They say a sure sign of a marriage in deep trouble is when one spouse hasn’t a clue there are any problems in the first place. Until it all boils over, of course. That’s kind of how it is for the restive citizens of Weld County — whose grievances against the state government are way off the radar for Colorado’s urban-suburban majority along the Front Range.
Weld — the overwhelmingly rural, oil-and-gas-producing, cattle-raising, meatpacking, wheat-growing workhorse and population hub of Colorado’s northeastern plains — is mighty unhappy these days. It seems to plenty of its residents that every time they turn around, either their livelihood or their lifestyle is under attack from the State Capitol in Denver. And the rest of the time, they’re being ignored altogether.
That’s certainly the perspective of activists who are seriously exploring the county’s secession from Colorado — and union with Wyoming just north across the Weld County line. As reported by the Gazette last week, more than 5,400 people have signed onto the upstart movement via its Facebook page titled, “Weld County, WY.” That’s WY as in Wyoming. It’s the second attempt by northeast Coloradans to go their own way; in 2013, an unsuccessful ballot measure had proposed creating a 51st U.S. state out of Weld and 10 other adjoining Colorado counties.
This latest effort raises various questions about the mechanics of such a move. Yet, the most pressing issue for the rest of Colorado isn’t the “how” part of it but the bigger-picture “why?” that underlies it. In that context, Weld County’s bid to head north should be taken as a wake-up call. Not only from Weld but from much of rural Colorado.
Although the approach was somewhat different in 2013, the motivation was pretty much the same. The new movement’s goals may seem kind of tentative — its Facebook page explainer reads, "Better to go to WY then create new state? Last resort? Pros and Cons? Happen quickly or take years?”— but the key concerns on which it all is premised are concrete.
Foremost among those concerns is the series of steps taken in the past few year by state lawmakers and regulators as well Democratic Gov. Jared Polis to smother new oil and gas exploration and development. It’s an industry that is a cornerstone of Colorado’s economy in general, but its most immediate benefits — high-paying jobs on drilling crews; small businesses thriving on the extra payroll; local government coffers reaping new revenues for schools, roads and other services — stand out most in rural Colorado. And nowhere more so than in oil-and-gas-booming Weld County.
There’s also the Polis administration’s awkward missteps in approaching another cornerstone economic sector, agriculture. Ranchers haven’t been happy about the governor’s affinity for meatless burgers. Farmers have been befuddled by some of the Boulder-born-and-raised governor’s ag appointments, who seem unlikely to know a hoe from a hoedown.
Statewide COVID-19 restrictions on business and other activities haven’t sat well with a lot of Weld County elected officials, who view the state’s mandates as poorly thought through, one size fits all, and just plain high handed.
And guns. Weld County elected officials avidly tout the right to keep and bear arms; Denver lawmakers are pushing for more control when the COVID-stalled legislative session resumes.
The list of specific concerns goes on — some of it, perhaps, attributable to the broader and growing political rift between mostly red-voting rural Colorado and increasingly blue metro areas on the north Front Range.
As Republican state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, a farmer and rancher in neighboring Logan County, told The Gazette:
“The governor's boards and commissions don't appoint people from rural Colorado and there is absolutely no dialogue with those from the rural areas, and it's frustrating…I don't think this will ever go away until you have a governor that governs for all of the state of Colorado and not just Denver and Boulder.”
Or, as former Weld County Republican state Rep. Lori Saine of Firestone put it:
"The ruling majority in Denver has repeatedly passed legislation taking aim at our right to defend ourselves and our families, and legislation crippling the oil and gas industry, which provides good-paying jobs and heats and powers our homes … Why is anyone surprised that neighbors are asking neighbors the same questions they did in 2013? I believe some of these folks keenly feel that they didn't leave Colorado — Colorado left them."