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Opinion: Former Agriculture Commissioner Peter Decker fought for equity for rural Colorado

Peter Decker, who ranched in Ridgway, understood education was essential to the vitality of farm and ranch communities, has died at age 86.

“Morgan, Roy wants me to be Commissioner of Agriculture. What do I do?” Peter Decker asked. It was 1987 and Gov. Roy Romer was about to announce this appointment.

“Get out to rural Colorado,” I answered, having served as commissioner several years earlier. “Go to those Farm Bureau and Farmers Union dinners. Show rural Colorado that state government isn’t just about Denver and the suburbs.”

Morgan Smith

That was easy for Peter, with his strong ranching background. Owner of the Double D ranch in Ridgway for over 40 years, and, briefly, a much larger ranch in Nebraska, he was also an agricultural consultant as well as a member of the board of the National Western Stock Show for many years. He was on the Ouray County Planning Commission which put together right-to-farm rules modeled after the state law passed in 1981

What set Peter apart was his ability to bring together his love of ranching and rural Colorado with his lifelong commitment to teaching and education, and his awareness that improved education was essential to rural communities. 

Peter R. Decker

He knew that simply preserving ranching wasn’t enough. Those communities had to have the same educational resources as Colorado’s urban areas and he worked to make that happen through his many years on the Board of Trustees of Fort Lewis College in Durango as well as his tenure on the Colorado Commission of Higher Education. If he were active today, he would be the first to fight for broadband access in rural Colorado, for example. How can young people far from the Denver area have the same educational opportunities without that?

When I last visited Peter, he was recovering from a serious back operation but cheerful and ready with a joke and a story.  

I’m wondering what he would be thinking if he were here today, this Columbia-educated, Duke University professor of history and public policy who resettled in Ridgway in 1974 and became a leader for ranching and rural Colorado, this unique man who died Dec. 12 in Denver at age 86.

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Having devoted much attention to the mistreatment of Native Americans in his book, “The Utes Must Go,” I can imagine Peter would be thrilled that President-elect Joe Biden has picked New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo to head the Interior Department. If confirmed, she would be the first Native American to hold that position.

Several years ago, when we were at the state capitol for a ceremony to honor former Commissioners of Agriculture, Peter looked around and then whispered to me, “Look at all us old white guys.” I know he was thrilled that Gov. Polis named Kate Greenberg to be the first woman commissioner. Like Peter, she was called to the service of Colorado from the Western Slope ( Durango) and has focused on keeping young people in agriculture.

I think he would be optimistic about the future, not just because that was his nature, but because our incoming president is like Peter in his concern for people from all walks of life and his commitment to public service.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

If we were to meet today, Peter would probably offer me a sip of his favorite bourbon and then tell a story. Who knows what it would be about but it would certainly end in laughter. Laughter, optimism, rigorous scholarship as evidenced by his many books, reverence for the land, love of family and friends.  Those were the qualities that made this man so special. I will deeply miss him.

Morgan Smith served in the Colorado House of Representatives was Commissioner of Agriculture from 1979 to 1982 and led the Colorado International Trade office for a decade. He can be reached at Morgan-smith@comcast.net


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