VAIL, Colo. — A Colorado Parks and Wildlife employee says she was the target of a racist comment made by CPW director and Gov. Jared Polis appointee Dan Prenzlow during the 9th Annual Colorado Parks and Wildlife Partners in the Outdoors Conference in Vail on April 19.
“Dan Prenzlow, he got on stage in front of 600 people and, in an attempt to thank me, he pointed out my position in the room and he said, 'There she is in the back of the bus, Aloe,'” said Alease “Aloe” Lee, CPW statewide partnership coordinator.
The alleged comment has links to the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1950s and 1960s in southern states, Black Americans were forced to sit in the back of public buses and give up their seats to white riders. Rosa Parks helped end discrimination on public transit in 1955 when she refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama.
“That was kind of the defining moment where I was like, 'This is racist,'” Lee said. “I was flooded with emails and texts of support and people apologizing and saying, 'This shouldn't have happened.'”
Dominic Lucero, executive director of Colorado High Country Education Treks, said he witnessed the incident.
“In the entire room, the air was lifted," Lucero said. "There were voices of anger, frustration, confusion. There was tears throughout the room. People immediately got up and left their table and confronted this gentleman. We were trying to console and support Aloe as well."
Lucero said given all the equity, diversity and inclusion work some CPW employees and organizations like his have been doing, this incident was especially disappointing.
“It's very appalling and very heartbreaking because we've had these discussions in the last five, six years about [equity, diversity and inclusion] work,” Lucero said. “So, we call for the firing of Dan Prenzlow.”
More than 100 people agree and signed a letter demanding Prenzlow be fired. He has been placed on administrative leave, Colorado Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Dan Gibbs said in a press release Monday.
"As the executive director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, equitable, inclusive access for all to our programs, events and the outdoors are a priority personally and integral to the mission and culture of DNR," Gibbs said. "DNR has commenced a fact finding investigation to better understand what occurred and to help inform any future personnel or department actions. We will follow our processes and procedures in regards to complaints received associated with the conference."
Heather Dugan has been designated acting director for CPW, according to Gibbs. She currently acts as assistant director for Field Services for CPW.
Lee says Prenzlow apologized the next day at a conference breakfast event, but she was not in attendance.
Denver7 obtained a video of that apology in which Prenzlow can be heard saying, “I come to you to personally apologize to Aloe for last night… I quickly learned my words hurt — hurt in ways I've never imagined.”
Lee says she does not think the apology was sincere.
“That was completely obnoxious, and I wasn't there,” Lee said.
In a statement to Denver7, Gibbs said:
"Last week I received several complaints about inappropriate comments and interactions at Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Partners in Outdoors Conference in Vail, CO. As the Executive Director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, equitable, inclusive access for all to our programs, events, and the outdoors are a priority personally and integral to the mission and culture of DNR. DNR has commenced a fact finding investigation to better understand what occurred and to help inform any future personnel or department actions. We will follow our processes and procedures in regards to complaints received associated with the conference."
A spokesperson for Polis' office also released a statement regarding the incident:
"The Governor supports Director Gibbs’ initiated investigation and as this is ongoing. We do not have any further comment at this time."
“I love CPW, and I stand firm with their mission,” Lee said “But I will say there are numerous complaints about injustices happening within Colorado Parks and Wildlife.”
Lee said while the incident at the conference was personally traumatizing for her, there have been other racists incidents involving CPW leadership using racial slurs that she outlined in a letter to Polis. Lee said she hopes the state conducts a thorough investigation into many of these allegations.