighted to the Western Slope that it concerns me," Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, said during the hearing. "I believe in a diverse organization, but looking around, 70% of you have ties to the Western Slope."
Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, told Colorado Politics he was concerned that the commission has so little representation from that one-third of the state, where the vast majority of pheasant, small game and waterfowl hunting takes place.
"When I look at the list, I'm worried about the direction we're headed in," he said. "It isn't personal. The intent was for geographic diversity."
Former Commissioner of Agriculture Don Brown, who served under Gov. John Hickenlooper, sat on the parks and wildlife commission as a non-voting member, and is among several on the Eastern Plains who have commented about the parks and wildlife commission representation.
"My real concerns are that 37.5% of the state has only one representative, and 93% of the commission comes from west of I-25," he told Colorado Politics. "The statutes clearly say commission appointments are to be geographically distributed."
Brown said he has experience in finding people for the state's agriculture commission. He said that he believes it was essential, when he chose people for that body, to make sure those appointed had long-term history in the areas they represented, with experience in the field. That should apply to the parks and wildlife commission as well.
That lack of long-term history was also an element of concern with Blecha, who moved to Wray just a year ago.
Blecha, a native of New York State, lived in Jackson County for 10 years, serving four years as a Jackson County Commissioner. It didn't sit well with some of the the committee that all of her recommendation letters came from people in Jackson County instead of from someone who lives in the counties she would represent.
Blecha was chosen as a representative of sportsmen. She was appointed to the seat last May, and told Colorado Politics she was asked to apply by the governor.
When asked whether she can represent a portion of the state with which she has almost no experience, Blecha told Colorado Politics, "I'm still a sportsperson's rep. I can bring a unique perspective to that, being a woman who came into it later. I wasn't raised hunting, but I've spent time in the Plains with my family and hunting in those areas."
In the case of Vardy, he was nominated to be a representative of production agriculture. That's a term carrying a particular meaning: a farm with its primary purpose producing crops or livestock.
Vardy told the committee that he "lives and breathes agriculture," and that he grows vegetables, fruits and raises chickens and lambs. His purpose on the commission is help more young people become engaged in agriculture, he said. "I am dedicated to be most of service to agriculture at large and serve the well-being of wildlife."
Vardy runs the Farm Collaborative, a nonprofit that educates young people about farming. Its website states that it has "taught thousands of children where their food comes from and nurtured a culture of young environmental stewards who are dedicated to a better tomorrow."
Is that production agriculture? Not according to Coram and Sonnenberg, both of whom are livelong farmers and ranchers.
Gov. Jared Polis also asked Vardy to apply for the seat, according to The Aspen Daily News.
Sonnenberg was one of the sponsors of the original legislation that set up the parks and wildlife commission. He told Colorado Politics his intention with the law was to have three representatives from production agriculture who have experience with the impacts of wildlife on agriculture. That includes game damage and wildlife habitat. He said he doesn't believe Vardy has that kind of experience.
Coram agreed that production agriculture is not well-represented on the commission. To Vardy, he said, "I think you're a wonderful person and done a good job. But I'm concerned that the person whose sole livelihood depends on production agriculture, I'm not sure that's you... . I have concerns about you being an agricultural representative when there's people who have far more experience in agriculture than you do."
CPW Director Dan Prenzlow told the committee that two spots on the commission for representatives of production agriculture will be open in July.
Donovan weighed in, too. "Those two seats will get attention from this committee," she told Prenzlow.
The committee approved the six appointments on a 3-2 party-line vote. The nominations now move to deliberation by the full Senate.