Since the fall, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet has been turning to a roundtable of Coloradans, including tribal leaders, to inform his environmental policy work.
In discussing the most pressing issues facing their communities – access to clean water, preservation of outdoor landscapes, shifts away from fossil fuels – the roundtable has been able to facilitate a respectful discourse around one of the most divisive and pressing issues in politics.
The roundtable aims to inform the senator’s policy work on Capitol Hill and facilitate a more effective bipartisan conversation around climate change.
“I’ve always found that the best legislation is legislation that’s really written by people on the land in Colorado,” Bennet, D-Colo., said in an interview this week with The Durango Herald.
Andy Mueller, chairman of the group and general manager of the Colorado River District, worked with Bennet from the beginning to bring together members of the roundtable and establish its objectives.
Each person on the roundtable has worked with either Bennet or Mueller previously. Mueller said the roundtable members represent the “full spectrum of the political divide” in Colorado, and bringing them together to discuss climate change was a “victory” on its own.
Mueller said that because climate change can be a politically divisive issue, he and Bennet wanted to establish a set of facts that everyone on the roundtable can agree on from the beginning to avoid unproductive disagreements.
“(There is) a lot of negative energy focused on our elected representatives fighting with each other, and I think that that doesn’t serve our communities or our public well,” Mueller said in an interview with the Herald. “I think that we need to help them focus on real solutions.”
The focus on bipartisanship and a shared set of values and facts is central to the roundtable’s purpose and ability to establish and promote long-lasting policy “that’s durable throughout the changes and administrations and throughout the changes in partisan representation in Congress and as a whole,” Mueller said.
Bennet said working with residents before writing legislation, and beginning dialogue within groups such as the roundtable, will aid in creating policy that can last through new presidential administrations and changing demographics in Congress.
“If you have a process in place that brings people together for a sufficient length of time, you often find ways of coming to agreement over time,” Bennet said. “And then, that creates the opportunity to be able to have legislation which I can say truthfully, reflects the consensus view of people in Colorado, even when we’ve got a divided political system as the one we have right now.”
Work guides BennetIn early February, members of the roundtable were given the opportunity to present what environmental issues they felt were most pressing in their communities in a “final framework” of Western climate resilience priorities. Informed by these priorities, Bennet has already taken some senatorial action.
In January, Bennet wrote a letter to the Biden administration, urging the new president and his administration to, “prioritize locally driven economic development solutions for communities that are transitioning away from fossil fuels.”
He also plans to reintroduce the Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act, which he introduced in December 2020. The Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act would allocate $60 million to state and local governments and federal conservation efforts to create more jobs and sustain the outdoor economy.
“It’s a way of demonstrating that some of the best ideas for how to move us forward really are at the local level, and that it’s very hard to address these resiliency questions or sustainability questions without having a successful partnership among the local governments, the federal government, nonprofits and others,” Bennet said.
Kathy Rall, Southern Ute Indian Tribe Water Resources Division head, and Leland Begay, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe associate general counsel, were chosen to join Bennet’s roundtable. Both tribes are heavily impacted by environmental issues, including those related to access to clean water.
“Water is essential for the federally recognized tribes in Colorado,” Rall said in a news release. “One of the most important parts of this framework is its emphasis on ensuring the delivery of clean water to the tribes and investing in updating water infrastructure necessary to support that delivery.”
Bennet said the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, have “had substantial discussions over the years on their water resources and the need to have a more sustainable solution than we have,” even before the creation of the roundtable.
Neither tribe responded to requests for comment.
Roundtable’s work not overBoth Mueller and Bennet said the roundtable idea could and should be replicated for other issues and by other representatives to ensure policy issues being discussed and voted on are truly reflective of people’s values.
“I would say this roundtable is the first step, but in order for it to become a reality in federal policy, we need a lot more political momentum,” Mueller said. “So it can start with one roundtable and one senator, but it needs to encompass and catch on with many more of our elected representatives and their supporters.”
The roundtable’s work is not yet over. Bennet said he looks forward to future meetings, and Mueller indicated the roundtable’s members will continue to be involved in the future of their proposed policies.
“Future work may be more targeted toward specific actions; whether it’s trying to help other elected officials understand it and get on board or help write and advocate for certain policies and/or legislation at the federal level,” Mueller said.
Mueller said the future of the outdoors is important to all residents in Colorado, “whether you’re a cattle rancher or a vegan,” and that addressing environmental issues would greatly benefit Colorado’s economy, as well as the economies of other Western states.
Mueller also said he hopes the roundtable will be able to make tangible changes and get more people in Colorado’s local communities invested in efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change.
“We have the information and the data and we have the experience to tell us that things are changing quickly with respect to our climate,” Mueller said. “We also are at a point where we can do something about that and we can do it to act in our own best interest as a larger community.”
Grace George is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.