Commissioners vote to send letter to BLM asking to defer lease sale
by Eric Mullens
WALSENBURG — Colorado State Senator Larry Crowder (R-SD 35) takes time during the summer break of the General Assembly to visit the counties he represents, and Tuesday morning he visited the Huerfano County Commissioners during their weekly session.
Crowder’s district includes rural Pueblo County, Alamosa, Baca, Bent, Conejos, Costilla, Crowley, Custer, Huerfano, Kiowa, Las Animas, Mineral, Otero, Prowers, Rio Grande and Saguache Counties.
The item of most local interest concerns the shuttered Huerfano County Correctional Center, the private prison owned by CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America. Throughout the last General Assembly session, Crowder has been a staunch supporter of getting the prison reopened, even on a temporary basis, to handle inmate overcrowding in state facilities and county jails. “Public safety is the issue,” Crowder told Huerfano Commissioners Ray Garcia, Gerald Cisneros and Max Vezzani.
Crowder said the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee met with representatives of the Colorado Department of Corrections last week in Denver concerning the DOC’s budget request for supplemental funds to reopen additional inmate bed space. Crowder reported there will be no immediate action, as the JBC postponed any action on the request until September 2018.
While there has been some local speculation the private prison might be used to house federal immigration detainees, Crowder did not present any information on the topic. There has been no word from local government, or state or federal agencies that the Huerfano facility might be used for detainees.
This however is not an impossibility. Since 2017, CoreCivic has received $225 million in ICE funding to manage immigrant detention facilities, according to USASpending.gov data.
On the topic of in-state prison expansion, Crowder said with anticipated increases in state prison population, the reopening of the Huerfano facility and use of CSP II (Colorado State Penitentiary II) when upgrades are completed there is necessary. The question of whether or not the inmate population is actually growing was the major stumbling block of funding additional beds during the last session of the General Assembly. There was bipartisan support of a wait and see attitude that Crowder lobbied against. Crowder is not a member of the JBC, but attended a number of its meetings earlier in the year during the expanded prison bed discussions.
Oil and Gas leases:
The commissioners updated Crowder on the issue of the oil and gas exploration on BLM mineral lease properties in Huerfano County, and the letter they signed Tuesday asking the BLM to defer a decision on the upcoming lease sale. Crowder said he sees oil and gas development as economic development for all areas of Colorado and in general supports exploration efforts. “Fracking, in my opinion,” Crowder said, “is extremely safe. I think we’re all stewards of the land and I will continue to support oil and gas and economic development in this area.”
Railroad back taxes:
Other topics discussed briefly included back taxes owed to various counties by the Alamosa-based Rio Grande Scenic Railroad. The tourist railroad owes approximately $700,000 in back taxes to Huerfano County alone, and the commissioners noted they will soon be meeting with county commissioners from the San Luis Valley to discuss this situation.
Judicial Center/courthouse facilities:
The commissioners and administration asked Crowder to help support the proposed new judicial center with fellow legislators and support the overall Underfunded Courthouse program. Administrator John Galusha said the Underfunded Courthouse program has approximately $4M earmarked for projects this year, while current requests for funds is about $12M.
The issue of courthouse space was discussed later in the commissioners’ meeting as Third Judical District Court Administrator Bob Kreiman asked the board to consider letting the court system use various offices, including commission chambers, to accomodate defense and prosecution witness separation, attorney meeting rooms and other needs as there are two homicide trials coming up and a flurry of motions concerning available space have come from both prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Letter to BLM on O&G lease sale:
The commissioners, on a 2-1 vote, with Commission Chairman Ray Garcia voting no, did approve a letter to Keith Berger, BLM Field Manager of the Royal Gorge Field Office concerning the September 2018 lease sale.
The letter said in part, “ Until now, the Huerfano County Commissioners have not taken a position on the proposed sale of oil and gas leases of BLM lands in Huerfano County in September. After reviewing the letter from the Denver EPA to BLM on 4/6/18 and after discussions and presentations from several local residents, including the Navajo Nation, Huerfano County is now recommending that you defer the lease sale until further investigation can be completed. To err on the side of caution, we ask that you defer the lease of the parcels in Huerfano County until an Environmental Impact Statement can be completed that would include a hydro-geologic study component. An EIS will study in more depth the entirety of impacts to the Huerfano Park area which surrounds and includes the lease area. The geology in Huerfano County is complex as is evidenced by the many dikes that are visible throughout the western part of the county. We believe there are subsurface conditions greater than are ordinarily encountered in oil and gas exploration and development that could impact all water flow such as vertical and horizontal igneous rock intrusions and uplifts and folds of sediment layers.”