Attempting to appease lawmakers who have been angry over a shutout of Eastern Plains representation on boards and commissions, Gov. Jared Polis named three new members to the state Parks and Wildlife Commission on July 8. Those appointments, however, are drawing criticism from some.
- Dallas Laverne May of Lamar as a representative of agriculture,
- Duke Phillips IV of Colorado Springs as a representative of agriculture, and
- James Jay Tutchton of Hasty as a representative of a nonprofit organization that promotes conservation and recognizes non-consumptive wildlife use.
The governor's announcement said two of those appointees represent agriculture, but the statute under which the commission operates — CRS 33-9-101 — requires agricultural representatives to come from "production agriculture": someone whose livelihood relies on agriculture that produces crops or livestock.
May's appointment is not an issue for those who talked to Colorado Politics. According to the Fence Post, May is a farmer and rancher "who has presented programs on carbon offset programs and production methods for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union." However, the URL on the article included the phrase "continuing-war-on-rural-colorado-polis-advancement-of-activist-agenda-marches-on."
Phillips has been criticized as a land manager rather than a rancher, but Terry Fankhauser of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association said both are members of his organization and "legitimate, solid producers who deal with wildlife issues and are actively engaged in conservation and hunting." He believes Phillips' operation is production agriculture, which provides a habitat for wildlife. That's why the parks and wildlife commission have agricultural representatives, Fankhauser explained. "I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the individuals chosen, based on the some of the past appointments made in the name of agriculture." May and Phllips understand agriculture and wildlife, he said.
Phillips is the chief operating officer for Ranchlands, which according to a profile in the conservation blog Mountain and Prairie is "a Colorado-based ranching and ranch management company that is widely celebrated for its deep conservation ethic."
Ranchlands leases the Chico Basin Ranch southeast of Colorado Springs, a working cattle ranch that says its cattle are grass-fed without hormones. The ranch is owned by the Colorado State Land Board with its primary purpose, according to lease documents obtained by Colorado Politics, is as an educational facility. Ranchlands also manages Medano Zapata Ranch near Mosca, which is owned by The Nature Conservancy and is a working bison, cattle and horse ranch and nature preserve. On its website, the Nature Conservancy said they manage the ranch "for two reasons: to protect their significant natural values and to demonstrate how cattle and bison operations can coexist with conservation efforts."
Those who manage land trusts are not engaged in the day-to-day operations required for production agriculture, according to state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling. "It would be interesting to know if he's had his arm in the south end of a northbound cow," Sonnenberg said. Republican Sen. Don Coram of Montrose said Phillips is more of a hobby rancher, not a representative of production agriculture.
An open records request for Phillips' application showed that none of his references came from anyone in production agriculture. His three references come from the Colorado State Land Board, The Nature Conservancy and from the Colorado State Brand Board.
Tutchton's appointment, however, is raising eyebrows. Until about five years ago, Tutchton served as general counsel for WildEarth Guardians, an environmental organization that uses litigation to effect change in wildlife, climate and energy issues. Tutchton manages the Heartland Preserve, which was acquired by the Southern Plains Land Trust in 2008. The preserve is near Hasty, Colorado. He has lived in the area for about three years, according to his application.
The town of Hasty has a population of 144 as of 2010 and is located in Bent County, about halfway between Las Animas and Lamar. It's the town closest to John Martin Reservoir, the largest in southeastern Colorado.
Tutchton rents a home in Hasty but until last year owned a home in Centennial and had a law practice in Denver.* In a 2018 article for the land trust, Tutchton said "My 'SPLT existence' is an odd mix. Some days I’m still in Denver doing office work and visiting Starbucks, and others I’m digging stuck trucks out of the mud 12 miles from the nearest residence and eating at the Loaf and Jug" in Las Animas.
An open records request for Tutchton's application shows three references: an associate dean from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, conservation biologist Richard Reading of Denver and the head of the Southern Plains Land Trust.
The issue of lack of Eastern Plains representation on boards and commissions — or efforts by Polis to handpick people who are new to Eastern Colorado — has been a thorn in the side of lawmakers for more than a year. It came to a head last month, over appointments to the Colorado State Fair Authority board that excluded representation from Eastern Colorado, where 84% of the state's gross agricultural sales take place.
Appointments to the parks and wildlife board have previously drawn complaints. Polis' prior appointment of Betsy Blecha drew concerns last February. Blecha was a Jackson County commissioner who moved to Wray shortly before her appointment. All of her references came from Jackson County residents. She was appointed to be a representative of sportsmen — basically hunting and fishing, which she admitted she had little experience with. The other appointee, Eden Vardy, owns a nonprofit educational farm in Aspen, although his appointment was to be as a representative of production agriculture. Coram said last February that Vardy's business does not fall under that category. Both Vardy and Blecha said they were asked to apply for those appointments by the governor.
During the February Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee meeting, Chair Sen. Kerry Donovan of Vail warned Colorado Parks and Wildlife Director Dan Prenzlow that the governor's next appointments to the commission would get heightened scrutiny.
It isn't only the Eastern Plains where representation is an issue. With these latest appointments, the Western Slope is getting the short shrift on representation from production agriculture, according to Chad Vorthmann of the Colorado Farm Bureau. Wildlife, such as large elk and deer herds, spend the majority of their time on the Western Slope on private land controlled by production agriculture, he said.
Correction: an earlier version said Tutchton continued to maintain a home in Centennial. He told Colorado Politics he sold it a year ago, although several real estate websites did not show that sale.