Our view: River District hiring spat smacks of political meddling | PostIndependent.com

Our view: River District hiring spat smacks of political meddling

Something about a contingent of West Slope county commissioners calling into question the Colorado River District’s recent hiring of Zane Kessler as its communications chief is disturbing on one level.

On another level, it’s just plain off base and downright offensive to the divergent interests that came together to form the Thompson Divide Coalition.

The district in early September hired Kessler, the former director of the Carbondale-based grassroots coalition that brought together ranchers, hunters, anglers, mountain bikers, hikers, conservationists and various political interests for a common purpose: to do away with some highly questionable oil and gas leases in the wilds west of Carbondale.

Kessler’s new job: To head up district communications and assist the external affairs team in its lobbying efforts regarding Western Slope water interests at the state Capitol in Denver, and beyond.

Given Kessler’s laudable efforts in steering the rather unwieldy band of “strange bedfellows,” as he described them, to convince the Bureau of Land Management to cancel 25 Divide-area leases and make a case for permanently protecting the area from future leasing, it seemed like a good hire.

According to River District General Manager Eric Kuhn, it was a competitive hiring process, with 25 applicants and eight finalists interviewed by a committee of five district employees. Kessler was the unanimous choice.

In the weeks since, though, the political wheels among some seemingly drill-anywhere-at-any-cost commissioners from Mesa, Rio Blanco and Moffat counties have been spinning.

Seems they don’t want an “anti-oil-and-gas-activist” running the show when it comes to water. They also worry that the Thompson Divide Coalition, with an ally in its pocket, will turn its attentions to the deep legal complexities that surround water issues.

Seriously?

First of all, where do a few constituent county commissioners with questionable motives of their own get off trying to influence the subordinate hiring decisions of what’s intended to be a semi-autonomous organization?

Sure, the elected commissions from the 15 member counties in the River District collectively oversee things by appointing a representative director to serve on the district’s board and help steer policy decisions.

Directing policy is one thing, but there needs to be a level, even multiple levels, of separation when it comes to carrying out the administrative duties and responsibilities of the district.

Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards was correct to call it “wrongful interference” during what she described as a “vendetta meeting” of the River District board, staff and the subject commissioners earlier this month.

Secondly, the Thompson Divide Coalition was formed with a single, very specific purpose: To protect the expanse of public lands immediately west of Carbondale from large-scale industrial impacts associated with oil and gas drilling and production.

Before Kessler’s arrival and during his five years as director, the coalition was successful in making the case that some places can and should be protected from such activity.

A multitude of reasons were put forth, not the least of which was a study showing that existing uses and natural resources in the Thompson Divide, from hunting, fishing and skiing to prime cattle grazing and, yes, clean water, support some 300 jobs and generate $30 million in annual economic activity.

The coalition rallied the broader community to weigh in when the BLM decided to review the Divide-area leases. The vast majority of formal comments that came in during that analysis supported canceling those leases.

It’s the kind of “local voice” when it comes to multiple use of federal lands that Republican Congressman Scott Tipton talked about recently during testimony before a House Natural Resources Subcommittee.

Addressing a separate issue, that of bicycle use in designated wilderness areas, Tipton offered: “I have long supported a balanced approach to federal land management, one that supports multiple uses, keeps public lands accessible, and prioritizes the voice and wishes of the local communities …”

Whether it’s public access or prioritizing certain land uses over others when necessary, that local voice is crucial. It is one that should be given priority when land decisions are made. In the case of the Thompson Divide, that local voice was heard.

Finally, to label Kessler or the coalition either one as anti-oil-and-gas is just plain misinformed. Both were actually criticized by various environmental groups during the long debate over the Divide leases for not taking a stronger stand against drilling in general.

All the saber rattling aside, given Kessler’s success in unifying people on the Thompson Divide issue, he should serve the River District well in helping steer Colorado’s equally diverse water interests toward some common ground.


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