Governor joins center of excellence celebration

Ryan Hoffman
Gov. John Hickenlooper on Wednesday cuts the ceremonial ribbon for the Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting at Rifle-Garfield County Regional Airport.
Colleen O’Neil / Post Independent |

Rifle was back in the spotlight Wednesday with Gov. John Hickenlooper on hand to celebrate the establishment of the new Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting at Rifle-Garfield County Regional Airport, and sign a bill increasing local input in the management of federal land.

Speaking in front of several hundred people, Hickenlooper commended local leaders for their efforts in bringing the center to Rifle. The state in March selected Rifle-Garfield County Regional Airport as home for the center over several larger airports on the Front Range.

It was the team in Garfield County that created the vision for what the center could be, the governor said. When it came time to make a decision, the cooperation and support at the local level combined with the airport’s proximity to wildfire-prone areas in western Colorado made Rifle the most attractive option.

“People don’t believe this, but when we have a choice we’re always going to try and put investment into the rural parts of Colorado where the economic recovery is lacking,” Hickenlooper said. “We’re always going to do that, but we’re also going to pick the best proposal. In other words, we’re never going to sacrifice quality for the citizens of Colorado just for that one purpose.”

By selecting Rifle, the state guaranteed quality would not be sacrificed, he added.

Competing against larger airports made it tough at times, said Garfield County Commissioner Mike Samson. A lot of people came together to make the center’s establishment in Rifle a reality.

Initially the center will act as a translator between the academic sector and the people on the ground tasked with implementing polices and procedures. The goal is to discover problems and help implement solutions that work best for Colorado’s firefighters, said Melissa Lineberger, who was formally appointed director of the center Wednesday. In the future, Lineberger sees the center as a bridge between the private sector and Colorado firefighters.

“Our vision is to become the worldwide leader in collaborative research on aerial and other wildland firefighting capabilities,” she said.

Following the ribbon cutting, Hickenlooper signed a bill requiring three state agencies to provide assistance to local governments working with agencies that manage federal land. By including local governments in the process, the state can better communicate concerns related to the management of those lands, said bill sponsor Rep. Bob Rankin.

With some states considering trying to take control of public lands from the federal government, Colorado is looking for a more constructive means of resolving those issues, said John Swartout, rural policy and outreach director in the governor’s office. Swartout cited Garfield County’s involvement in the Roan Plateau settlement as an example of what can happen when local agencies are able to provide input on management issues.

Conservation groups sued the federal government in 2008 over a land management plan allowing oil and natural gas drilling in parts of the Roan Plateau. The U.S. Department of the Interior agreed to cancel most of the leases in November 2014 and reimburse lease payments to the developers, which required the state to reimburse the federal government $23 million in lease payments. Garfield County officials worked with Rankin on legislation outlining a reimbursement plan that would not hold the county responsible for repaying the federal government. Hickenlooper signed the bill into law May 1.

“By amplifying the local government voice in these federal processes and working together with the state we can get a more constructive outcome for them,” he said. “A last resort is saying, ‘Well our only solution is to seize federal land.’ We’re trying to give them a productive place to land.”

Hickenlooper did other bill signings in western Colorado on Wednesday.

He signed a bill co-sponsored by Rankin that called for requiring traction devices or minimum tread while driving a passenger vehicle in the mountains in the winter. Proposed as a requirement on Interstate 70 between Morrison and Dotsero, the bill was opposed by Senate Republicans and reduced to a study over the summer.

“In 2014 there were traffic tie-ups weekend after weekend,” Hickenlooper said. “Some of those were caused by people driving on bald tires.”

Hickenlooper cited a 2007 study by a Front Range agency that found mountain businesses lose $800,000 every hour that traffic is congested on I-70.

The study will apply science and data to the discussion, Hickenlooper said.

Rankin called it the “most misunderstood bill of the year.”

“We really need to communicate to the public what this was about,” Rankin said. “You buy a $20 set of chains and throw them in the trunk, and if you need them you’ve got ’em.”

In Eagle County, he signed Sen. Kerry Donovan’s ASCENT bill, which expands a program providing money for high school students earning college credit, either while they’re in high school or in their first year after graduation.

He also signed Donovan’s Mobile Learning Labs bill, which provides a consistent funding source for rolling classrooms from places like Colorado Mountain College, which has already been providing the service.

Randy Wyrick of the Vail Daily contributed to this report.

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