Dan Prenzlow is retiring from Colorado Parks and Wildlife following his suspension after a Black employee complained about offensive remarks he made during a conference awards ceremony six months ago.
Alease “Aloe” Lee was the organizer of CPW’s annual Partners in the Outdoors conference when Prenzlow tried to thank her for her contributions, reportedly saying “there she is, in the back of the bus, Aloe!”
Later that night, a few hours after the event, Prenzlow sent an email to conference attendees, apologizing for “an insensitive comment.”
“I appreciate those who pointed out my statement and how my comment evokes painful realities that many have and continue to face,” Prenzlow wrote on April 19. “When we talk about intent versus impact, I learned how quickly a statement can have a harmful and hurtful impact.”
The statement landed on the final night of a conference that focused on broadening the appeal of outdoor recreation to a wider demographic through an expanding network of diverse partners. The backlash to Prenzlow’s statement has threatened Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s progress on diversity, equity and inclusion in the outdoors.
Prenzlow apologized again the following morning at a conference breakfast, saying he was “still learning.” On April 21 he sent Lee an email saying “the words I chose were not intended to be malicious in any way.” He said he apologized right to her after his statement on April 19 and would like to meet her to apologize again.
“I am genuinely heartbroken over this and I apologize,” Prenzlow wrote.
Lee sent a letter to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on April 22, urging him to fire Prenzlow, saying she was “traumatized, exhausted, disappointed and extremely uncomfortable after this horrific experience.” She also urged the governor to fire Dan Gates, the chairman of the Colorado Wildlife Council and chairman for the Coloradans for Responsible Wildlife Management.
On the morning after the awards ceremony, Wendi Padia, the chief operating officer for the Department of Natural Resources, emailed Lee to share her cell number and tell Lee that Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Dan Gibbs would be reaching out soon.
Padia told Lee to use paid time off “to take whatever time you need to process things.”
“You have support and time from DNR and from CPW,” Padia said. Colorado Parks and Wildlife falls under the management umbrella of the state Department of Natural Resources.
Jen Anderson, the manager of education, partnerships and volunteers at CPW who worked with Lee in organizing the conference, on April 21 sent an email to all the contractors and employees who helped organize the conference, saying she had a scheduled meeting with Gibbs set for April 26 and asked “if there is anything you personally want me to carry forward.”
Lee responded to the group saying she did not support a resignation from Prenzlow.
“I support a firing,” she said.
On the Whova app that was used to organize the conference schedule, Lee sent all conference attendees an open letter to Prenzlow, telling him to “stop using Black women to clean up your white mess.”
“I do pray you shove your bullshit apology so far up your ass that it hits the hatred and racism where your soul used to be,” she wrote.
Within a week of the conference, Gibbs placed Prenzlow on administrative leave while an outside firm investigated Lee’s complaints. Lee also was placed on leave. She did not return calls or texts on Tuesday.
A little more than six months later, the results of that investigation have not been released. Prenzlow, a 36-year employee of the agency whose father, Ed, was deputy director of the then state Division of Wildlife in the 1980s, on Tuesday texted friends and colleagues telling them he was retiring. The wildlife commission named Prenzlow as director in 2019.
“Not what I expected to say on Nov. 1,2022, but wanted to let you all know this is the first day of my retirement,” he wrote to staff at Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “It has been an honor and a privilege to work with you all and to serve you as director. It has been a calling to work for CPW for these 36-plus years and I’ll miss you all. Shorter stint than I wanted, but the Lord has a plan.”
On Tuesday afternoon, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website pulled down Prenzlow’s name and biography from its Leadership Team page, where he was listed Tuesday morning as one of several “Key Players.”
The Colorado Sun last month filed an open records request for emails received and sent by Prenzlow and Lee in the days following the conference. The agency returned more than 1,400 emails.
In the days following the awards ceremony, both Lee and Prenzlow received many emails from allies expressing their support and offering advice.
A member of CPW’s trails committee who works for the Walton Family Foundation urged Prenzlow to personally apologize to Lee and reach out to the Next 100 group — a startup coalition of Black, Indigenous and people of color leaders focused on conservation and outdoor recreation — “and give them an opportunity to be heard.”
“I know this is awkward, but such is the world these days,” Jill Ozarski wrote.
Prenzlow responded to another supporter who thanked him for his “heartfelt apology,” saying he was “doing my best to be accountable for my actions, as we all can/should. I do look forward to working on all the things we have in common!”
He replied to several supporters similarly, saying he needed support and appreciated their notes.
He did not appear to anticipate his suspension on April 25. He was continuing with his work and making plans for how the agency would handle work on wolf reintroduction, legislation impacting hunting and other issues.
Taishya Adams, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife commissioner, emailed Lee the evening of April 19, after the ceremony, thanking her for leadership and contributions to the conference’s focus on diversity, equity and inclusion in the outdoors.
“Thank you for making space for more voices at this conference,” Adams wrote. “Know that we are all leveraging the power we have internal to CPW and externally as well to raise awareness and do what is needed to to align with our DEI statement, values and mission as well as the accountability needed to ensure success.”
Becky Leinweber, executive director of the Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance, emailed Gibbs on April 25, saying Prenzlow “made a mistake,” but “acted appropriately and sincerely” afterwards with his emailed apology and statement at the breakfast the next morning.
“And in the current cancel culture, we tend to cancel people who make a mistake instead of acknowledging that we’re all human, make mistakes and what’s most important is what we do about it,” Leinweber wrote.
Leinweber said Lee’s fiery missives on the Whova app should be removed, saying they “were neither respectful, nor appropriate and very unprofessional.”
“I understand that Aloe was hurt, but her response should not be ignored or applauded as an example of how to deal with such an issue,” Leinweber wrote. “We need to be able to respect her and follow her leadership and her behavior makes that very difficult.”
Kathryn Brettell, the director of Friends of Staunton State Park, also emailed Gibbs, saying there was “an audible gasp” from attendees in the room at the awards ceremony when Prenzlow made the “back of the bus” comment.
“The moment he spoke those words, time froze and the air was sucked from the room,” Brettell wrote in an email she also sent to Lee, saying she hoped Prenzlow would have immediately “fall on his sword and apologize profusely,” but he continued with his speech.
Brettell said many attendees wondered if Prenzlow had attended any of the conference sessions discussing ways to improve diversity, equity and inclusion.
“He obviously is not someone who holds equity, diversity and inclusion as important values,” Brettell wrote to Gibbs, urging him to fire Prenzlow and citing several other groups outraged by the comment. “His delay of an apology proves how out of touch he is with the principles his own department (is) struggling to instill. Many share my feelings that this behavior cannot be overlooked if we are to successfully move forward with our efforts of equity, diversity and inclusion.”
Brettell also emailed Lee telling her the comments on Whova were “not good.” Brettell said she has occasionally bounced “burn” letters off people she trusts before sending them, “which often results in me not sending them at all.”
“I don’t trust you or know you so I’m not going to bounce anything off of you,” Lee responded. “Take your concerns elsewhere.”
Racial tensions were high during the annual conference with about 600 attendees. Some were irked that a ballroom in the Hythe Hotel was named “Sundown,” which is the label given to white-only municipalities or towns that were unfriendly to Black travelers as recently as the 1960s. (It’s also the name of a back bowl at the Vail ski area.) Others complained that some panel sessions did not include people of color. A keynote speaker heaped praise on Theodore Roosevelt and downplayed the role of Black and Indigenous communities. Prenzlow’s comment “was like a match to gasoline,” one attendee said.
John Howard was the chair of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission who guided the search for Prenzlow in 2019. While his term as commissioner ended shortly after Prenzlow took the reins of the agency, Howard has spent time hunting and fishing with Prenzlow.
He was not at the conference but said he had never heard Prenzlow saying anything racist.
Howard said the recent Stakeholders Advisory Group meetings shepherding the agency’s formulation of a wolf reintroduction plan has suffered in recent months without Prenzlow guiding the group.
“The leadership he provided at those meetings has been really sorely missed,” Howard said. “He is an honest and talented guy and a great leader who knew so much about the wildlife side.”