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Bennet promises environmental protections at town hall meeting

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By Allyn Harvey

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet told an audience of nearly 150 area residents that he was ready to draft one piece of legislation to protect the Thompson Divide area from energy development, and another to designate nearly 100,000 acres of public lands in Pitkin and Gunnison Counties as wilderness.

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Bennet spent an hour and a half Monday afternoon taking questions at the Gathering Center at the Church of Carbondale (now known as the Orchard).

He asked people early on to speak their minds and level any criticism, noting that his four years as superintendent of schools in Denver had given him a “thick skin.” The first term senator is known for his willingness to engage local audiences, even in the toughest political environments.

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When the question of Thompson Divide came up, the senator praised the work that had been done by the community so far, and said he had met with Rep. Scott Tipton on the issue. “My sense is we’re getting closer and closer to doing something about that,” he said.

Former Garfield County Commissioner Tresi Houpt urged Bennet to consider the timeline that the community is facing now that there is a pending application with the BLM to drill deep in the roadless area.

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Bennet also praised locals for their work on the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal, and said he is ready to begin work on a bill that would propose wilderness designation for the Hidden Gems area in Pitkin, Gunnison and a small part of Garfield counties. The Hidden Gems in those counties comprise about 100,000 acres of public lands.

When he was asked what work is being done on climate change in the nation’s capital, the senator turned glum. “The short answer is nothing is happening with the climate change debate,” he said.

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Bennet said he is a strong advocate for creating incentives to drive investment in new technologies, including renewable energies. He pointed out that China now exports $15 billion in solar panels and associated technologies annually, while the U.S. government’s support for alternative energy development and exports is stagnant. Essentially, the U.S. is leaving money on the table, and the Chinese are scooping it up.

In answer to a local Republican’s call for the repeal of the health care reform passed last year, Bennet said he wasn’t willing to go that far. But he did say Congress should add accountability to the law, so measures could be taken if it fails to realize the cost savings promised.

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Bennet clearly was expecting questions over the recent debate about raising the debt ceiling, even though residents from Carbondale to Aspen who attended the event seemed more interested in other matters. In his opening remarks, he described the politics in Washington as “cartoonish.”

“I wish I could tell you that things there are less dysfunctional than they appear — I can’t,”  Bennet said. “Things are worse than they appear, in fact.”

When the topic came up later in the session, he attributed part of that dysfunction to the distance that exists between federal legislators and their constituents, noting that they are so far removed from one another that extremists in Congress can act without fear of electoral consequences.

“I can tell you that there is not a single mayor or schools superintendent who would dare threaten the financial viability of their community or district — not one,” he said. “The voters wouldn’t let them get away with it.”

Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) spoke to a packed house at the Gathering Center during his Carbondale stop on Aug. 8. Photo by Lynn Burton

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