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The little committee that cried Wolf

Brief by Ed Quillen

Local politics – July 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

THERE WAS A TIME when our local governments protected us from wolves by offering bounties on them. That worked so well that there aren’t any wolves left to protect us from. And now that we’re in the “information age,” we need to be protected from information about wolves.

Or so it appears here in Chaffee County. Like many rural counties, we have a fair every summer. Locals compete in everything from 4-H guinea pigs and rabbits to home-brew beer and oil-painting, along with the usual market livestock sale, a night of somewhat big-time country music, and often a traveling carnival.

In other words, it’s a rather typical county fair, even to the propaganda and product booths that line the pathway from the arena to the sale tent.

Among those booths two years ago was one from Sinapu, which means “wolf” in the language of the Utes who lived here first. Sinapu is a Boulder-based group that promotes wolf study and re-introduction.

Granted, any group based in Boulder, just on account of rural Colorado geographic prejudice, runs the risk of inflaming local rednecks, and wolf re-introduction has yet to be endorsed by any county stockgrower’s association that I know of.

But there were no lupine-inspired assaults or fights at the 1997 fair. The fellow who ran the Sinapu booth said that most people were pretty friendly, and even those who disagreed preferred to argue, not fight.

Sinapu says it has surveys which show that in 1995, 71% of all Coloradans wanted the wolves to return, and that even on the rural Western Slope, 65% favored wolf re-introduction.

In the hope of getting its message to a few more people at this year’s Chaffee County Fair, Sinapu sent a booth application and $50 to the fairgrounds manager, Tom Clock.

What happened next isn’t totally clear. The Fair Planning Committee met on May 3, and at that meeting, someone objected to having Sinapu at the county fair. A majority of the rest of the committee apparently agreed, and so on May 24, Clock called Sinapu to inform the organization of the decision.

Wendy Keefauver-Ring, Sinapu’s development director, said Clock told her the determination was made on account of “Sinapu’s political views,” and that when she pursued that, he told her that “If another group was expressing the opposite view we would have to let you in.”

Clock did not dispute her recollection of the conversation when I called him, but he wouldn’t say exactly what happened at the Fair Planning Committee meeting or whose idea it was to exclude Sinapu from the fair.

He portrayed himself as a public employee carrying out the will of the public, as expressed by the Fair Planning Committee.

THE IDEA OF “EQUAL TIME” at a county fair is intriguing. In election years, the county Republicans and Democrats have booths. Presumably these organizations have “political views,” which means they shouldn’t be at the fair unless those with opposing views — Libertarians, Wobblies, Royalists, etc. — are also represented in the fair’s propaganda booths.

Or go further — the bulk of the fair is essentially a celebration of red meat raised on small family farms and ranches. Where are the big corporate farms and the monopolistic processors who dominate food production in this country? Why is the fair allowing all the carnivore promotion when there’s no vegetarian equivalent?

The county fair, by its very nature, isn’t an “equal time” forum. It’s a “marketplace,” where fairgoers can presumably make up their own minds about what’s worth buying into.

This seems to have dawned on Chaffee County officials as soon as Sinapu complained about Clock’s call.

“You could call it a classic case of bureaucracy getting out of hand,” County Administrator Tom Hale said. The Fair Planning Committee is strictly an advisory body that serves the Chaffee County Fair Board, and the committee “has no authority to deny anyone a booth.”

He encouraged Sinapu to apply to the Fair Board in time for its June 5 meeting, and that if Sinapu ran into any trouble there, the group could appeal to the Chaffee County Commissioners, who are ultimately responsible for the fair.

At that June 5 meeting, the Fair Board approved Sinapu’s application for booth space, which means that at our county fair, Sinapu will enjoy the opportunity to warp our impressionable and unsophisticated rural minds. And who knows — they might make a lot of local converts if they can demonstrate that wolves prefer to prey on Lycra lemmings, upscale fly-fishermen, trophy estate developers and land-yacht drivers.

There may be some things we need local bodies to protect us from, but the idea of wolf re-introduction isn’t one of them. We can handle that.

–Ed Quillen