George to head natural resources agency
Russell George this week became the second Garfield County resident to serve as executive director of the state Department of Natural Resources. In receiving the appointment, George, the former head of the Division of Wildlife, was praised for his leadership and statesmanship by a host of politicians from both parties, including the man who appointed him, Gov. Bill Owens.
In a telephone interview, George spoke with appreciation this weekend both for the positive reception to his appointment, and for the job itself.
“It’s an honor as well an opportunity,” he said.
He said he’s happy with how things worked out in a year in which he also took a long, hard look at running for Congress before ruling it out. George’s friend, U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, has said he won’t run for re-election. But at the time George made that decision, he had no inkling that he might be appointed to head the Department of Natural Resources, also known by its acronym, DNR.
“I’ve begun to learn in my life that you can’t plan too far ahead,” George said.
Greg Walcher stepped down as DNR director last week, possibly paving the way for his own run for Congress. George said Owens first approached him a few weeks ago to ask if he’d be interested in replacing Walcher if Walcher resigned.
When Owens decided to appoint his fellow Republican, the praise went far beyond members of their party. Senate Minority Leader Joan Fitz-Gerald, D-Golden, predicted George’s appointment would be confirmed with ease by the Senate. And Susan LeFever, spokeswoman for the Sierra Club, called George a good choice for the job.
George particularly appreciated LeFever’s support.
“That’s nice; that helps if I can start with folks known for differing points of view, willing to give me that opportunity,” George said. “That’s an awfully good way to get started with some of this tough stuff.”
Lochhead: “Positive move’
Glenwood Springs resident Jim Lochhead has intimate familiarity with the demands of the DNR job, which covers everything from water, wildlife and parks, to forestry, fire management, oil and gas, and mining. Lochhead served in the position under Gov. Roy Romer from 1994-98.
He is among the Democrats supporting George’s promotion.
“I think it’s a really positive move,” Lochhead said. “Russ is very diplomatic, he’s honest, straightforward, he listens to everybody, he’s a good manager. Certainly my hope is he’ll put DNR back on track and I’m sure he’ll do a good job.”
He said George has a lot of support from employees within the department.
“I’m sure he’s going to take his time and assess the department policy and recent history and make the right moves,” said Lochhead.
He said he has known George since the two worked as local attorneys during the time of Garfield County’s oil shale boom, which ended in 1982.
Lochhead said he was the first Western Slope resident appointed to head DNR. But suddenly, he, George and Walcher are starting a trend. Walcher is from Grand Junction.
“We’ve got a good tradition going here,” Lochhead said.
He thinks it makes some sense to have a DNR director from western Colorado.
“A lot of the issues are on the West Slope and certainly when Gov. Romer appointed me, his feeling was that geological diversity in his cabinet was a good thing, and I think that’s true,” Lochhead said.
George said he thinks water and gas development will be two of the biggest issues he will face as director. Several water bills are expected to be introduced in this year’s legislative session after a statewide water development funding mechanism failed in November’s election. And the DNR will play a role in debate over planning for oil and gas development on the Roan Plateau, which looms over George’s hometown of Rifle.
Walcher was at the center of controversy over comments DNR submitted to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management as it worked on an environmental review of drilling on the plateau. Environmentalists accused him of watering down comments submitted by Division of Wildlife employees.
George takes issue with that criticism. He says both the Division of Wildlife – or, DOW – and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission were encouraged to voice any and all opinions regarding the plateau, and then worked to put together an overall recommendation by the DNR on how wildlife and energy development interests can be balanced if drilling is to occur.
“Minority reports’ welcome
In the future, George said, there probably will continue to be DNR oversight of DOW comments on issues that require a balancing of competing opinions.
Still, he said, he thinks it’s important that everyone within all agencies is able to say what they think. He said he also plans to encourage what he calls “minority reports,” rather than just reports containing the comments that meet with DNR approval.
“There will always be available to the public everything else that was said,” said George.
Although DOW issues have been the center of some of the controversy under Walcher’s administration, George believes things are going well now within that agency. A contract with a Utah firm that recommended cost cuts within the DOW drew criticism over its own cost, but George thinks a settlement reached over that contract has largely addressed those concerns.
George, who will be involved with the state Wildlife Commission in the hiring of the next DOW director, said he hasn’t given thought yet to whether the person should have a professional background in wildlife management. George’s own appointment to the position drew some criticism because he lacked that experience.
Since then, “there’s some water under the bridge,” he said. He said he thinks others are happy with the work he did at the DOW, but also said he couldn’t have done it without “tremendous support” from professionals within the agency.
Debate continues over whether the DNR should have so much oversight over the DOW, or it should have more independence. George said the issue is unclear in state statutes, but he also considers it beside the point now, given the collaborative management style he plans to employ as DNR head.
He said he wants to be careful not to compare himself to his predecessor. Rather, he’s focused on moving the department forward.
He also is comfortable with Owens as his new boss. He said they have a good working relationship and similar views regarding the DNR.
“I don’t think we’re going to have differences on natural resources,” he said.
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