La Plata County voters weigh in

Last Tuesday’s election had a definite Democratic flavor nationally, statewide and in La Plata County. Local voters kept a Democrat on the La Plata County Board of Commissioners, helped propel two Democrats to seats in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives and stood squarely behind Barack Obama in his quest for the White House.

In the presidential election, La Plata County mirrored the rest of the nation. Just more than 57 percent of county voters favored the Obama-Biden ticket, helping the team to a battleground victory in Colorado and a national sweep of electoral votes.

In one of the most significant local races, Democrat Wally White beat out Republican Harry Baxstrom to retain his seat on the La Plata County Commission. White attracted votes from more than 53 percent of local voters.

“From the top to the bottom, Ithink the voters sent a strong message out there,”White said. “It’s exciting to be a part of it. We’ve a got a great looking future here in La Plata County and at the state and national levels as well.”

Incumbent Republican Kellie Hotter also retained her seat on the commission, handily beating Democrat Peter Tregillus. Hotter, who was appointed to the board in 2007 to replace outgoing commissioner Bob Lieb, earned more than 58 percent of the local vote.

In the La Plata County District Attorney race, Democrat Todd Risberg won the post by a wide margin, and inside city limits, Durango voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of a $17 million bond issue to improve Florida Road.

On the Colorado level, Democrat Mark Udall took 51 percent of the vote statewide, edging out Republican Bob Schaffer for Wayne Allard’s U.S. Senate seat. U.S. Rep. John Salazar easily defeated Republican Wayne Wolf by a 2-to-1 margin to retain his spot in the House of Representatives.

Colorado’s monster ballot – the largest in the nation for the 2008 election – was largely a story of “no” votes. The highly contentious Amendment 48, the so-called “personhood” amendment went down in flames, with only a 27 percent “yes” vote. The amendment sought to define “person” to include “any human being from the moment of fertilization.” Had it passed, the constitutional amendment would have been a first of its kind in the nation and a significant setback to women’s rights.

In fact, Colorado voters only smiled on one of the amendment issues, approving Amendment 50 – Limited Gaming. The Front Range gaming communities of Cripple Creek, Black Hawk and Central City are now allowed to stay open for 24 hours and up their stakes from a limit of $5 to $100. The increased tax revenue will go to funding for community colleges.

Concerns about election fraud in Colorado were widespread prior to last Tuesday’s vote. However, few problems materialized anywhere in the state.


Drilling approved in wildlife refuge

Allegations are flying that the oil and gas industry and Bush Administration have gotten into bed together east of Durango. Efforts to drill in Colorado’s newest wildlife refuge are going forward despite widespread objections.

The Canadian firm, Lexam Inc., recently received approval to drill exploratory wells in the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, a 92,500-acre sanctuary near Crestone. The refuge is so new that members of the public are not even allowed to visit it. In response to a lawsuit by San Luis Valley Ecosystem (SLVEC) conservation group, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to conduct an environmental analysis on the plan. However, the EA found no reason why the drilling could not go forward.

“The Bush Administration’s decision to authorize gas exploration on one of most pristine and untrammeled wildlife refuges in Colorado just two weeks before the election and while the administration itself is in its final months in office is very disappointing, but not surprising.” said Christine Canaly, SLVEC Director. “The Bush Administration has consistently placed the interests of the oil and gas industry over those of the public.”

In the fight against the bid to drill the protected acreage, SLVEC filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The suit revealed e-mails, memos and other records that point to collusion between industry lobbyists and the U.S. Department of

Interior’s Office of the Solicitor. Opponents of the drilling allege that revisions by industry attorneys and officials significantly misrepresented the likely impact of drilling in the Baca NWR.

The documents include handwritten notes on internal drafts emphatically directing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to assess the drilling impacts of Lexam’s plan. In addition, Department of Interior attorney Thomas Graf invited Lexam to help limit the scope of the environmental assessment. Lexam was then allowed to line-edit the environmental assessment.

“It appears that Lexam may have been provided unfettered access to the agency’s decision-making process,” said Brad Bartlett, attorney with the Durango-based Energy Minerals Law Center. “The revisions by Lexam’s attorney and industry-friendly Bush officials may have significantly misrepresented the likely impact of drilling in the Baca NWR.”

The Baca NWR is located next door to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and protects the Unconfined Aquifer as well as the largest concentration of wetlands in the Southwest. The federal government purchased the refuge for $33 million in 2000 to protect its “unique hydrological, biological, educational and recreational values.” However, the Baca mineral interests were not secured in the purchase agreement.

“This incredibly wild and beautiful refuge needs permanent protection. We are likely headed back to court,” said Bartlett. “In the near term, we are asking the agency to delay authorizing Lexam to roll the bulldozers until we are able to resolve these issues.” Fish & Wildlife received more than 48,000 comments objecting to the drilling.


Mercy reaches out to Tanzania

Durango is once again reaching beyond its borders. A team from Mercy Regional Medical Center recently traveled to Tanzania to take on malaria.

The group distributed 62,000 insecticide-treated bed nets in an effort to dramatically reduce deaths from malaria in 21 villages. The project, one of several recent high-profile international efforts aimed at battling the deadly disease, is the single-largest distribution of insecticide-treated mosquito nets ever provided to the impoverished East African nation. The effort is a part of the Village Wellness Program, which has given more than $1 million in aid. Mercy has joined other organizations in supporting the Village Wellness Program since 2004.

 “People are dying every day,” said Kirk Dignum, CEO of Mercy Regional Medical Center. “The bed nets address a huge issue that will significantly improve the quality of life, which is impossible to do when so many are sick.”

The nets, which cost a total of $330,000, were financed with a $300,000 grant from Catholic Health Initiatives, which is Mercy’s parent company. In addition, staff members contributed thousands from their own pockets during the “Cast a Net” fund-raiser last winter. Staffers at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, Md., also raised funds for the effort. The nets were then produced in Arusha, Tanzania, creating a boon for that local economy.  

The 16-member humanitarian team included five representatives from Mercy Regional Medical Center, plus representatives from St. Joseph Medical Center. The group departed for Tanzania on Oct. 25 and returned Nov. 4.

– Will Sands