Connecting state and local government leaders
Federal land management is an even hotter topic during the Centennial State’s legislative session.
With roots in the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s, the Bundy family militia takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon has added fuel to an ongoing debate in the Colorado Legislature over state control of public lands.
Democratic lawmakers plan to offer legislation this session that supports the current system of federal management for public lands that comprise more than a third of Colorado, and that in turn will draw the ire of Republicans—some of whom sympathize with the Bundy standoff in Oregon.
State Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Democrat from Vail, told Route Fifty she’s running a bill this session to “proactively make a statement that matches the feeling of more than 70 percent of Coloradans – that we love our public lands and it’s important to our quality of life and our small businesses across Colorado to have broad access to all of our public lands.”
Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project Conservation in the West Poll, released last week, found that 59 percent of the residents of seven Mountain West states oppose giving states control of public lands. It also found that ahead of the 2016 election, 77 percent of Coloradans say “issues involving public lands, waters, and wildlife are an important factor in deciding whether to support an elected public official.”
The long-running debate over federal land management stems from two seemingly contradictory missions: allowing extractive industry access and keeping lands pristine for outdoor recreation. Donovan’s idea of access—primarily for uses such as skiing, hiking, hunting, boating, fishing and camping—runs counter to the kind of access some Colorado Republicans are talking about.
“Public land ought to be genuinely accessible to the public, and so when big-government bureaucrats seize land and they deprive the public of the ability to use that land, they’re little more than thieves wearing government hats,” said state Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, a Republican from Colorado Springs.
Klingenschmitt said he would support legislation this session to study and encourage state takeover of Colorado’s federal lands in order to ensure greater public access for ranchers, loggers and miners.
The Bundy family, which rose to prominence in Nevada in 2014 with a standoff over unpaid grazing fees, is involved in a legitimate protest against overly restrictive federal control of public lands, Klingenschmitt said, although he adds that he does not support violent tactics.
Asked if support from state lawmakers in Colorado and other Western states encourages armed takeovers, Klingenschmitt pointed to the U.S. Constitution, which he argues both guarantees the right to protest and also mandates public lands be returned to the states.
“The people’s constitutional rights are being violated, and then the heavy-handed government smacks them down for even raising their voice. That’s injustice,” Klingenschmitt told Route Fifty. “It’s a ridiculous argument that talking about injustice causes more injustice.”
State Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, a Democrat from Steamboat Springs, hopes to either be the House sponsor or co-sponsor of Donovan’s bill. She argues that the extreme ideology of the anti-federal-government movement is really rooted in economics.
“If we believe that we own our federal lands, which we do—the federal government is just managing them—do we want some other manager?” Mitsch Bush told Route Fifty. “It’s kind of a business decision. Do we want some other manager to come in who isn’t able to do it and then have those lands sold off or changed to a use that doesn’t allow public access?”
The state, she says, is financially incapable of managing federal lands, and would then have to allow for more oil and gas drilling, hard-rock mining, logging and cattle ranching—extractive uses Mitsch Bush argues will limit less impactful public uses such as outdoor recreation.
“When we contemplate the West, and especially Colorado, our public lands are such an integral part of our culture, our Colorado way of life and our environment,” Mitsch Bush said. “They provide habitat, both riparian and big-game species habitat, and it’s also where our water comes from.”
While Klingenschmitt, a minister who hosts a controversial radio program, may represent a somewhat fringe perspective on the topic, mainstream Republicans in Colorado want to explore the state-control topic for the same economic reasons Mitsch Bush cites.
“We should be able to do what we want and maybe someday in the future there will be a time when a state actually controls its lands within its state because of the amount of natural resources that are there,” state Sen. Ray Scott, a Republican from Grand Junction, told Route Fifty, alluding to Colorado’s ongoing budget woes and depressed economic conditions on the state’s Western Slope.
“My gosh, I can’t even get my mind around how many millions—billions of dollars, I guess I should say—would come into the states if we had control of the federal lands versus the feds,” added Scott, who laments the steep drop-off in coal mining and oil and gas drilling in his district due in part to federal policies such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.
Scott, who’s been mentioned as a possible U.S. Senate candidate to run against Democrat Michael Bennet this year, supports exploring state control in the legislature, but he adds that there needs to be a shift in federal policy, and that may not be possible until a friendlier administration takes over the White House.
Last year, 37 bills were introduced in 11 western states promoting state takeover of federal lands, and the Utah legislature passed a law demanding the return of 20 million acres of federal land in that state. More than 60 percent of Utah is federally controlled, second only to Nevada at more than 80-percent federal ownership. The topic was hotly debated during the 2014 election cycle in Colorado, which is 36-percent federally controlled.
“I understand there’s a lot of people out there that feels the federal government is doing a fantastic job managing federal lands, but you’re also going to find there’s a lot of people out there who feel they do a horrible job,” state Sen. Randy Baumgardner, a Republican from Hot Sulphur Springs, told Route Fifty.
Baumgardner, who last legislative session unsuccessfully ran a bill to study state takeover of federal lands, points to what he says is the U.S. Forest Service mismanagement of vast swaths of national forest in his district that have allowed a mountain pine bark beetle epidemic to rage unabated. More aggressive logging would have prevented the spread and reduced wildfire danger, he claims.
It’s debatable whether widespread logging makes economic sense or would have had much impact on the beetle-kill epidemic, but it’s clear that mistrust of the federal government is at an all-time in Colorado and across the West in the wake of incidents such as last summer’s Animas River mine-waste spill caused by EPA contractors.
Still, many prominent Colorado politicians remain very supportive of the current system of federal management and don’t want to see an increase in the types of extractive industries that historically have had significant and adverse environmental impacts in boom-bust mining cycles like the one that created the Gold King Mine mess in the 19th century.
Ken Salazar, who previously represented Colorado in the U.S. Senate before serving as President Obama’s first Interior secretary, offered this quote in support of the Colorado College Conservation in the West Poll: “These results make clear western communities care deeply about the public lands that embody the best of our nation’s culture, spirit and beauty. Western voters see our outdoor heritage as integral to our economy and our way of life, and they certainly don’t want to see their public lands seized by ideologues or sold off by politicians in Washington.”
David O. Williams is a journalist based in Avon, Colorado.