VAIL — Colorado Gov. Jared Polis welcomed fellow governors from western states to Vail on Monday for the annual meeting of the Western Governors Association, the group's first since the former congressman took up residence in the governor's mansion in January.
The organization is known for its bipartisan, independent-minded approach to tackling regional problems, and this year's gathering was no exception.
Keynote speakers included Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a Rifle native, who took mostly friendly questions from the governors about his department's policies on everything from public land management to hunting and fishing licensing.
Roundtables covered topics such as broadband, data-based water management and dealing with invasive species, while speakers included Vail Resorts' CEO discussing the changing outdoor industry and novelist Craig Johnson, who talked about how "the beauty and mystique and romance of the western United States" inspired the "Longmire" mysteries.
A dozen western governors convened for the confab. In addition to Polis, attendees were Hawaii Gov. David Ige, the WGA's 2018 chairman; Doug Burgum of North Dakota, the 2018 vice chairman and incoming 2019 chairman; Lourdes Leon Guerrero of Guam; Brad Little of Idaho; Laura Kelly of Kansas; Steve Sisolak of Nevada; Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico; Kate Brown of Oregon; Kristi Noem of South Dakota; Gary Herbert of Utah; and Mark Gordon of Wyoming.
(Ten WGA members didn't make this year's annual meeting, including two who are running for president — Washington's Jay Inslee and Montana's Steve Bullock — and the governors of the largest western states, Gavin Newsom of California and Greg Abbott of Texas.)
Here are four takeaways from the three-day conference, which was held at the slope-side Hotel Talisa, on the west side of the mountain resort.
Western governors have plenty in common, across state and partisan lines.
"We are all proud westerners, regardless of the party label we may wear or what state we're from," Polis said at an opening press conference. "We're committed to the independent values of the American West and, really, finding common ground on the issues we face."
Demonstrating the spirit of cooperation, Jim Hubbard, U.S. Department of Agriculture under secretary for natural resources and environment, followed the governors' welcoming remarks to announce an agreement between the WGA and USDA to collaborate on a series of challenges unique to western lands.
The projects include responding to wildfires, managing vegetation and fighting invasive cheatgrass.
“Shared stewardship is about setting forest management priorities together and combining resources to achieve cross-boundary outcomes,” said Hubbard, who added that the collaboration is expected to bolster local economies and help protect western residents from wildfires, drought and forest-ravaging epidemics.
In an interview with Colorado Politics, Polis described what results from the WGA: "There's a lot we work on between the western states, whether it's the Colorado River Compact, which we all got on the same page on, seven states; whether it's our bordering states, joint opportunities for growth; and whether it's simply good ideas that might come from any state in the area. There's a lot of opportunity to work with pragmatic, independent western governors on a wide variety of issues."
The West is facing unprecedented threats and pressures from numerous quarters.
The WGA on Monday released a comprehensive report on efforts to combat invasive and non-native species with a special focus on invasive aquatic species like the zebra and quagga mussels.
Polis introduced Royal Canadian Mounted Police Sgt. Eric Boechler on Tuesday for a discussion about the Mounties' response to the rapidly increasing supply of fentanyl in British Columbia, where deaths involving the dangerous narcotic have climbed exponentially from a dozen in 2002 to 1,315 last year.
“Fentanyl-associated deaths only tell part of the story," Boechler said. "It doesn’t reflect the number of overdoses, the cost of medical response, and the effects on the lives of users.”
States are looking to Colorado for inspiration on some fronts.
In addition to the chockablock speeches, roundtables and receptions, the WGA affords the governors ample time to visit with one another and catch up on what's happening outside their border. This year Polis said he's been fielding questions about some of the state's recent initiatives.
"We're all talking about items we can work on together, learning from one another, whether it's early childhood education, whether it's transportation, we're just sharing notes and ideas," he told Colorado Politics. "They're very interested in some of the things we've done in Colorado."
Specifically, Polis said his fellow governors have been asking "a lot of questions" about the state's implementation of full-day kindergarten and its work related to health care.
"We're ahead of many other states with state-level reforms to save people money on health care. Other states have done like one piece or two pieces, but we've done, I think, really, more than any other state to drive down health care costs," he said.
"Obviously, we do ultimately need national action on a lot of this, and we believe that it will happen some day, but in the meantime we want to take the tools that we have to save people money."
Polis smiled when asked whether any governors had asked if they could copy one of his signature initiatives, the establishment of The Office of Saving People Money on Healthcare, headed by Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera.
"You might see other offices pop up," Polis' chief of staff, Lisa Kaufmann, said, noting that several governors had expressed an interest in the concept at a recent meeting of the National Governors Association.
If Polis were a beer, he would be a porter — at least according to WGA staff.
WGA Executive Director Jim Ogsbury met the challenge of introducing the 12 governors — including several first elected in November — to the conference by imagining they had each inspired a beer that shared the executive's characteristics, complete with beer cans bearing their namesakes' images.
The fictitious Polis brew, it turned out, was Polis Porter, an "ambitious Colorado beer" with "expansive appeal."
"A one-of-a-kind brew, Polis Porter, like the governor after whom it was named, is both strong and accessible," Ogsbury said as the corporate lobbyists and government officials packing the ballroom chuckled.
"It is a brew that pushes higher boundaries to create new opportunities for Rocky Mountain denizens. It is slightly ahead of the curve, never boring, always tasteful."
Another of the alliterative gubernatorial brews was the "smooth, clean and crisp" Gordon's Golden Ale, named for Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon.
Little Lager, Ogsbury said, was "deceptively named," perhaps because Idaho Gov. Brad Little ranked as the tallest of the governors in attendance.
"There is nothing about this beer that is little," he said. "Large and in-charge, this clean and crisp beer from Idaho is a popular classic in the Gem State."
Ogsbury brought down the house simply by pronouncing the name of the last gubernatorial beer he extolled, the Herbert Hefeweizen.
The yeasty German wheat beer, named for Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, he said, was "never cloudy, always clear ... one of the most successful beers in the region."