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State’s safety must take priority over tourism

Dennis Webb

All of Colorado is burning. Not exactly the words you want to hear if you’re in the tourism industry in our fine state.

And so, Gov. Bill Owens has been upbraided in no uncertain terms since he uttered those words in the heat of the moment, as it were, after the Coal Seam fire burned dozens of homes and structures and forced the evacuation of thousands around Glenwood Springs.

Critics believe he betrayed an industry for which he should be a leading cheerleader, not its worst enemy. The choice of words might not have been the most judicious. But if it was Owens’ intent to underscore the urgency of the situation, his point was entirely valid.

Parts of Colorado are burning like never before. Due to fires in Canon City, Glenwood, near the Front Range and elsewhere, the loss of homes and acreage are both unprecedented. And with a severe drought at hand, what hasn’t burned sits like a powder keg, entirely capable of exploding in flames as well.

Owens was speaking figuratively, not literally. Most would-be Colorado tourists presumably are savvy enough to know the difference.

If the governor erred in what he said, we’re glad he erred on the safe side. If Colorado has to choose right now between tourism and the safety of its residents and firefighters, better to err on the side of safety.

That’s what the Pike-San Isabel National Forest chose to do in shutting down all visitation until the fire danger subsides. It was an extreme measure, but the Forest Service’s decision is hard to question under the circumstances, with the danger so high and firefighting resources stretched so thin.

We’re glad, likewise, to see the White River National Forest issue a total ban on open fires in the forest, even in fire pits in campgrounds. By contrast to the Pike-San Isabel decision, it’s a more moderate attempt to reduce the chances of wildfires occurring, while not shutting off our high country to visitors altogether during the important summer recreation season.

Hopefully, conditions won’t deteriorate to the point that a total forest closure is required here as well, but Forest Supervisor Martha Ketelle deserves the public’s backing if it comes to that point.

Tourists need to be assured there’s more to see in our fine state than ash and charred buildings, and the state should spread that message, from Owens on down.

On the other hand, it is important for tourists, not to mention Colorado residents, to fully appreciate just how high the fire danger is, and what the consequences of careless actions on any of their parts might be. People like Owens and Forest Service officials are working responsibly to get the message out on the fire danger.

This will be a hard summer for Colorado’s tourism industry, following a hard winter in which the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a lack of snowfall ganged up on the ski industry. But at some point things will return to normal.

For now, doing everything to keep Owens’ assessment of the fire situation from becoming literal rather than figurative must be the state’s top priority.

– Dennis Webb, News Editor


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