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Western Slope congressional leaders: Let history be the judge

Congressman Edward Taylor, left, served 16 terms representing Colorado and the Western Slope. Congressman Wayne Aspinall, second from left, chaired the powerful House Interior Committee. Congressman Ben Nighthorse Campbell, second from right, went on to become a U.S. senator. Congressman Scott McInnis served six terms and worked with Sen. Campbell to legislate Great Sand Dunes and Black Canyon from national monument into national park status. Photos courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Collection; Campbell family; and Durango Herald file. Illustration by Wes Rowell/Durango Herald.

Over the decades, we have had effective, powerful congressional leaders from Colorado’s Western Slope – educated leaders who sought collaboration and compromise, and who put their constituents’ needs and aspirations at the core of their objectives. Now, not so much.

A key element in congressional success is being re-elected, serving on important committees and rising to national stature to pass legislation vital to local needs. An historical review of our congressmen from the 4th, now the 3rd, Congressional District reads like a who’s who of the American West.

As an historian who teaches Colorado history and who has lived on the Western Slope on and off for four decades, let me start in the 1920s with Glenwood Springs attorney Edward T. Taylor. In 1921, he successfully urged Congress to change the name of the Grand River to the Colorado River, thus giving our state worldwide recognition. Pragmatic and popular, Taylor won re-election 17 times.

He is best known for the federal legislation that bears his name – the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 – which ended the bitter and deadly cattle and sheep wars that had plagued not only Colorado but all western states. Taylor’s solution was to establish locally run grazing districts equally administered by cattle and sheep ranchers and to prohibit non-local grazers from bringing livestock in by trains and dumping them on public lands.

The Taylor Grazing Act eliminated rangeland violence, curtailed overgrazing and soil erosion, and effectively ended homesteading to stabilize and retain the public domain under the Grazing Service, which would evolve into the Bureau of Land Management.


Palisade teacher Wayne Aspinall, a master with a gavel and Roberts Rules of Order, rose to head the powerful House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee. Aspinall never met a dam he didn’t like. The intricate 20th-century system of western river reservoirs and dams is largely his accomplishment, including the Colorado River Storage Project (1956), the Frying Pan Arkansas Project (1962), and the Colorado River Basin Act and the Central Arizona Project (1968).

An old-style conservationist, according to Wayne Schulte in his definitive book, “Wayne Aspinall and the Shaping of the American West,” Aspinall believed in water storage. From his committee came Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa, Glen Canyon, and Navajo and Curecanti reservoirs.

Aspinall looked with suspicion on the modern environmental movement and blocked the Wilderness Act (1964) forcing 66 rewrites of the legislation, but ironically by doing so he jump-started the very movement he thought to oppose. The original wilderness legislation called for federal administrators to designate wilderness lands. Aspinall insisted that only God can make a tree and only Congress can federally protect wilderness. By demanding Congress vote on wilderness, Aspinall inadvertently created the impetus for dozens of local environmental advocacy groups to rally Congress.

In Grand Junction, the United States Post Office and the federal building are named after Aspinall, as is the prestigious Aspinall Lectureship in History and Political Science at Colorado Mesa University, which I was honored to give two decades ago. He also fervently pushed for the Public Land Law Review Commission that recommended reform of public land laws, the eventual creation of the Bureau of Land Management and a Congressional vote to retain our precious public lands after two centuries of trying to give them away.


In the 106th Congress, Ignacio resident Ben Nighthorse Campbell passed more laws than most other congressmen and wrote legislation creating the National Museum of the American Indian.

He would go on to serve two terms in the U.S. Senate, authorize the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, be a vital proponent of the Animas-La Plata Project and create a 120,000-acre-foot reservoir near Durango named in his honor.

Herman Viola chronicles Ben’s achievements in the book “Ben Nighthorse Campbell: An American Warrior.” A former Fort Lewis College jewelry instructor, Campbell’s children also attended FLC and his professional papers and memorabilia are permanently housed on campus at the Center of Southwest Studies. The Campbell Child and Family Center at FLC is named for Ben and his wife, Linda. In Denver, the University of Colorado’s School of Public Health includes the Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health in the Nighthorse Campbell Native Health Building.


FLC alumni, former police officer and attorney Scott McInnis of Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction served six terms in Congress. He sat on the important Ways and Means Committee and recommended naming the USS Mesa Verde, which is the first in a new class of computerized naval vessels able to deliver American troops around the globe.

McInnis worked with Sen. Campbell to legislate Great Sand Dunes and Black Canyon from national monument into national park status. I worked with McInnis trying to designate Deep Creek on the Flat Tops in the White River National Forest as a wild and scenic river with a respectful Ute name, but we didn’t achieve it.

An important section of the Colorado River west of Grand Junction is the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, part of the BLM’s National Conservation Lands System.

McInnis’ professional papers are also on our FLC campus as are those of former congressman Scott Tipton, who helped to establish the Mesa Verde Foundation, which purchased the land and raised money for the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center at the park’s entrance.


That brings us to our current congressional representative from the 3rd District, Lauren Boebert. We’ve never met, but she is from Silt. In 1976, that’s where I began my teaching career, in Silt Elementary School back when the town had dirt streets and wooden waterlines. I spent six years teaching 10-year-olds in Silt. Fourth graders are great. We learned to listen to each other, to be patient, to raise our hands. We were a class, a team, we worked together and we succeeded.

Lauren Boebert, then a candidate for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, makes a campaign stop Oct. 23, 2020, at the Wild Horse Saloon in Durango. Boebert was elected to represent the 3rd District in 2020. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

I taught my fourth graders in Silt to respect each other. We would never stand up and heckle a speaker. We would never interrupt one another. That’s childish behavior and unacceptable in a public school classroom. We never called each other names.

Rep. Boebert likes to refer to people as libtards. What does that mean? Is it a style of clothing like leotards? An enterprising businesswoman, she ran a café on the main street of Rifle called Shooter’s Grill. I’ve been there for breakfast along with a rowdy oil and gas crowd. Because the waitresses wore pistols on their hips, I was a little abashed when my huevos rancheros arrived with red chili instead of the green chili I had ordered. I ate it anyway.

Congresswoman Boebert has made public comments I do not approve of, but what really irritates me as a gun owner and a hunter is her flagrant display of firearms. There is no responsible gun owner I know of who would ever publicly show off any weapon from his or her arsenal. That’s nobody’s business, which brings me to the business of being a congressional representative from Colorado’s 3rd District.

I don’t care about tweets or Twitter followers. Campaigning is not legislating. I want a congressional representative who will listen to constituents, advance agendas favored by voters and who will support farmers, ranchers, wildlife, public lands, outdoor recreation, water rights and sensible oil, gas and mineral development.

From the Western Slope we have had politically sophisticated and historically successful congressmen who earned national stature. We need one now.

Andrew Gulliford, an award-winning author and editor, is professor of history at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at andy@agulliford.com.