During a gathering of politicos, analysts and policy wonks at the Colorado History Museum on Thursday, celebrity Robert Redford wowed the crowd with his thoughts on how to save the West.

Sponsored by Project New West, the day-long gathering of several hundred people listened to lectures and discussed ways of expanding and solidifying the West's new-found political power.

Seated on stage in two leather chairs, Redford and U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., informally chatted about Redford's rise from movie actor to high-profile environmental champion.

"I think the New West should return to the Old West, when there was an emphasis on communities, on families and neighbors," Redford said, comfortable in bluejeans and a blue shirt. "It's time to think about what kinds of development we want, whether we want to develop more communities or subdivisions and sprawl."

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., left, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., talk Thursday after Reid's keynote speech. (THE DENVER POST | JOE AMON)

Redford, who attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, said he became concerned about global warming as early as 1985 and favors a return to agriculture and the natural flow of rivers.

"Dams, all dams, should go away, the faster the better," he said. "The Colorado River today has only half the flow it used to have.

"Time and resources are running out for the West. Compromises are needed. I hope we wake up before we lose it for our children."

In his outspoken manner, Redford called the leaders of his home state, Utah, "retarded and no friends of the environment," although he had some praise for former Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Republican who recently resigned to become U.S. ambassador to China. Seated in the front row was Utah's delegation to the conference, including state Senate Minority Leader Patricia Jones.

He praised Colorado's Ken Salazar, a former U.S. senator and now secretary of the interior, for understanding the West and for having made "good, brave decisions."

"Salazar is very key among the new voices in Washington. He can make a huge difference. He's sitting in the catbird seat, but he'll be hit by the other side."

In a morning session, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada asked the gathering to keep the momentum going for Democratic candidates in the West.

"Now is the time to build on our successes, to build a deeper bench of candidates," Reid said. "For generations, prospectors, visionaries and entrepreneurs led Americans to the West. Now, the West is leading America.

"Presidential candidates were forced to understand critical Western issues (in 2008), water and land issues. They knew the road to the West Wing goes through the American West."

Another panel discussion on Hispanics and the New West showed that Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of the American population, but they are having trouble keeping their children in school and getting the vote out.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Hispanic, said Latinos make up 30 percent of Arizona's population but only 6 percent of the voting population. New Mexico State Auditor Hector Balderas said the dropout rate for Latino students in New Mexico is greater than 50 percent.

In Colorado, Latino voters make up 12 percent of eligible voters, according to a 2008 report by the Pew Hispanic Center.