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a light color fur bison stands in the field with snowy mountain backdrop
A white bison roams the Badger Basin State Wildlife Area in 2022 near Hartsel. One out of 10 million bison are born with white fur, according to the National Bison Association. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is hoping a series of listening sessions will help it develop a new model for the annual Partners in the Outdoors conference, which was marred by problems last year and canceled this year. 

Topping the list of problems last year’s conference faced, leading into the third of six listening sessions, were accusations of racist remarks, poor planning and the decision to make Shane Mahoney, an authority on the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, the keynote speaker at the gathering held in Vail that was focused on growing diversity and inclusion in the outdoors. Some say Mahoney focused too heavily on Manifest Destiny while failing to acknowledge the harm and displacement such ideology caused to Indigenous communities and people of color.  

Interestingly, the first in-person listening session, held in Lakewood, on Aug. 16, made no mention of CPW employee Alease Lee’s claims of racism, which became a main focus of last year’s conference and caused considerable strife for participants. Instead, all attention focused on why, or even if, the conference should continue. 

Lee’s allegations arose after then-CPW Director Dan Prenzlow, when thanking her for her work organizing the conference, commented, “Oh, there she is! At the back of the bus … Aloe!” 

An investigation concluded Prenzlow’s remark violated state rules and noted that he could not successfully continue to lead CPW. He retired in November. 

CPW also investigated Lee’s response to Prenzlow’s remark, which included fiery claims against Prenzlow and longtime CPW volunteer Dan Gates. The seven-month investigation found no evidence supporting Lee’s allegations but concluded she violated agency rules. 

U.S. Parks and Wildlife officers look for prairie dog burrows in which to release captive-bred black-footed ferrets in 2021 near Lamar. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

After the investigations CPW announced it was “taking a step back” from hosting a large-scale, in-person conference in 2023. That turned into no conference at all and in its place, the listening sessions facilitated by Civic Consulting Collaborative, a community engagement focus group that invited select stakeholders to discuss the conference’s future. 

The goal of the sessions, which will wrap up Aug. 25, has been to imagine a new, more unified conference focused on a stronger, more resilient Colorado outdoors for all. 

Looking back and airing grievances   

On Aug. 16, a group of 25 to 30 parks and wildlife employees, leaders and other stakeholders gathered in a conference room at MindSpark, an education nonprofit in Lakewood, for the first of two in-person sessions. 

The Sun was allowed to participate on the condition that attendees remain anonymous except for those who gave permission to cite them or agreed to interviews independently. 

They were following a tone set by CPW, which recognized the importance of creating a “safe space” where everyone could share their thoughts about the past and future without potential retaliation. This echoed a tenet of the 2022 conference, where inclusion was a dominant sub-theme, as seen in various breakout sessions focused on diversity, equity and inclusion. 

As they settled into their seats, Shalana Gray, CPW’s statewide partnership director, acknowledged that the 2022 conference caused harm to people who attended, and to people and communities across the state.

Heads nodded as Civic Consulting laid out the rules of the session. 

“We’re here to hear ideas and not to achieve consensus. What that means is you may disagree with somebody and that’s fine. You don’t have to work to bring someone around to your opinion. Instead, we want to be able to listen and recognize those different perspectives.”

Staunton State Park guide Randee Lawrence, left, with Cory Smith at the park near Pine, Colo., during Smith’s hike using a Track-Chair, an off-road wheelchair, on the Davis Ponds Trail in 2022. Colorado Parks and Wildlife manages these lands. (Joe Mahoney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Then the first breakout session began, focused on what conferences would look like in 5 to 10 years if they maintained the status quo. 

In one group, a participant pointed out that the 2022 conference was an anomaly and that many conferences in the past had been very productive. She focused on the work recreation and conservations groups had done with local communities on things like closing unofficial social trails in various places. “I will never give up trying to make sure we regain a balance between recreation and wildlife,” she said. 

Another group member focused on how the conferences need a clear guiding principle and more attention to outcome. “I mean, why are we having this conference? What is it for?” he said. “I’ve been to several Children in Nature conferences all about how to get kids outside. I’m tired of hearing the message: ‘It’s good. It’s important. It keeps kids healthy.’ OK great, but how do we do that? How do we change systems?”  

And another praised last year’s conference for its focus on creating spaces for underrepresented communities, including those of color or living in rural places, to brainstorm, network and connect. “So I’d like to see some continued outreach in that area and specifically through storytelling,” he said. “Stories of how people use the land in their regions — how important fishing and hunting are in their valley. Elevating deer hunting and elk hunting in that area from somebody who lives there may be a good story for everybody to hear.”

A different critique came from Gates, a founding member of the Colorado Outdoor Partnership, which represents the intersection of conservation and outdoor recreation plus interests related to land, water and wildlife in Colorado. Gates agreed to be quoted in this story. 


“If nothing changes, the conference won’t be here in five years,” he said. “I honestly believe that and think with CPW being the managing and governing agency when it comes to wildlife, habitat, outdoor recreation and conservation, if nothing changes and there’s not more emphasis on wildlife and the natural resource side, it won’t matter if you have a conference, because it won’t be Partners in the Outdoors, it will be Partners for Partners.” 

The session wrapped up with each of eight or nine tables presenting their conclusions. Positive feedback included praise for the diversity of attendees, last year’s topics, affordability and the ability of attendees to self-select the breakout sessions offered. 

Suggestions for improvement included making clearer who the conference is intended for, continuing to brainstorm ways to bring together disparate political groups with misconceptions about one another, and homing in on the scope and goal of the conference. 

Additional participants suggested CPW choose the most applicable topics and put more focus on wildlife, habitat preservation and conservation while making it clear to attendees that hunters and anglers, more than other outdoor user groups, are footing a large portion of the bill that keeps CPW afloat and protects wild lands and wildlife. 

Brainstorming ways to move forward

Up next at the Lakewood session was the question of what CPW needs to do to create the “ideal” Partners in the Outdoors conference. 

While Gates may have wanted more focus on things like wildlife and conservation, that’s not where the conversation traveled. 

Most of the group’s ideas centered specifically or loosely on diversity, equity and inclusion. Or as one participant put it, “There are the traditional views of things and then the new and different views of things. So (we should) think about how we define outdoor recreation or conservation in terms of these. And we should know that there are traditional ways and new ways of doing that, so we should figure out those shared values.” 

A second speaker followed, saying, “Folks should get outside of their own lanes or lanes that are comfortable. So have sessions with unique voices from a diverse group of agencies or integrate some of the (main) sessions with BiPOC-specific sessions.” 

The idea of having clear goals came up again as well as using storytelling to connect different communities. Someone thought the conference location should travel to places other than the Front Range or a ski town. And one person wondered why, with the conference focusing on going outdoors to connect with wildlife and nature, there weren’t outdoor-focused field trips.

Robert Fix, of Westminster, and Mike Wright, of Boulder, prepare to go climbing at Eldorado Canyon State Park in Eldorado Springs. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

And over and over talk circled back to how the once hook-and-bullet focused gathering, which catered largely to hunting and fishing organizations, should shift to reflect a changing outdoor demographic in Colorado that is more diverse and colorful. 

That’s crucial, said Jared Romero, director of strategic partnerships for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. In an on-record conversation with The Sun, he said in the changing demographic landscape of Colorado, Hispanics are predicted to comprise 30% of the state’s population by 2030. And if conservation is to survive, Romero believes, CPW must continue to engage all communities.

Romero is a fifth-generation Latino from the San Luis Valley. He has advanced degrees in biological science and is a lifelong hunter and angler. He feels that stories about hunting, fishing and working the land from Latino and Hispanic communities haven’t been told, and said his role is to engage with those communities. 

Romero said at last year’s conference, CPW did a good job of partnering with Next 100 Colorado, which focuses on workforce diversity across conservation and outdoor recreation industries to ensure equitable access for all communities. “I think CPW was on the right track in terms of breaking down silos between communities to focus on sustainable wildlife and conservation goals,” he added. 

Going forward, he said, he would like to see the conference continue on the path that it was initially starting in the last conference. “I felt we were gaining traction in that a lot of people were there to find common ground and build on conservation goals. Now I want to see the conference opened up to all audiences who want to attend and be a part of that conversation,” he said. 

Romero also acknowledges Gates’ concern that continuing down the path of focusing the conference on people could take needed attention away from wildlife. “But my focus has been on One Health,” a concept collaborating the efforts of multiple disciplines working locally, nationally and globally to attain optimal health for people, animals and the environment, he said. “The understanding is that humans, animals and the environment are all interconnected. So while I understand Gates’ wildlife focus, the parks aspect in Parks and Wildlife is just as important. I don’t think you can solve wildlife issues without looking at the human aspect.”  

Waiting for listening session results  

Two weeks after the Lakewood session, Gates had some thoughts on how it went.  

He called from Steamboat Springs, where he had just given a presentation to the Parks and Wildlife Commission in his role as chair of the Colorado Wildlife Council. 

Harkening back to his comments in Lakewood, he reiterated, “I’m not saying people’s values aren’t warranted. But I met nine people at that session who’d never been to the conference. That’s like asking a blind man to paint a room — how do you ask somebody about something they’ve never seen and ask them to fix it? To me, that’s ludicrous. I don’t find value in the conversation.” 

Gates pointed out that CPW gave participants no context for why the 2022 conference was canceled or what led up to the decision. 

And he said even despite the challenges he’d faced during and for months after the conference, he felt it was a missed opportunity for CPW to not only to not capitalize on the conference’s successes over the years but to admit its ineffectiveness. For those reasons, he added, the session had been a waste of time. 

But what about all of those who now feel more engaged in CPW’s work, thanks to the sessions? 

Romero offered his own reiteration. It can only help wildlife, conservation, the environment and humans. 

Meanwhile, as you await the results of all of the conversations in all of the sessions to determine the direction of the next Partners in the Outdoors conference, you can do as Gates, Romero and countless other Coloradans are doing: continue working for wildlife conservation, habitat preservation, hunting, angling, bird watching, off-roading, stargazing and recreation.  

CORRECTION: This story was updated Aug. 25, 2023, at 8:35 a.m. to clarify remarks by CPW statewide partnership director Shalana Gray regarding the impact CPW’s 2022 Partners in the Outdoors Conference had on people and communities across the state.

Tracy Ross writes about the intersection of people and the natural world, industry, social justice and rural life from the perspective of someone who grew up in rural Idaho, lived in the Alaskan bush, reported in regions from Iran to Ecuador...