New commissioners get to work

It's a new year, but the impassioned debate over motorized access to public lands isn't going away.

In early December, Dolores District Ranger Derek Padilla released a final decision - Modified Alternative D - for travel in the Boggy-Glade landscape, on San Juan National Forest land north of Dolores.

The document triggered a 45-day appeal period, ending Jan. 25.

To have legal standing for an appeal, an individual or advocacy group had to submit a written comment earlier in the review process.

One prominent dissenting voice is Casey McClellen, cofounder of the pro-motorized group Timberline Trail Riders.

Before the Montezuma County Board of Commissioners Monday, McClellan decried the loss of terrain accessible to dirt bike and ATV users.

"For 40 years, everything was fine. Map after map was consistent. Practically overnight, it changed," he said. "It seems like an abuse (of authority). (Forest managers) have a mandate to designate, not close off entire sections. It's just unnecessary."

Padilla and Deborah Kill, an environmental policy analyst with the Dolores Public Lands Center, were present to answer questions.

Comments from the public were factored in, Padilla said. He acknowledged that the majority were pro-motorized use.

"But it isn't really a democracy," he said, elaborating that because national forests are multiuse, rangers have to balance competing interests - timber, rangeland grazing, mining, recreation - with soil, watershed and wildlife health.

"It's truly a balancing act going on," Padilla said.

McClellan argued that "by whittling the number of trails down to a select few, you're putting a lot of pressure on the ones left over."

Monday was the first official public meeting for new commissioners Keenan Ertel and Larry Don Suckla, who were sworn in last week. The commissioners plan to file their own appeal against the Boggy-Glade decision before the deadline next Friday.

Aside from Boggy-Glade, the two other landscapes in the Dolores Ranger District are Mancos-Cortez (Haycamp Mesa, Transfer Area, Echo Basin) and Rico-West Dolores (Rico, Bear Creek, Calico, Burnett Creek, Willow-Divide, Black Mesa, Ryman Creek). Travel management is already in effect in Mancos-Cortez, as there was no appeal. The Rico-West Dolores decision was successfully appealed and remanded, meaning sent back to the Ranger District for further analysis and edits.

COUNTY ATTORNEY CHANGE

Montezuma County will have a new attorney for the first time in more than a quarter century.

By a 2-1 vote on Monday, the commission chose not to renew the contract of Bob Slough, the county's legal counsel since 1987. New commissioner Ertel and the returning Steve Chappell voted to replace Slough, with Suckla, also newly seated, dissenting. Slough was not present during the vote.

Instead, the commission opted to offer Slough a new position as attorney for social services.

"Bob has a heart for dysfunctional families and for kids not doing well in society," said Chappell.

When asked Tuesday, Slough said he would decline the offer, but has no intentions to move from the area.

"I'm thankful to the people and to previous boards. They gave me the honor and privilege of serving (the county)," he said.

Chappell had complimentary words for Slough and emphasized the decision was not in response to any single incident.

"In no way do we mean to dishonor or imply anything negative about Bob Slough. He has an ocean of experience and has served the county well. The board just felt it was a good time for a change, with new commissioners coming on board," he said.

There is no replacement ready at this time.

TAX DISPUTE

Nathan Keever, a Grand Junction-based attorney, was approved to represent the county in its tax dispute with CO2 extractor Kinder Morgan. He is the second candidate to be tapped for the job. Phillip Barber, the county's first choice, was hired in October but resigned because Kinder Morgan called his participation a conflict of interest.

County assessor Mark Vanderpool said the alleged conflict was related to Barber representing the Cortez Pipeline in a separate case more than 10 years ago. The pipeline transports carbon dioxide 500 miles from the McElmo Dome to oil fields in west Texas.

Vanderpool said Keever came "highly recommended" by Barber and Mary Ellen Denomy, an accountant who has advised the county before on the Kinder Morgan issue. He is employed by the law firm Dufford, Waldeck, Milburn & Krohn.

"I specialize in oil and gas work. I'm very familiar with audits and royalty cases related to oil and gas operators," Keever said Tuesday from his Grand Junction office.

Kinder Morgan is trying to recoup about $2 million in property taxes already paid to the county. A second point of contention is the company's relationship to the Cortez Pipeline. The county argues that because Kinder Morgan, with Exxon, owns an 87 percent majority stake in the pipeline, the use tariffs they pay are in effect circulating back into their own coffers.

"Our opinion is that they are, in effect, paying themselves," Vanderpool said.

A hearing before the state Board of Assessment Appeals is scheduled for Feb. 19, but Vanderpool said the date will be postponed until May or June to give Keever time to study the case file.

SUPPORT FOR VETERANS

The county is moving forward with plans to hire a full-time veterans affairs officer. Currently, the department is staffed by Bud Carriere on a part-time basis of 15 hours per week.

County administrator Ashton Harrison said more help is needed to cope with the volume of paperwork. According to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, Montezuma County is home to about 2,500 veterans.

The VA department is charged with connecting veterans - as well as dependents and surviving spouses - to benefits including disability compensation, home loans, health care, education and job training.

About 15 veterans from various branches listened Monday as the commissioners discussed the new hire.

Robert Valencia said helping veterans was "a bigger job than 10 years ago", given the younger service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Over the next two weeks, leaders of local posts - the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and American Legion - will brainstorm about desired credentials and report back to the commission with recommendations. The county will then publicize the job opening and start taking applications.

Carriere will be retained as an assistant after the full-time position is filled. The initial appointment will last two years and be extended based on performance. Harrison said the VA department will set up in new offices in the county annex building, both for space reasons and to make it more accessible to the disabled.

lukeg@cortezjournal.com