Commissioners from area counties who visited federal government officials at the nation's capital a few weeks ago came back feeling hopeful that they've got sympathetic ears in Washington and improved prospects for action on issues of local importance, like collecting on overdue oil and gas revenues.
Of course, it doesn't hurt when two of those sympathetic ears belong to David Bernhardt, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior. He's also a Rifle native who happens to have once been taught in school there by Mike Samson, now a Garfield County commissioner. Samson was part of a contingent also including Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese that visited with Bernhardt and other high-level officials during their recent trip east. Recounting his sit-down with Bernhardt during a trip recap at a subsequent Garfield commissioners' meeting, Samson told how Bernhardt recalled having had him as his government and speech teacher.
"I forgot that I taught him speech also," Samson said with a chuckle.
Samson, Pugliese, Rio Blanco County Commissioner Shawn Bolton and Moffat County Commissioner Don Cook spent as much as an hour and a half speaking with Bernhardt. They covered issues including trying to get the federal government to release oil shale trust funds back to Colorado and the four counties, and potentially moving the Bureau of Land Management's national headquarters out West, perhaps even to Grand Junction.
The counties have been pushing the federal government for years to release what could be as much as $76 million after the money was deemed not necessary for cleanup related to oil shale research at Anvil Points on the Roan Plateau outside Rifle. The money came from nearby oil and gas development involving federal minerals.
Samson said Bernhardt already is very familiar with the issue. Pugliese said that familiarity arises in part because he served as solicitor for the Interior Department at the time the department certified that the money was no longer needed.
"He has had a lot of experience on this specific issue, so having him at the helm is going to be very important," she said.
Efforts to release the money are ongoing on several fronts. U.S. Sens Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., are interested in the potential of the Interior Department administratively transferring the money, rather than trying to do it legislatively. And Samson said efforts to address the issue are ongoing in both the House and Senate.
"It's looking like things are coming together," he said. "Now will we get everything we want just the way we want it? Probably not. But it looks very encouraging that we will get some resolution to this," he said.
Said Pugliese, "We feel like we're making some progress but we still have some hurdles to overcome."
Those hurdles include working with state lawmakers and the governor's office to make sure any money released by Washington gets passed on by the state to local counties, she said.
The county commissioners also reiterated during their Washington visit their desire to see the BLM national office moved out West, and possibly to Grand Junction. Gardner has been pushing legislation providing for such a move, and says he thinks Grand Junction would be a logical location for the office.
Samson said the commissioners promoted the idea of moving the office with Bernhardt.
"They're definitely working on that. That's in the mix. It will take time to get things done … but it's on the front burner, it's not on the back burner," Samson said.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reportedly has mentioned Denver as a possible location for a relocated headquarters, but Pugliese said Grand Junction makes more sense because it has a lot of BLM land around it and it's important that decision-makers live in an area affected by those decisions.
Other stops for the local contingent while in Washington included the Department of Energy. There, Pugliese talked about her desire to see trade ministers from Asia come to western Colorado to better understand the extent of the region's natural gas resource. She said Energy Department officials showed considerable interest in helping connect local officials with some of those trade ministers so such a visit could be arranged.
"So those meetings from my perspective were very good for western Colorado," she said.
Regional leaders have been calling for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve the proposed Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas export terminal in Oregon because it could provide a means to get locally produced gas shipped to Asia. FERC previously denied the project but project officials have refiled to have it considered.
Pugliese looks back with amusement at the interactions between Bernhardt and Samson during their visit, noting that Bernhardt kept calling Samson "Teach." She sees the value of having people with Western roots or ties working in such jobs as Bernhardt's, given their knowledge of local issues and better understanding of the impacts of federal decisions.
Samson said his latest trip to Washington was by far the most productive for him during nine years as a county commissioner. He and fellow Garfield commissioners, all Republicans, frequently differed with the Obama administration over public lands issues, with the county even engaging in lawsuits to challenge that administration's decisions on things including greater sage-grouse management plans. Samson said whereas some of his past trips to Washington involved officials who seemed to just go through the motions of spending a token 15 minutes meeting with him, he was impressed in particular with the quality time Bernhardt spent with him and the other commissioners.
He said he also appreciated a comment Bernhardt made while discussing an issue — Samson can't recall which one.
"He said you keep after us and you keep kicking us in the shins to make sure we get things done," Samson recalled.
Samson said he's never had anyone tell him that before in Washington.
Then again, probably no one he's visited in Washington before has called him "Teach."