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CPW volunteer cleared after 7-month investigation into racism claim

Dan Gates says he’ll recover, but fears that threat of unfounded claims will discourage 3,600 other volunteers

Dan Gates remembers the sting of comments sent to his friends and fellow volunteers at the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Partners in the Outdoors conference in April. Then even more pain from a letter sent to Gov. Jared Polis by the conference organizer, Alease Lee, demanding that Gates be removed from several volunteer posts.

Lee, who is Black, called Gates, who has for 37 years served as a volunteer on more than a dozen boards focused on Colorado wildlife management and habitat conservation, “a known racist” and “a danger to Black and brown communities and their voices.”

In a post on the Whova app used by all 600 conference attendees, Lee referred to Gates’ “loved ones” as “roaches and rats.”

“I never had any conversation with her except to say, ‘Hi, my name is Dan Gates.’ I told her I’d heard about her and hope we get a chance to talk,” said Gates, a lifelong hunter whose service has included work as chairman of the Colorado Habitat Stamp Committee and board member for the Colorado Wildlife Council and the Colorado Outdoor Partnership Executive Council. “Then I read all that. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t, really.”

Dan Gates has volunteered for Colorado wildlife management councils and boards for 37 years. (Courtesy of Dan Gates, via The Colorado Sun)

A seven-month investigation found Lee’s claims of racism by Gates were unfounded. No one interviewed by investigators offered any support for Lee’s accusations against Gates. Lee herself was unable to provide evidence of racist behavior by Gates. Lee, who has resigned from the agency, did not return texts or calls from The Colorado Sun.

The allegations against Gates were investigated alongside Lee’s complaints against Colorado Parks and Wildlife director Dan Prenzlow, who had tried to thank Lee during an awards ceremony at the conference by directing everyone toward her table in the back of the ballroom, saying “there she is, in the back of the bus.”

Gates knew he would be exonerated, he said. And he will recover from the false accusations, he said. But he worries about how Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s lack of a response to the investigation will impact the agency’s 3,600 volunteers and its mission to balance wildlife protection and habitat conservation with improved outdoor access and recreation.

“I really believe that wildlife management and natural resource conservation has been set back decades by this,” Gates said. “I think you are going to find fewer legitimate partners and volunteers who are critical to natural resource conservation. I’ve heard it over and over in the last seven months: We don’t want to be the next person on the chopping block. That means we are going to see fewer people engaging in really tough subjects that need to be addressed because they are afraid of being chastised, admonished and accused of things that are not remotely connected to the subject matter of wildlife and conservation.”

Two investigations

Following Lee’s claims, the Investigations Law Group concluded that Prenzlow violated state rules for his bus remark.

The racial implications of “back of the bus” proved to be Prenzlow’s undoing. He retired as director in early November following the investigation that found he oversaw “an unhealthy work workplace with respect to equity.” Investigators found “most witnesses said the remark was so serious that Director Prenzlow cannot successfully continue in his role.”

A second investigation into Lee’s fiery response to the remark – including allegations of racism against Gates detailed in the Whova app posts and in the public letter to Polis and Dan Gibbs, the director of the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees Colorado Parks and Wildlife – concluded she had based her statements regarding Gates on “rumor” and “speculation ... but no personal or first-hand experience.”

“None of the 19 witnesses we interviewed, including people identified by Ms. Lee, provided an example of how Mr. Gates has exhibited race-based behavior,” reads the investigation, which includes several quotes from conference attendees saying they had never heard Gates use racial slurs.

Lee told investigators she stood by her accusations. She also told the investigators that people complained about her response to Prenzlow’s remark.

“I get emails saying I am weak and saying I need therapy,” she said, according to the report. “No you don’t get to tell me how I have to respond to racism or that it is overreacting or underreacting. I think that my comments are a response to trauma and racism.”

Investigators agreed Lee was “credibly traumatized” by Prenzlow’s statements, but not by Gates. They concluded she violated state rules addressing anti-harassment, nondiscrimination and equity, diversity and inclusion when describing Gates.

She resigned after serving four months with the agency organizing the 2022 Partners in the Outdoors conference, an annual gathering of talks and meetings with the dozens of groups that partner with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The conference this year focused on increasing diversity, equity and inclusion in the outdoors by including more diverse voices in the agency’s work.

At a meeting in November, three of 11 Colorado Parks and Wildlife commissioners urged the agency to formally apologize to Gates.

“Dan Gates has been an incredible volunteer for this agency for 37 years,” Commissioner Marie Haskett said during the commissioner’s monthly board meeting on Nov. 17.

Haskett read several passages from the investigation.

“The remarks are likely to have an impact on Mr. Gates because they were publicly made and objectively degrading,” she said. “I think DNR and CPW owe him an apology.”

Commissioner Becky Blecha agreed with Haskett, saying “there is room for improvement” at Department of Natural Resources with the agency’s communication with the commissioners about the investigation.

The investigation began in early May and the firm in charge of the inquiry delivered the results to agency leadership in June and then delivered a printed report in the middle of September. Commissioners said they needed to file open records requests with the agency to receive the report in early November.

The Colorado Sun filed open records requests with the agency for both investigation reports, which cost CPW $65,256.45. (The state paid Lee a year’s salary, $75,634, as part of a settlement where she agreed to withdraw a discrimination complaint she filed with the Colorado Civil Rights Division. The state paid Prenzlow $50,000 for “emotional distress,” wages and attorney fees as part of a settlement that included him resigning on Nov. 1, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.)

“I think it was poorly handled, communication wise, with our commission and the people involved and I hope that we can do better at some point,” Blecha said.

Commissioner Duke Phillips also agreed that the agency owes Gates an apology.

“Dan Gates has done so much for the agency and is an incredible partner,” Phillips said.

Commissioner Taisha Adams thanked Lee “for her contributions to this agency and the Partners in the Outdoors” and “the extensive investigation that took seven months of her life.”

Adams emailed Lee on the night of the conference awards ceremony, thanking her and saying “we are all leveraging the power we have internal to CPW and externally as well to raise awareness and do what is needed to align with our DEI statement, values and mission as well as the accountability needed to ensure success.” (The Sun obtained emails to and from Lee’s state account through a public records request.)

“I’m reminded every day that as commissioners we do not have the day-to-day staffing responsibilities but we do have the responsibility around public trust and we do have the responsibility of ensuring there is no harm caused by those who work for us, who volunteer for us,” Adams told fellow commissioners at the November meeting in Gateway. “So I’m excited to see the continued growth of accountability, transparency and integrity as we seek to not only tell the fuller Colorado story but include more people in the creation of our story moving forward.”

Gibbs did not mention Gates at the commissioners meeting, but he did express appreciation for the nearly 37 years Prenzlow worked for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Gibbs said “it’s a really unique time and a challenging time” for Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Department of Natural Resources. He said he was “legally bound to not tell people what was going on” during the investigation.

(Gibbs himself is under investigation by the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission following a December 2021 complaint alleging ethics violations when he awarded a $496,000 contract to the Keystone Policy Center to conduct outreach on wolf reintroduction issues. Gibbs’ wife, Johanna Gibbs, was an employee of the policy center when the contract was awarded in April 2021.

Gibbs, in a response to the complaint, denied violating any regulations and argued the ethics commission erred in ruling the complaint was not frivolous. The commission received 31 complaints in 2021 and deemed four as nonfrivolous.)

Gibbs in November told the commissioners his department is working on a statewide “cultural assessment” that would look at the lessons learned in 2022 and “how CPW can be a stronger organization moving forward.” Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Department of Natural Resources will soon hire equity, diversity and inclusion professionals who will serve in leadership positions, Gibbs said, calling the new positions “kind of a first step and a really important step.”

Gates wonders if the damage can be repaired. A few top leaders at Colorado Parks and Wildlife have left, including Lauren Truitt, the agency’s assistant director for information and education who helped expand the Partners in the Outdoors conference in its second year in 2014. The agency’s acting director Heather Dugan told commissioners last month that Truitt had “gone on to greener pastures.”

Gates said Truitt and others have “jumped ship. And more people are going to be jumping ship. I know of at least 40 people in wildlife management who are looking for a way to get out, trying to transfer to another state.”

Truitt said she did not jump ship. And she said she didn’t necessarily depart for greener pastures.

Instead she had “an amazing opportunity” to work in a new realm and made “one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made” to leave the agency, said Truitt, who is working with a startup technology company based out of Texas that plans to go public.

Truitt said the contributions Gates made to the agency – specifically bringing together diverse and often conflicting sports groups, like anglers who fish with flies or lures and hunters who use rifles, bows and muzzleloaders – “are immeasurable.”

“For as long as I’ve known Gates he has recognized the internal fracturing in the outdoors and the traditionalist versus the modernist ... and he has helped them all realize we enjoy these sports in our own ways but at the end of the day we are all here for the wildlife and habitat and he has helped the sportsperson world galvanize around those values. Gates constantly reminded everyone that wildlife and habitat need to be at the forefront of all our conversations,” Truitt said. “I think the agency or DNR does need to reach out and apologize to him. I do think, as someone who volunteers for the agency, we also have an obligation to make sure we are treating people fairly.”

Gates said he was frustrated by the praise for Lee.

“It’s appalling to me that individuals would thank a person for violating state policy and creating confrontations over DEI when that’s exactly what that person was hired to promote,” he said. “The hypocrisy of that is saddening and mind-boggling to me.”

About that hat

For nearly 40 years Gates has owned a business that helps owners of industrial, agricultural, commercial and residential properties manage wildlife interaction, whether it’s “a gopher in the garden, a pigeon at the power plant, beavers at water structures or squirrels in the attic,” he said.

It’s an important job that is often misunderstood, he said.

Gates said a restaurant owner he worked with on a volunteer wildlife management group once dismissed his work as “just killing things.”

“I said ‘Do you have mice in your kitchen? She responded ‘Oh, no. Never,’” he said. “Well a mouse to you can be a wolf to someone else.”

Gates likes to wear a hat that reads “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you are on the menu.” That’s an old adage commonly repeated by politicians – like Ann Richards and Elizabeth Warren – urging more people to participate in policy discussions.

Gates has worn that hat at wildlife conferences for many years. Lee, in her letter to Polis and Gibbs, called the hat a sign of his “blatant hatred and unwelcoming demeanor.” Lee told investigators: “This man is walking around with a racist hat and we’re sitting here talking about policies. I don’t understand – this is so weird. These are not the right questions. Why are these people not fired? How can you do that and still keep your job?”

Gates said he’s never had anyone complain about the hat before.

“If more people would follow that idea, we would not be in the position we are in,” he said.

It appears the Partners in the Outdoors conference will not occur next year. Lee was expected to organize the event but has not worked since April and the agency has not hired a new event organizer. The organizing committee that helps shape the annual conference has not met since the April event. Usually the agency sends an email with a date and location for the next year’s conference by the end of October.

An organizer with Colorado Parks and Wildlife declined to confirm that the 2023 conference was canceled and told The Sun the agency is “working on a partners newsletter” that should be emailed in the first half of December.

Truitt, who spent nearly a decade with the agency, said she wanted to stay and help staff weather this storm.

She laments the likely cancellation of the 2023 partners conference. Truitt praised Lee’s organization of the Vail event and hopes attendees can soon remember some of the “amazing good things and conversations” that happened during the three-day gathering.

“If we lose our ability to have conversations, that is fundamental to problem-solving,” Truitt said. “We need to be able to have tough conversations and we need to recognize that we all care deeply about Colorado. That was such an important part of that conference, stripping away the things that separate us and finding commonalities.”

Where are the protections for volunteers?

Investigators who interviewed people who attended the Partners in the Outdoors Conference in April found one witness who told them Gates said he is “tired of people who take up social equality issues at any chance they can.”

He’s still tired of that.

“It’s not that I don’t care about DEI, because I do. But also I really care about wildlife and conservation and habitat,” he said. “I have spent my life dedicated to that.”

He doesn’t care much about receiving a formal apology. But he would like to see Colorado Parks and Wildlife better protect volunteers from accusations and statements that independent investigators found violated many state policies.

“How does this all play into volunteer positions down the road and how do they expect people to buy into the agency down the road? What protections are there for volunteers or appointed people in any capacity? Obviously there are none or we would see a statement supporting their volunteers, right?” Gates said. “We had tens of thousands of volunteer hours last year and every single volunteer is on the hook. There ought to be protections in place and mediators for volunteers.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has 3,600 volunteers who contribute about 300,000 hours of service every year, which amounts to the work of about 142 full-time employees who would earn almost $9 million.

“Volunteer time and talents are essential to CPW and we sincerely appreciate the contributions by Mr. Gates and all of CPW’s volunteers who contribute to the mission of CPW in its service to Coloradans and visitors,” reads a statement from Department of Natural Resources spokesman Chris Arend. “That being said, DNR hired a third party investigator to thoroughly look into the claims against Mr. Gates and the resulting report speaks for itself.”

Gates fears Colorado Parks and Wildlife “is getting in the weeds on stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with the mission of conservation.” He sees the lack of response to the investigations as “a slap in the face of volunteerism.”

“We are building barriers to the issues that matter and no matter what I do or what I say it all goes back to racial issues and racial justice. What does that have to do with herd management and recreational damage to habitat?” Gates said. “We are going to have fewer people having these critical conversations because everything will go back to something that is not even being discussed.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.