Suckla off to Washington

County commissioner to underscore public lands at national conference

Larry Don Suckla is still settling in to his new job as Montezuma County commissioner. Sworn in less than two months ago, Suckla is now hoping to make an impression on the big stage. He is traveling to Washington, D.C. this weekend, with several colleagues, to represent Colorado at the National Association of Counties conference.

Like all county commissioners in the state, Suckla is a member of Colorado Counties, Inc. The organization meets in Denver monthly during the legislative session and votes on bills coming before the State Assembly.

"It's a truly democratic organization," Suckla said. "One county gets one vote, no matter how big your population."

Based on the vote tally, a Colorado Counties lobbyist then attempts to sway state legislators on the upcoming bills.

Colorado Counties has eight "steering committees" that deal with specific issues like finance, agriculture and tourism.

But perhaps the most high-profile is the public lands steering committee, given the extent of public lands in Colorado. Between the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and state holdings, more than one third of total acreage is publicly owned. Suckla tried for the vice chair position in January, which he admitted was an ambitious move for a freshman commissioner. He lost out to Rachel Richards of Pitkin County but was still voted on as a committee member.

Besides Pitkin and Montezuma, other counties represented are Garfield, Ouray, Clear Creek, Rio Grande, Conejos and Eagle.

Colorado is sending about 65 commissioners to the Washington, D.C. conference, which runs March 2-6. Most pay their own way, said Andy Karsian, Colorado Counties legislative coordinator. But because of the national purview of public lands, the public lands steering committee's eight members get special treatment: they all attend the NACo conference each year, and Colorado Counties picks up their travel expenses with dues paid for by the individual counties.

While in Washington, Suckla will meet with Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, and Rep. Scott Tipton, and network with public lands committees from other Western states.

Suckla says he'll speak out strongly against travel management plans inside the San Juan National Forest. He believes the Forest Service is taking too making liberties closing roads and shutting off trail access.

Another topic sure to surface, Karsian said, is reimbursement doled out by the Interior Department to local governments to make up for non-taxable public lands - known as payment in lieu of taxes, or PILT.

Oil and gas drilling, wildlife habitat health and fire mitigation are also on the radar.

For his part, Suckla is relishing the chance to bring attention to an area that rarely gets much publicity.

"I think this will be a great opportunity to put Montezuma County on the map," he said.

Featured speakers at this year's NACo conference include Attorney General Eric Holder, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt and Washington Post editor Bob Woodward.