Colorado's prison slayer: One man's quest to unshackle a rural economy

  DELTA, Colo. -- You're not going to believe what you're about to see," growls Tom Huerkamp, wedging his considerable self behind the wheel of his pickup truck. "It's just insanity."

I am sitting next to Huerkamp (pronounced Hercamp), the 55-year-old owner of an office-supply company, while bumping down a dirt road toward a state wildlife area in western Colorado.

Every half mile or so we pass a collection of trailers. A scroungy dog takes a run at the truck, somehow avoiding the wheels before pulling up short at some invisible boundary. Sagebrush dots the eroding hills - the dobies, as they are called locally. A recently plowed field, a white line of irrigation pipe laid out on its uphill side, awaits milky-brown ditch water.

This is tough, rural country, which is why some people choose to live in Delta County. It is a 1,157-square-mile, triangle-shaped chunk of canyons, valleys and mountains with just 24,000 people. It has mountains but no ski resorts, and the highest paid, highly prized jobs - a few hundred of them - lie in the area's underground coal mines. Otherwise, it's minimum wage, except for those who make the four-hour round-trip commute to the Aspen ski resort to do mostly maid or construction work for $10 to $15 an hour.

Nature and economies abhor a vacuum, and the county's lack of high-paying jobs has attracted the Colorado Department of Corrections and private prison builders. Three times in the last decade prison proposals have taken root in Delta County; three times Huerkamp and his allies have unceremoniously yanked them out.

The latest attempt came in July 1994 when the county commissioners announced two public hearings on a privately financed, minimum-security prison for 500 men. Huerkamp and his volunteers drew large, angry crowds to the hearings and flooded the local paper with anti-prison letters. The cafes and post office lobbies buzzed. A few weeks later, the commissioners withdrew the proposal, and the developers disappeared.

Last summer's victory was sweet, but something still eats at Huerkamp as he pulls the truck to the edge of a bluff. Stroking his beard and nodding his close-cropped head out the window, he says, "There's the som'bitch we should never have let in."

Below lies the Delta County Correctional Facility, a 300-inmate, minimum-security prison dropped in the heart of a state wildlife area.

"Until we get rid of that," says Huerkamp, "this county will always be a magnet for prison proposals."

A half dozen inmates jog around a track carved out of the cottonwood forest that graces the banks of the Robideau Creek as it meanders through the site; others loiter next to a dormitory, soaking in the early spring sun.

"They've got better facilities down there than we have in most of our schools," Huerkamp grumbles.

Just yards above the creek, clearly within its floodplain, sewage ponds glisten. Higher up, tractors, backhoes and other construction equipment sit in a fenced yard. The ground above the yard looks freshly graded, as if in preparation for new building.

In fact, it is. The Colorado Legislature has authorized $7.4 million to house an additional 180 prisoners. Colorado Gov. Roy Romer broke ground for the expansion last fall on a campaign swing.

"They're ready to go as soon as they get the green light," Huerkamp says, drawing hard on a cigarette.

Huerkamp is also ready to go. The former prison guard and journalist, who describes his style as "real aggressive," has a file drawer full of documents. He says they show that the prison is an environmental disaster. It was built on public land hunters paid for as wildlife habitat. He makes no bones about how he intends to use the documents: He's determined to derail the expansion effort and then close the prison.

Huerkamp has already generated two federal investigations into the facility (see story page 12). Along the way, he has gained both enemies and friends.

"They (Huerkamp and friends) certainly are rabid," says one federal official familiar with the Delta prison controversy.

Back at Grand Mesa Office Supply in Delta, where an impressive deer rack stares out from the wall, along with a pair of ducks frozen in flight, Huerkamp talks about what embroiled him in this fight. An avid hunter since his youth in southwest Minnesota, he took a trip West and happened to see 10,000-foot Grand Mesa aflame with yellow aspen. He says he knew then that this was the place for him. Within a few weeks he had moved to Delta County and found a job at the local newspaper. He married a local girl, Mary Lou Hawker, and in the fall of 1970 they started Grand Mesa Office Supply. The first years were tough.

"We netted $76 one year and survived on wild game," he says.

Huerkamp's fortunes have improved dramatically since those days, but his passion for the place remains unchanged. His hard-nosed tactics have led some critics to charge that he is a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard), with little concern for society's larger problems.

Huerkamp wears the NIMBY label with pride. But to call him that oversimplifies a complex picture. This long-time member of hook-and-bullet conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited has a knack for combining nuts-and-bolts business issues with concerns held by hunters and by environmentalists.

He lost his one race for a public office - the mayor of his small town outside the city of Delta - but he has been far more effective than most elected officials, local politicos admit. Wherever he has thrown his weight, things have happened. He fought to keep the county's only hospital open during the 1970s; although the couple has no children, he and his wife campaigned successfully for a school bond issue; he helped establish the Tri-County domestic water system; and in 1989 he helped secure public access to a gold-medal trout fishery on the Gunnison River. He also served as the president of the local chamber of commerce during the mid-1980s, until he was forced out in 1988 for opposing a new state prison.

"They can say I'm a son of a bitch, but they can't say I'm some loony-tune only interested in one issue," he says.

Although the county's commissioners have been bruised by Huerkamp over the prison issue, they recently gave him a lead role in the county's planning effort to manage the growing stream of newcomers. He jokingly says they did it to slow him down on the prison issue.

It hasn't worked. Even his wife's emergency open-heart surgery this spring didn't stop him; he just handed over day-to-day management of his business to his staff in order to stay home and nurse his wife - and used the telephone to campaign against the prison.

Beyond a beggar economy

Huerkamp is aware of the nationwide trend toward building prisons in rural places. He knows that more than 1 million Americans are behind bars; and he knows that in Colorado, prisons are the one place voters have given politicians an open checkbook. He says there isn't much he can do about such broad trends. His emphasis is all local, and his vision for his county came into sharp focus, he says, in the mid-1980s.

When Delta County was mired in an economic recession, Huerkamp started a small-business assistance center at the local vocational technical school. It happened accidentally, "because I shot my mouth off," he says.

As Huerkamp tells it, he was invited to speak at a banquet hosted by local teachers and school administrators. With the area's coal mines closing left and right, and with grandiose plans for an electric power plant dead, successful entrepreneurs such as Huerkamp were seen as saviors. Instead of presenting a glowing account of his business, he got up and said, with typical tact, "You are a miserable bunch. You taught people like me how to work for an IBM or a federal agency, but nothing about how to run my own business."

The message fell on receptive ears. A year later, with some grant money, Huerkamp was standing in front of 40 students at the first class of the small-business assistance program. "About 30 of the students had just been fired by the coal mines and were looking for ways to stay in the county," Huerkamp recalls.

Huerkamp says he learned a lesson from that class. "We convinced about 20 of them not to come back after the first class. That's success, too."

What scared them? Huerkamp says he described the endless hours and financial risks it would take to succeed. A traditional booster would have urged them to go into business. But Huerkamp says not everyone is cut out to live in Delta County, either as an independent business person or as an employee. For too long, Huerkamp says, rural counties in the West have cried "poor me" and begged for anything that promised jobs. And that has made rural counties, he says, economic dumping grounds.

"It's a sad thing to say that all your county can do is dish up a work force for prisons and chicken farms," he says. "Delta County should sell what it's got: It's the best place to live in the continental United States and - if you're good enough - we'll consider inviting you in."

Huerkamp's vision for the county is based partly on a way of life nurtured by the beauty of public lands nearby and their wildlife, and partly based on an economy resting on natural resource industries, such as coal, as well as on entrepreneurs like himself. He lauds recent arrivals who toted their businesses here along with hunting and fishing gear, or kayaks and cross-country skis; and he sings the praises of local-boys-made-good, such as the two high school graduates who took what they learned from a class on fly-tying and turned it into a million-dollar sporting goods and fish-lure business.

"These guys didn't get any special deals. They just wanted to live here and they found a way to sustain themselves."

By comparison, the county's official, well-funded efforts to build an industrial base have been a flop, Huerkamp believes. When county officials bent over backwards to entice Foster Farms to open a chicken operation here in the late "80s, "we thought that every bushel of corn grown in the county would be bought by Foster Farms," he says. "But, of course, they bought it in bulk from somewhere else."

As for local jobs, Huerkamp says Foster Farms has attracted an immigrant work force from central and South America because the jobs don't pay enough for the local Hispanic population.

"Has Foster Farms done anything for this community? Not much. They have created a large ethnic, sub-paid workforce, which has led to sub-housing scattered everywhere and has strained our hospitals, schools and law enforcement."

Huerkamp also hates the chamber of commerce's "Shop at Home" campaigns, which ask people to support local businesses. "It's second classism. We should support quality, not just any local business," he says.

"What I really want is for us to have a better opinion of ourselves. I'm still waiting for a county commissioner to stand up and say, "Prison? Hell, no, we're better than a prison." "

Never say never

Slaying prisons is time-consuming work. Huerkamp says he has spent at least 20 hours a week since last fall trying to derail the Delta Correctional Facility. But he notes that lately, the work has gotten easier.

Delta County's appetite for prisons has dulled as it diversified economically and culturally. "This last fight was not like those in "85 and "89. (This time) no one threatened my business, confronted me on the street, made obscene phone calls or wrote anonymous letters."

Even during the earlier battles, he says, he received many unsolicited contributions - from the county official who left two $50 bills on his desk one afternoon, to the woman who dropped off a check for $2,000 to pay for ads.

"There's a silent constituency that has looked to me for their vocal cords." Huerkamp, his critics say, has vocal cords to spare.

There's a positive aspect even to Huerkamp's fight against the existing prison. After shutting it down, he advocates turning it into a research and education center. "Within two hours' drive of here, you've got all the ingredients of the New West - public lands, ranching, mining, timber, endangered species and big game. Wouldn't it be a great college campus for scientific research?"

The idea has some logic. Those in Delta County who are simply after jobs would welcome it. And if the West ever turns from imprisoning people to educating them, the proposal would be attractive. Huerkamp also believes he has a heavy club. The land, he says, belongs to the hunters who funded it; locating a prison on the site was essentially theft of hunters' tax money.

While Huerkamp awaits the coming of his natural resource university, he remains an important resource in rural areas' fight against prisons across the state. When the private-prison developers left Delta County last summer, they headed for a farming community on the plains of southeastern Colorado. Huerkamp provided prison opponents in Baca County with tactical advice and chimed in with an open letter to the county's citizens in the local paper, detailing Delta County's experience. The county commissioners got the message and the proposal died.

Huerkamp is also advising activists fighting new prisons and expansions in Rifle, Colo., Weld County north of Denver, and Las Animas County.

But getting rid of the Delta Correctional Facility or replacing it with an ecological research center seems a long shot. "I'm afraid that's just not an option," one federal official says.

Don't tell that to Huerkamp.

"Everyone who hears this proposal says it's a good idea - but it's impossible," says Huerkamp. "There just is no such thing."

Paul Larmer is associate editor of High Country News.