It was at least a start, if perhaps a tense one, Jonathan Godes says.
The Glenwood Springs mayor was at the Western Governors' Association conference in Vail this week and seized the chance to speak briefly with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. Godes hopes the move may open the door to a conversation with Bernhardt about a controversial proposed massive expansion of a limestone quarry on Bureau of Land Management land on a mountain just north of the tourist town, not far from Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park.
The timing of the encounter between Godes and Bernhardt was perhaps not ideal, the mayor concedes. Godes said Bernhardt apparently had just read a new Politico article on the quarry proposal. It focuses on the quarry company's links with a high-profile law firm for which Bernhardt previously worked, and potential conflict-of-interest concerns Godes and others have about that.
Godes said when he got a moment to introduce himself to Bernhardt, "his response to me was, 'oh, so you're the man who hates my guts.'"
He said he's not sure if Bernhardt's comment was at least slightly in jest or he wasn't happy with Godes at all.
"However, it was a little awkward," Godes said.
He said Bernhardt went on to say, "Hey, why didn't you just call me, why didn't you just pick up the phone or knock on the door."
Godes said he answered, "Well, I'm here now, can this be my knocking on the door, can we have a conversation?
"He said, 'sure, absolutely,'" Godes said.
Godes said while they couldn't talk long, he was connected with one of Bernhardt's staff members and is working to speak further with Bernhardt about the quarry plans, in person or otherwise.
He said he was able to tell Bernhardt, "Well, I don't have an issue with you, I just have an issue with this mine."
Glenwood's City Council and many in the community are alarmed by a proposal that, according to numbers from a citizens group opposing the expansion, would grow the quarry from 15.7 acres to 440 acres, with 320 acres being disturbed. The Glenwood Springs Citizens' Alliance says truck trips would increase from 20 a day to as many as 450 a day as Rocky Mountain Resources works to blast and extract 100 million tons from a 175-foot-deep layer of earth. BLM spokesman David Boyd said the agency doesn't yet have a complete proposal from the company because it has returned proposals the company has submitted with requests for more information.
Godes believes the mining, truck traffic, dust, visual scars and other impacts of the project are incompatible with the tourist-based economy in a city famed for hot springs, caverns and other attractions. He and others have been reaching out to officials such as Bernhardt, BLM managers and members of Colorado's congressional delegation to express their concerns about the project.
"I hope we've made enough connections and we've kind of made enough of a stink to let them know that this is something that is an existential threat to our community," he said.
He said the effort has resulted in support from U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and recently from U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo. Last week Tipton wrote to Colorado BLM Director Jamie Connell, noting the concerns being raised by the city about the expansion and compliance issues with the current operation, and saying that he trusts they will be considered by the BLM.
Tipton spokesman Matt Atwood said by email Wednesday, "Rep. Tipton has been working closely with Glenwood Springs to ensure that the local concerns regarding the mine expansion are fully addressed before any final decision by Interior is made."
One concern for Godes and others is what role Bernhardt might play in that decision. Bernhardt, who grew up in the Rifle area, worked as an attorney and industry lobbyist for Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck before going to work at Interior during the Trump administration. That firm represents Rocky Mountain Resources, and RMR's chief executive officer, Chad Brownstein, is the son of Norm Brownstein, a founding member of the law firm.
While Bernhardt pledged nearly two years ago to recuse himself from making decisions involving the firm's clients, that pledge expires in August, Politico reported. Godes said he thinks Bernhardt should continue to recuse himself on the quarry matter past August, and also should act consistent with comments he frequently has made about letting BLM officials make decisions on issues at the local level.
Bernhardt met with BLM employees at the Colorado River Valley Field Office in Silt Tuesday.
"We've been assured that it did not have to do with the mine because of his recusal. I guess I will take him at his word," Godes said.
Boyd said that hourlong meeting between Bernhardt and all the staff in the office involved Bernhardt making some opening comments and then answering questions, but didn't cover any issues.
The mine expansion is being proposed even as the quarry is operating on about 23 acres, more than the 15.7 acres authorized by the BLM. Boyd said the state authorized a larger footprint than the BLM did, and RMR inherited the problem when it bought the quarry in 2016.
Another pending issue surrounds whether the limestone being quarried should be treated as a high-grade product used for uncommon purposes, and not subject to federal royalty payments, or a common-variety rock that requires royalty payments. Boyd said the BLM is looking into that question.
Godes doesn't think the quarry should be allowed to expand while compliance issues surround its existing operations. Garfield County has issued a notice of violation against the company in connection with its county permit. That prompted RMR to sue the county, arguing that what's at issue for the county are things authorized by the BLM and state, and the county can't prohibit certain activities approved by the BLM.
RMR spokesperson Elana Weiss said in a prepared statement, "We are proud to have the ability to produce chemical grade limestone products capable of providing a wide range of beneficial uses for society."
She said RMR immediately began making improvements after buying the quarry, and self-reported operational inconsistencies to the requisite agencies.
"We believe the quarry, under RMR's ownership, is now one of the safest and most thoughtful operations in the region," Weiss said.
She said the plan is for the quarry to employ 100 people, making it one of the larger employers in Garfield County.
"In a locale lacking economic diversity, RMR represents a healthy commercial alternative, and is developing plans with prospective commercial owners in Glenwood to work in concert with tourism," she said.
But Godes said the quarry is proposing offering mid-paying jobs for something "that would destroy the fabric of our economy. That's not a trade that anybody in town's willing to make."