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If you could ask anything ...

Tipton questions department leaders

Once a year, leaders of various federal departments and agencies testify in front of their respective congressional committees, generally on behalf of a budget request. After the testimony, each congressperson gets five minutes to ask questions – basically whatever they want.

“It’s a pretty rare thing,” said U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez.

Tipton serves on both the House Agriculture Committee and the House Natural Resources Committee. He participated in two hearings last week, one with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and one with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.

Vilsack spoke and answered questions about the state of the rural economy, including the department’s progress on implementing the Farm Bill, signed into law in early February.

Jewell testified about President Barack Obama’s 2015 budget proposal for the Department of the Interior.

Tipton’s questions for Vilsack focused on the ability of federal agencies to take or place conditions on water-use permits held by ski areas and ranches.

“I’d just be curious: How much of your resources are you going to be putting in to develop a taking (of) Fifth Amendment right(s) in the West when it comes to the private-property rights of water?” Tipton asked.

Vilsack said the agency understands the law, does not intend to infringe upon any private-property rights and will have a clarification forthcoming.

Tipton insisted that his bill, the Water Rights Protection Act, was necessary to ensure certainty on the issue. In an interview, Tipton expressed frustration at Vilsack’s ambiguous responses.

The Water Rights Protection Act, which would prohibit agencies from placing conditions on water-use agreements, was passed by the House on March 24 and awaits action in the Senate. Obama issued a statement in March opposing the bill.

Tipton also expressed concern to Vilsack about climate hubs, a multi-agency effort announced in February to deliver information to farmers and ranchers to help them adapt to climate change. Tipton wants clarity on their purpose and expressed concern that the hubs will be duplicating work done by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. One of seven regional climate hubs will be in Fort Collins.

“I’m not trying to make a judgment,” Tipton said in an interview. “I want to get clarity on why or how much, and if these are duplicative.”

He also was assured by Vilsack that progress was being made on preventing forest fires by increased leasing of air tankers.

Tipton’s questions for Jewell revolved around the Department of the Interior’s ability to close RS 2477 roads, those located on federal lands, without consultation with the county. Jewell said that she would have get back to Tipton on the issue.

“We often have communities that are completely unaware that a road is being closed,” Tipton said in an interview. “Our communities are willing and listening, but we have to be able to hear of the plans.”

He also inquired about progress of clean water projects in Colorado, hydroelectricity and the potential addition of the sage grouse to the list of endangered species, which Interior is considering. Tipton asked for some measurable species preservation goals to be identified before a decision is made about the endangered species designation.

Given the short amount of time allocated to each representative for questioning, many lawmakers choose to fill their time with questions and have the department follow up with them. In some other cases, answers could not be fully provided at the hearing.

“I think, as you saw, the answers that came from the secretary were ‘We’ll have to get back to you,’” Tipton said in an interview.

He stressed the importance of getting answers to his questions because they involve issues that impact local communities. He said the secretaries seem willing to work with him.

“It sometimes takes awhile, and we have to be a little bit insistent in terms of them getting back to us,” he said.

Katie Fiegenbaum is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald. Reach her at kfiegenbaum@durangoherald.com.

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