By GREG WALCHER
Colorado’s congressional redistricting commission has released its new draft map showing the likely district lines for the next decade. The commission and its staff worked for several months on the map, and lots of news stories quote various political pundits, mostly praising the commission’s work — juggling the many different recommendations to come up with a compromise. All the praising pundits live on the Front Range.
Many on the Western Slope and Eastern Plains are upset about the new plan, because it doesn’t just ignore — it unapologetically tramples — the interests of rural Colorado. The new map splits the Western Slope into two different districts, one dominated by Pueblo, and the other by Boulder. As I pointed out in this space several weeks ago, such a split virtually guarantees representation in Congress by two Front Range congressmen for the next decade. That isn’t idle speculation. It is what happened during the entire decade of the 1970s when the West Slope was split in substantially the same way.
However, since 1982, Grand Junction has shared a district with the entire region of which it is the economic and cultural center, as well as with the district’s largest city, Pueblo. Votes in Pueblo and its region are roughly balanced against those of Mesa, Delta, Montrose, La Plata, Montezuma, Garfield, Rio Blanco, Routt, and several others with a common interest in protecting Western Slope water. That balance is delicate, and both sides have learned to live amicably with it. In the newly proposed district, Grand Junction would remain in that uncomfortable juxtaposition with Pueblo. But without the support of the entire Western Slope north of I-70 and all the counties to the east, Pueblo would dominate.
For northwestern Colorado, the situation is markedly worse. That unique region, home of most of the region’s energy industry, as well as ranching and resort communities, could never hope to outvote Boulder and the northern Front Range, which depends for its water supply on transmountain diversions from the Colorado River. None of that mattered to the commission and staff that drew this new map. They were focused, so they said, on creating a southern district to unite Hispanic and Native American populations in Pueblo, the San Luis Valley, and southwestern Colorado. Who will dare oppose that? But wait, all of those have already been in the same district for 40 years, so clearly something else is going on.
Uniting “communities of interest” is the top priority for redistricting, according to the initiative voters adopted in 2018, which created the independent commission. But this new map divides, not unites, communities of interest. It separates La Junta and Ordway from the rest of the agricultural Eastern Plains, as if their interests are closer to Pueblo, Durango, Crested Butte, or Aspen. It separates Mesa and Garfield counties, with the all-too-apparent intention of making re-election difficult for the incumbent congresswoman, a motive explicitly prohibited by the 2018 initiative. It separates rural ranchers in Moffat and Rio Blanco counties from their allies in Montrose, Delta, and Dolores. Indeed, “communities of interest” played little part in this plan, except for those of the growing and thirsty cities on the Front Range.
Consider that if this new map is adopted, the largest cities in all eight Colorado congressional districts will form a straight line along the Front Range: Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Aurora, Denver, Lakewood, Thornton, Boulder, and Fort Collins.
The commission boasts that it held 30 public hearings across the state seeking input from a wide range of people and groups. They heard from thousands. But not one of those had seen this proposed map. Rather, they were commenting on the draft map released in June, one which kept both the Western Slope and the Eastern Plains together, and needed at most a little tweaking. Bait and switch — it has now been replaced by a map that smacks of partisan politics. And that isn’t the worst of it.
At the end of the day, what this really boils down to is widening the giant rift that separates Americans across the country these days. It is not the traditional divide between Republican and Democrat, nor between conservative and liberal. It is not about gender, religion, or race. It is the cataclysmic divide between rural and urban — two culturally separate populations that have less and less in common, and thus care less and less about each other over time. This latest setback for rural Colorado is further evidence, as if any were needed, that rural America is losing.
Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of “Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back.” He is a Western Slope native.