Western Colorado Congress on the brink

Was active in watershed drilling fight

The Western Colorado Congress is doing some soul searching.

The WCC is reeling from financial cutbacks, has seen several changes in directors in the last couple years, is having its tactics questioned by many in the community, and in
December was tossed from the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce. The circumstances have combined to cause some members to question whether the organization should continue in its current format.

That question is the subject of an invite-only, strategic-planning conference that is being attended by 30 of its core members this weekend at Mesa State College. It is the first meeting of its kind for the WCC.

This weekend’s gathering symbolically started Friday evening with a gathering at Geoff Tischbein’s Grand Junction home, a gathering reminiscent of a meeting 30 years ago at his home, then in Montrose, when the WCC was created.

“It is not an open meeting,” said Jim Riddell, a 10-year veteran of the WCC and a recently seated member of the organization’s board of directors. “Most of our meetings are (open), but this is a time when we’re specifically limiting the participants because we really need to focus very clearly on what our future should be.”

The future looks to be less flush with cash, as Riddell said some key foundations and donors have stopped funding the WCC. With cash-flow troubles, the group is having to refocus efforts and concentrate on what members feel are realistic goals. Perhaps one way to accomplish those goals would be to disband the WCC, which has about 2,600 members and separate groups in six counties.

“That is an option,” Riddell said. “We are looking at a variety of options, but it will be up to the membership and the leadership to see if that would make more sense. The groups might relate to each other more informally, or they might decide they want to have stronger ties with each other. We don’t really know.”

Finances, not issues, are driving change, said Heather Tischbein, the WCC’s executive director and sister of Geoff Tischbein.

“It is just the economy as far as I can tell. Between 2007 and 2009 there has been maybe a 40 percent reduction in our revenue stream,” she said. “We have to find ways to save money.”

To adjust revenues, much of the paid staff was cut in September.

“We need our members to kind of amplify and step up their volunteerism ... in what used to be paid staff positions,” she said.

Change for the organization has been a long time coming and is overdue, said Jim Spehar, a current WCC member and former Grand Junction City Councilman and Mesa County Commissioner.

“It is probably past time for WCC to reinvent itself,” Spehar said.

In his opinion the WCC is not going away, but its future is definitely in question.

“I think if it was going to fold, it would have folded last fall,” he said.

After the WCC’s work with the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area was done, two foundations, the Wyss and the Harder foundations, pulled funding. They are not the only foundations to close their purse strings in the last year, Riddell said.

“It is tough economic times, especially for foundations,” Riddell said. “This is likely to be worse before it gets better because of the way foundation funding happens.”

The WCC’s most recent 990 form filing, a requirement for any 501(c)3 nonprofit, covers 2007 and was filed in November 2008.

It gives no hint of the group’s financial shortcomings. Its latest filing of a form 990, found on Guidestar.org, shows the organization as having $153,803 in net assets or fund balances at the end of the year. It also shows members dues and assessments added up to $71,940 in 2007.

Members contacted for this story said funding from membership fees is holding strong.

But in order to continue advocating for residents on issues, the WCC needs to find its focus and then balance it with realistic fundraising, according to members.

No final decisions will be made at this weekend’s meeting, but funding will be at the heart of the discussion, Riddell said.

“I think it is very important to say: ‘How do we focus on what is most important and focus on being effective with what we have?’ ” he said.

The WCC has had its fair share of successes and has made a name for itself, for better or worse, championing environmental issues of concern to Western Slope residents.

“I think several of their success stories (have come) here in Mesa County over the last few years,” said Bennett Boeschenstein, a current member of the WCC and a former city and county planner.

The WCC was active in the fight to halt drilling in the Grand Junction and Palisade watersheds. It spearheaded an effort to have School District 51 build Chipeta Elementary as a “green” school. And its members still are confounding Brady Trucking, which was looking to transfer operations to property it owns next to the Colorado River, but it was halted by a signature petition and now a lawsuit brought by its members.

“They are not just an environmental group. They are kind of a citizen group,” Boeschenstein said.

Geoff Tischbein, a current and a founding member, said the congress started after Western Slope residents successfully worked together to pass Colorado’s first wilderness legislation.

A photo, entitled “The Founding Humans,” depicting the founding members of the WCC, was taken on the front porch of his former Montrose home.

“The Western Colorado Congress sort of evolved out of this common interest,” Geoff Tischbein said. “That was the key focus: How do we maintain a good environment as the West Slope grows?”

The group may have strayed a bit by becoming too involved with issues that either diverge from its core values regarding environmentalism or becoming too confrontational in its tactics, such as when it favored a ballot measure to increase the Mesa County Commission from three to five members. Voters defeated that measure.

“In my legislative years, they were not as confrontational as they are now,” said Mesa County Commissioner Steve Acquafresca, a former state representative from Delta County. “I would say in the past two or three years, they have struggled more than in the past.”

The WCC also has struggled to maintain consistent leadership in the past couple years.

In 2006, William Grant was president. Then came executive directors Duke Cox, Robert Bradway and, as of late last year, Heather Tischbein, who took the job of president for a $40,000 a year salary.

Boeschenstein said the change in leadership may reflect the financial and political realities surrounding the WCC.

“They were getting out of line there, and they ran into financial difficulties, and they needed to change,” said Boeschenstein, who works for the town of De Beque.

The in-your-face tactics observed and commented on by Acquafresca disturbed him. He said aggressiveness is not the WCC’s intent.

“I think we should be respectful, and we should stick to the facts,” Boeschenstein said. “It is not just a militant, angry group.”

That opinion, though, that the WCC is a far-left fringe group, is heavy in the minds of many on the Western Slope.

“I think it is important to have that voice, but it is far left of center in my personal opinion,” said Rep. Laura Bradford, R-Collbran. “I don’t think they represent the majority of the people here.”

Western Colorado Congress members say it is true, they do champion causes that are not always popular.

“We take on things that are not easy to solve,” Riddell said. “If it is straightforward and easy, somebody else would have just done it. So there is going to be tension, there is going to be conflict.”

Spehar has heard the complaints and expressed concern the organization is labeling itself.

“What the environmental movement is suffering from is that they are ‘aginners’ (against stuff),” he said. “There is a way to take those same passions and those same issues and do it in a more positive light.”


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