For a motorist approaching Craig from the south on Colorado Highway 13 on a snowy October morning, Moffat County’s economic engines are well-displayed. Signs indicate the turnoffs to the Colowyo and Trapper coal mines. The towers of the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Craig Station coal-generated power plant loom just south of Craig. Pronghorn and mule deer — two prime targets of hunting in the county — share a field just before reaching the city.
Mess with such industries, and you’re threatening the livelihood of communities like Craig, where many businesses sport signs saying, “Coal — It keeps our lights on.” It was local concern about perceived over-regulation of coal-fired power that led to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney visiting Craig during his campaign and presenting himself as a more coal-friendly alternative to President Barack Obama. Now that continuing concern is behind the county commissioners’ decision to ask voters whether Moffat should join counties in eastern Colorado in pursuing creation of a 51st state.
“Energy is our economy. If energy goes away, we will be a ghost town,” said Moffat Commissioner John Kinkaid.
The county’s list of top 10 taxpayers reads like a who’s-who of locally operating energy companies, with Tri-State alone accounting for nearly $6 million of the $17.4 million the 10 paid last year.
Kinkaid first brought up the idea of secession to his fellow commissioners.
“I was getting called by constituents here in our county asking for us to pursue it and so it didn’t really come from us as commissioners, it came from citizens contacting us,” Kinkaid said.
“Finally they bugged me enough that I said alright, I’d bring it up in a meeting, and I did and it just took off from there.”
“… It’s really a referendum on how the state Legislature has been running over rural Colorado. Many of us in Moffat County feel disenfranchised and that the Denver-Boulder power corridor is just running us over repeatedly,” Kinkaid said.
For Kinkaid it started with the 2010 passage of legislation aimed at converting some Front Range Xcel Energy power plant generation from coal to cleaner-burning fuels such as natural gas.
“We feel like we were just ignored over here and that it was a done deal before it was even introduced.
“… They were buying their coal from us. That’s why we were so involved and concerned about what was going on,” he said.
Then, this year the state Legislature passed a bill requiring rural energy cooperatives to obtain 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020, up from a previous target of 10 percent. The requirement takes aim at Tri-State Generation and Transmission and is viewed by some as a threat to plants like the one near Craig.
“They didn’t take really any input from Tri-State as to whether it was even feasible to do it,” said Kinkaid, who retired as a control room operator at the plant after winning election as a county commissioner last fall as an unaffiliated, but conservative, candidate.
“And then throw in the gun legislation and I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Kinkaid said.
That’s a reference to bills passed this year banning gun magazines with more than 15 rounds and requiring universal background checks before sales or transfers of guns.
Said Moffat Commissioner Chuck Grobe, “They’re just passing laws that affect us and they don’t care what we say or what our feelings or thoughts are.
“… When the hunters decided to stay away because of our gun laws, that affects rural Colorado and not so much the Front Range. So that’s where the frustration comes in.”
IDEA NOT THOUGHT OUT?
While Grobe shares in that frustration, he voted against putting the secession question on the ballot, with Commissioner Tom Mathers siding with Kinkaid.
“It’s not necessarily that I was against it. It was that there was no discussion beforehand. This just came out of the clear blue a week before it had to be on the ballot. There wasn’t any discussion with the city of Craig,” he said.
He said the commissioners hadn’t looked into the idea first to see what the implications of secession might be, particularly as it pertains to what might happen regarding water rights in the county if it left the state. (See related story, “Water a big question mark for secession.”)
Grobe said he’s spoken to a water attorney, and “finding out that we’ll lose our water rights, that’s a pretty key issue on my mind moving forward.”
He said Tri-State is concerned about water rights for its plant if secession happens, and he worries what the water implications for coal mines could be as well.
As it turns out, the City Council of Craig, the county seat, voted unanimously against the secession idea, due to water and other worries.
“We were completely against it because we don’t think it was thought out as far as the ramifications it could have,” said council member Joe Bird.
He cited not just water but concerns about loss of state funding for highways, other infrastructure and schools.
That said, Bird sympathizes with the motives behind the secession movement.
“I understand them wanting to make a statement and their frustration and the Legislature not listening to them,” said Bird, who additionally said coal mines and the power plant provide jobs, a tax base and long-term stability for Craig.
As far as making a statement goes, Moffat’s secession vote may indeed end up being more symbolic than anything else, as the obstacles against it are many, which Kinkaid acknowledged.
“It’s sending a message, but we need to change the political calculus at the state Capitol,” he said.
Moffat’s problems are compounded by the fact that it’s not contiguous with the eastern Colorado counties also talking about secession. And Kinkaid concedes the chances are slim of counties between Moffat and the eastern counties pursuing secession as well. Some of those counties hold political views distinctly different from Moffat’s.
Other options include trying to join Wyoming or Utah. Renny MacKay, a spokesman for Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, has been quoted in the media as saying Moffat’s secession discussion “does not move us forward” at a time when the country and Wyoming face significant challenges.
“I guess they’re not interested in Baja Wyoming,” Kinkaid said with a grin.
A statement from Mead’s office released by MacKay on Thursday noted, “The ballot language is specific to Moffat County creating a 51st state. Given that — this is a matter for voters in Moffat County to decide. We in Wyoming will follow the election results as will many others around the region.”
STUPID, OR NOT?
Views vary widely in the Craig area about the secession idea.
“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. We have a perfectly good state. What are we messing around for?” said Ellen Johnson.
But Van Piland said he voted for the measure.
“I think most of the people in northwest Colorado would like to have more appropriate representation in Denver or else go to Wyoming,” he said.
Amy Updike said that while it doesn’t necessarily mean she supports secession, she voted in support of at least looking into it.
“Why not? The governor (John Hickenlooper) is not looking out for communities like ours,” she said.
Maurits De Blank, who lives in Miami but runs apartments in Craig, said the proposal “makes no sense” and just reflects local frustrations with Denver.
“There’s just no chance whatsoever in my view” that secession would occur, said De Blank, who shares in the desire to protect Craig’s coal-based economy.
Garfield County Commissioner John Martin said Garfield commissioners haven’t considered the secession idea, but understand Moffat’s frustration.
“A lot of people see a war against rural Colorado from the Front Range and that’s what’s really stirring it up,” he said.
Garfield Commissioner Mike Samson is chairman of Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, which includes Garfield, Mesa, Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties. He said he thinks everyone in the association is sympathetic to the 51st-state cause. He doesn’t think the secession idea has much chance of succeeding, but hopes Front Range lawmakers will show more consideration for northwest Colorado, a big source of state revenue thanks to its natural resources.
“I feel like we’ve been ignored in a lot of instances,” he said.