Steamboat Springs U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar told a small crowd at the Village Inn on Friday morning that he did not want to present a negative message -- but there was little to feel positive about in the senator's assessment of the country today.
The San Luis Valley rancher and former Colorado Attorney General painted a grim picture of the state of affairs regarding Iraq; U.S. energy policy; foreign policy; an illegal immigration stalemate in Congress; rising gas prices; widespread environmental damage because of oil and gas drilling; and the potential for significant wildfires in Colorado this summer, fueled by a growing number of dry trees killed by spreading bark beetle infestations.
"There are huge issues facing the world today," Salazar told a crowd of nearly 30 that filled a room at the inn. On an Easter break from Congress, Salazar spent Friday meeting with Routt County Democrats and elected officials before touring the Hayden Power Plant.
None of the visits were open to the public, at the request of Salazar's staff.
Salazar returned two weeks ago from a bipartisan trip to Iraq and Afghanistan. What he saw was sobering, he said.
"We need to have much more competent management with what's happening in Iraq," he said, praising the work of soldiers on the ground while citing a court and justice system that is "in shambles" and a need for stability in the region.
"The mismanagement is at the highest levels, and that means President Bush," Salazar said.
Salazar said he has shared his views in a meeting with the president.
The senator also has been vocal about his desire to increase the use of renewable and alternative energy sources nationwide.
"The technology is there, we just need the willingness to do it," he said, applauding plans for seven ethanol plants in Colorado, including a plant in Sterling that he said is producing ethanol -- a corn-based fuel source -- at a rate of 50 million gallons a year.
Senate Bill 2025, not yet acted on in the Senate, would create incentives for the use of alternative fuels in vehicles, while also taking measures such as increasing tire efficiency standards, Salazar said.
Salazar said such legislation is needed to correct what he called a national "failure" on energy policy during the past 30 years of "malignant neglect" in conserving resources that are only getting scarcer.
"I think we're going to see gas prices continue to increase," Salazar said, citing increasing oil consumption in China and India.
Next week, Salazar will participate in a renewable energy summit along with President Bush, who Salazar said would make a "major address" to the nation about energy.
"Watch what happens next Tuesday," Salazar said.
Closer to home, much of Colorado's Western Slope could be facing "a perfect storm" for wildfires this summer, Salazar said. He is working on legislation with state representatives Mark Udall and John Salazar -- the senator's older brother and Steamboat's representative from the Third Congressional District -- to direct federal funding toward wildland-urban interface areas that could be endangered.
"Much of the state is at 50 percent of its normal moisture," Salazar said. "We are going to see a lot of fires in Colorado this summer -- our work there has just begun."