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Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, named Garfield County's Sweetwater Lake as the 43rd Colorado state park. Behind Polis is, r-l, State Rep. Perry Will, Dan Gibbs, the director of the Department of Natural Resources, State Rep. Dylan Roberts, Jacque Buchanan, deputy regional forester for the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region, Jessica Foulis, the executive director of the Eagle Valley Land Trust and Dan Prenzlow, the director of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado Department of Natural Resources placed Parks and Wildlife Director Dan Prenzlow on paid leave after a Black employee sent an open letter to Gov. Jared Polis complaining of racism against her and others at a Vail outdoors conference. 

The letter by the employee, statewide partnerships coordinator Alease “Aloe” Lee, said Prenzlow tried to thank her for helping organize the sold-out Partners in the Outdoors Conference held at Vail’s The Hythe hotel on Apr. 19. As she stood in the back of the room, Lee said, “In a failed attempt to thank me, he exclaims on stage in front of 600 people ‘… there she is! In the back of the bus, Aloe!’” 

Before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, many American cities had Jim Crow laws and practices that required Black passengers, for example, to give up their bus seats to white passengers and take seats at the back. Civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks famously refused in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955.

Lee’s letter to Polis and the DNR leadership said Prenzlow sought her out later and said “he wasn’t aware of the context of his words and that he didn’t mean any harm. I have never known the phrase ‘back of the bus’ to not cause harm to Black people.”

Lee is the organizer of the annual Partners in the Outdoors Conference, which gathers hundreds of local governments, businesses, conservation groups and advocacy organizations to discuss potential ways diverse groups can work together on natural resource protection. The one-day event featured several breakout sessions, a keynote luncheon and awards dinner. Prenzlow made the comment to Lee during the conference’s final moments. 

In an email to conference attendees that evening after the conference, Prenzlow apologized for making “an insensitive comment” during the awards banquet. 

“I appreciate those who pointed out my statement and how my comment evokes painful realities that many have and continue to face. When we talk about intent versus impact, I learned how quickly a statement can have a harmful and hurtful impact. I am sincerely sorry,” Prenzlow said in his email. 

On Saturday, DNR Executive Director Dan Gibbs emailed attendees of the conference saying “equitable, inclusive access for all to our programs, events, and the outdoors are a priority personally and integral to the mission and culture of DNR.” He said his department was launching a “fact finding investigation to better understand what occurred and to help inform any future personnel or department actions.” 

Lee, in her open letter to Gov. Polis calling for the termination of Prenzlow that circulated among conference attendees last weekend, said Prenzlow’s apology was “vague” and “unfelt.” 

“Again, I am traumatized, exhausted, disappointed, and extremely uncomfortable after this horrific experience,” Lee wrote. 

On Monday night Gibbs released a statement that he had placed Prenzlow on administrative leave “in light of the complaints and events at the conference,” and designated Heather Dugan, the agency’s assistant director for field services, as acting director for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. 

The Department of Natural Resources confirmed it has the open letter and is reviewing the allegations. 

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...