How Colorado's hunters lost 90 acres to 300 prisoners

  • Delta's prison took over this state wildlife area

    Cindy Wehling

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Colorado's prison slayer.

Tom Huerkamp's vision of the Delta Correctional Facility as a center for scientific research matches the state of Colorado's goal when it began using the site in 1964.

"The state's noble experiment," as a local newspaper called it at the time, began with 32 young inmates living at a "conservation honor camp." The camp served as a base for teams of inmates that traveled the area building trails, campgrounds and other recreational facilities.

Two decades later the state Department of Corrections decided to convert the camp to a prison; by 1991 the prison had 300 inmates and 81 employees.

Last fall, Huerkamp uncovered the 1964 lease between the Division of Wildlife and the Department of Corrections; it gave Corrections the right to use the land as an honor camp. He was amazed to find that it had not been changed to account for the minimum security prison. In response to his discovery, the two agencies hastily hammered out a new contract in late December giving Corrections unrestricted use of 91 acres in the Escalante State Wildlife Area.

But Huerkamp also discovered that some of the land at the prison site had been purchased with federal monies earned from the Pittman-Robertson Act. That 1935 law authorized an excise tax on the manufacturers of firearms and ammunition, with the money going toward the purchase of wildlife lands. Huerkamp then called in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The agency said last February that 13 acres of the prison site had been purchased with Pittman-Robertson dollars, with the remaining 77 acres bought with state funds also earmarked specifically for wildlife. The state Division of Wildlife had "lost control of the property," the agency concluded, and had to make amends to the state's hunters or forfeit its annual allocation of Pittman-Robertson funds - estimated at $11 million for 1995 alone.

A Memorandum of Agreement between Fish and Wildlife Service and the Division of Wildlife, signed March 6, gives the state a year to come up with a solution while still collecting its Pittman-Robertson funds. The Department of Corrections says it wants to give the Division of Wildlife land in exchange for the prison site. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official says the value of the compensation, whether in land or money, depends on a legal opinion from the U.S. Solicitor General, who will look at the issue later this year, following a state appraisal of the property.

Huerkamp thinks the compensation should be based on the 30 years the prison has occupied the site.

On other environmental fronts, he has called in the Army Corps of Engineers to investigate whether the prison has invaded wetlands. And he uncovered state health records showing that the prison's sewage ponds have frequently leaked unhealthful levels of pollution into Robideau Creek. Finally, he found an unauthorized, unlined landfill on the site that had been used by the county.

He concludes from all this that the Department of Corrections sees itself above the law. "They don't play by nobody's rules."

Huerkamp says the agency's power doesn't intimidate him, and he won't back down until it is held accountable for its actions. "They put their pants on one leg at a time, just like you and me."

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