Sold? Public Lands in Peril |

Sold? Public Lands in Peril

by Scott Condon


Pitkin County


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Eagle County


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Garfield County


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The president-elect has also vowed to scuttle the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations on coal-fired power plants and other rules aimed at curbing global warming.

Environmentalists are less certain what to expect from the Trump White House on a simmering backburner attempt to “transfer” federal lands into the hands of the states that want them.

Conservative politicians and activists contend that the people who live near the federal lands are best equipped to determine how they should be used.

An organization called the American Lands Council is a leader of the transfer movement. The nonprofit American Legislative Exchange Council drafts bills for interested legislators. Several western states, including Colorado’s neighbors to the north and west, have passed legislation to study the transfers. Such a bill passed the Republic-controlled state Senate in Colorado last session, but it died in the Democrat-controlled House.

My constituents depend on those lands for their livelihood-REP. Diane Mitsch Bush

The stakes are huge. The Bureau of Land Management controls 247 million acres nationwide while the Forest Service manages 193 million. (The National Park Service manages another 79.6 million while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service controls 89.1 million acres, according to the Congressional Research Service.)

people out of the experience. Imagine, $2,500 for a two-night stay at Conundrum Hot Springs, sponsored by Coca-Cola. A porter could carry the pack for each guest, pitch their tent and cook meals.

On the far western side of the county, lands that aren’t as visually stunning as Maroon Lake would be controlled by Big Industry LLC. Gas companies wouldn’t have to fight for oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide. They would just have to bust out their wallets. The lands would be sold to the highest bidder.

Counter-initiative on lands

While conservative activists and politicians have pushed for transfers, there’s been a counter effort at the local level in Colorado. High Country News reported in a July 2015 article that seven Colorado counties, including Eagle and Pitkin, have passed resolutions opposing transferring federal public lands to the states.

At the time, Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards labeled the transfer a real threat because of the control of Congress. After the Nov. 8 election, she warned people they better not bury their heads in the sand on environmental issues after Trump prevailed. Among her concerns are that the lands will be transferred to the states for their “useful disposal.”

“It’s just clearly unleashed,” Richards said of the conservative agenda. “I think anything’s on the table.”

But opponents of transfers might have an ace in the hole. Studies by Utah and Wyoming concluded transfers would be costly for the states, perhaps prohibitively costly.

What’s the alternative?

So if public lands aren’t transferred, what’s their fate? Shoemaker said the GOP isn’t a homogenous group when it comes to public lands. Many Republicans support access for fishing, hunting and other outdoor pursuits. That gives at least a glimmer of hope for the public land management agencies.

But more realistically, he sees more of the same when it comes to funding for the Forest Service and BLM. Shoemaker said there has been a deliberate effort to underfund the agencies. Then, many of the legislators that vote to limit funding criticize the agencies for poor management.

U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has a video posted on the committee’s website where he talks about the need to get federal lands out of federal hands. He was critical of the government’s management of such a vast empire.

“It’s too large to succeed,” he said.

The effects of underfunding the Forest Service are evident in the Roaring Fork Valley (see related story on page 22). Shoemaker said the agency’s situation is akin to a homeowner peeling off wood paneling to provide fuel for a fire to heat the house.

He suspects that foes of federal land ownership want to make sure the government does such a poor job, it will have to divest itself of the lands.

“It’s poorly managed by design, by ideology, through underfunding,” he said.

He suspects the ultimate goal for some members of Congress is to sell off federal lands or transfer them to the states.