The Colorado Department of Natural Resources has placed Parks and Wildlife Director Dan Prenzlow on paid leave after a black employee sent an open letter to Gov. Jared Polis complaining of racism against her and others during a an outdoor conference in Vail.
The letter from employee, statewide partnerships coordinator Alease “Aloe” Lee, said Prenzlow tried to thank her for helping organize the sold-out Partners in the Outdoors conference that held at Vail’s The Hythe Hotel on April 19. As she stood at the back of the room, Lee said, “In a failed attempt to thank me, he exclaims on stage in front of 600 people ‘…there she is! At the back of the bus, Aloe! »
Before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, many American cities had Jim Crow laws and practices that required black passengers, for example, to give up their bus seats to white passengers and sit in the back. Famous civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks refused in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955.
Lee’s letter to Polis and the DNR leadership said Prenzlow later sought her out and said “he was unaware of the context of her words and meant no harm.” I never knew the phrase “in the back of the bus” so as not to harm black people.
Lee is the organizer of the annual Partners in the Outdoors conference, which brings together hundreds of local governments, businesses, conservation groups and advocacy organizations to discuss potential ways in which diverse groups can work together on protecting natural resources. The one-day event included several breakout sessions, an opening luncheon and an awards dinner. Prenzlow made the comment to Lee during the final moments of the conference.
In an email to conference attendees the evening after the conference, Prenzlow apologized for making “an insensitive comment” during the awards banquet.
“I appreciate those who have highlighted my statement and how my comment speaks to painful realities that many have and continue to face. When we talk about intent versus impact, I have learned how quickly a statement may have a harmful and hurtful impact. I am sincerely sorry,” Prenzlow said in his email.
On Saturday, DNR Executive Director Dan Gibbs emailed conference attendees saying “equitable and inclusive access for all to our programs, events and outdoor activities is a personal priority and part of integral to the mission and culture of the DNR”. He said his department was launching an “investigative investigation to better understand what happened and to help inform any future staff or department action.”
Lee, in his open letter to Governor Polis calling for Prenzlow’s termination that circulated among conference attendees last weekend, said Prenzlow’s apology was “vague” and “unfelt.”
“Once again, I am traumatized, exhausted, disappointed and extremely uncomfortable after this horrible experience,” Lee wrote.
On Monday evening, Gibbs released a statement that he had placed Prenzlow on administrative leave “in light of the complaints and events at the conference,” and named Heather Dugan, the agency’s deputy director for field services, as acting director of Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The Ministry of Natural Resources confirmed that it had the open letter and was looking into the allegations.