Some See Politics in Salazar Visit to Fire Site

July 10, 2012
By

Several local officials panned the Interior Secretary's visit to Colorado as election year politics

COLO. SPRINGS – Interior Secretary Ken Salazar arrived Monday to tour the Mountain Shadows neighborhood where 347 homes were destroyed by the Waldo Canyon fire last month. Salazar’s visit was welcomed by Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach and others, but shunned by some Republicans who view it as a political grandstanding postscript to President Barack Obama’s visit in late June.

“We are here to stay,” declared Salazar at a press conference inside Centennial Hall as rain drenched the downtown area. “The President has said that we are here for the long term.”

Some Republicans wondered if Salazar, who had stumped for Obama’s election in 2008, had been dispatched to offset the impact of a rumored visit on Wednesday by Mitt Romney, who was slated to attend fundraisers in Aspen and a campaign rally in Grand Junction this week.

“Of course this is politicized,” said state Rep. Bob Gardner (R-Colorado Springs). “You can’t exactly flush out the motives for sending Salazar, butColorado, as a swing state in this presidential election, had to have been discussed.”

“Coloradois obviously a battleground state in this presidential election,” said state Sen.Kent Lambert(R-Colorado Springs). “It’s entirely appropriate for Romney to come here because El Paso County is his largest base of support in Colorado.”

“I’m not sure what Salazar’s business is here,” said Lambert, whose home in Pinecliff was one of 32,000 evacuated and his district includes hard-hit Mountain Shadows.

“He’s done nothing for Colorado,” said Lambert of Salazar, whose department has delayed issuing permits for gas exploration on 46 million acres of federal land in Colorado.

Denver-based Western Energy Alliance reported in May that permits have been blocked for at least 14 projects on leased federal land in the state during this recession – and that prevented generating 65,000 new jobs and $14.9 billion in economic activity annually. Lambert noted that Salazar didn’t freeze permits in other states such as Wyoming and Montana.

Though Salazar touted federal help – from financial assistance for state and local governments to compensation for displaced people – Gardner said, “It doesn’t change the fact that we didn’t have adequate air resources to fight the fire due to decisions made by the (Obama) administration.”

The administration cancelled a contract for seven air tankers in August 2011, and a year lapsed before they took action to replenish a firefighting fleet that had diminshed to just 11 planes, down from 40 tankers a decade ago.

Only after the Colorado congressional delegation urged the administration to provide more air support to fight the High Park fire southwest of Fort Collins did the President sign an order on June 12 to expedite contracts for more air tankers. Less than two weeks later, Colorado was battling 10 fires, including Waldo Canyon that is the worst in history.

On June 29, Obama, Bach, Democrats U.S. Senators Michael Bennett and Mark Udall and Governor Hickenlooper, and local Congressman Doug Lamborn trekked through the devastated neighborhood in front of print and television cameras – a sensationalized media tour that drew ire from several fire victims who had been denied access to view their properties.

“It’s my impression that this (was) a photo-op for Barack Obama,” said Patrick Davis, a political consultant and Mountain Shadows resident whose home survived the Waldo Canyonfire. “Our police officers and fire fighters have more important things to do than spruce up for the Commander in Chief.”

“I thought it was wise to remove politicians from the daily media briefings,” said Davis. With the exception of El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa and Mayor Bach, he said, “they were offering nothing of substance. The same thinking should apply to the President and the Governor and any other visiting politician.”

Lambert said the President’s visit might be justified because it followed the federal disaster declaration.

It’s currently estimated that the fire cost more than $110 million excluding insurance payments to repair homes damaged by fire and smoke and nearly $3 million to fix damaged gas and water piping systems.

 

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