Republicans ease land transfer laws

A move by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this week to make it easier to transfer federal public lands to states is causing consternation in the Roaring Fork Valley.

“I think it’s corrupt,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards. “It’s robbery. They’re robbing the public of land forever.”

Will Roush, conservation director of the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, agreed.

“(I’m feeling) disappointment, and maybe a little bit of surprise,” Roush said. “(House Natural Resources Committee Chairman) Rob Bishop and House Republicans are against public lands, but to see it happen so quickly was a surprise.”

The provision was part of a larger rules package approved by the House by a vote of 233 to 190 during the first day of its 2017 session. Previous rules said that if lawmakers wanted to transfer a piece of land to a state or local government, they would have to make up the federal revenue generated by that land.

But the new language, written by Bishop (R-Utah), now says that doesn’t have to happen. A spokeswoman for the House Natural Resources Committee said in a statement that federal lands can “create a significant burden for the surrounding communities” because they can’t be taxed and are sometimes in “disrepair.”

U.S. Rep Scott Tipton, a Republican who represents Pitkin County, voted in favor of the transfers.

“Throughout my time in Congress, I have worked in a bipartisan manner to protect Colorado’s open spaces and scenic beauty, and I’ll continue to closely scrutinize any proposal to convey federal land that comes before the House of Representatives,” he said in a prepared statement.

The Cortez congressman also defended the vote.

“The process the Congressional Budget Office had previously used to estimate the cost of federal land conveyances was convoluted and unable to take into account important factors that are not easily measured in dollars and cents — such as the burden that federal land in disrepair has on local communities,” the statement said.

“Because of the requirement that we offset the ‘cost’ of land conveyance, we’ve seen bipartisan, noncontroversial land transfers between the federal government and the intended recipients take years, sometimes decades, to complete.”

Richards said some states might make noise about wanting to continue trails or hunting grounds on federal public lands transferred to a state.

“But in the very next sentence they say they just have to get all these properties on the tax rolls,” she said. “In the past, the vast majority of land returned to states has been privatized. It doesn’t matter what it does to public access.”

In fact, the new rules rob the American people twice, Richards said. First, federal revenue from gas and oil leases or timber leases won’t have to be made up, while privatizing the land takes it away from citizens permanently, she said.

“This is a power march,” Richards said. “It’s just ludicrous.”

State Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, who represents the Aspen area, said in a statement that the Republican move “runs counter to the fundamental, democratic principle that these lands are part of our heritage and belong to everyone.”

“By implementing this rule change, land-grabbing politicians used a D.C. maneuver to pull a fast one on Coloradans,” Donovan said, “and have put Colorado’s public lands at risk of being sold off to the highest bidder.”

Donovan vowed to fight to keep public lands public, according to the statement.

Public lands are “immensely popular” across the country, Roush said.

“The folks who are trying to do this are way out of touch with their constituents,” he said.

The rules change move is part of a larger Republican effort to gut numerous laws like the Antiquities Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and environmental protection laws, Roush said.

Roush said he’s nervous about what could happen. However, he said he believes Coloradans are in a good position to advocate for public lands because Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican, has been willing to buck his party and support public lands.

Roush also pointed out that Tipton was attacked by his November general election opponent Gail Schwartz for being anti-public lands. Tipton forcefully pushed back against the criticism, saying he supported public lands, Roush said.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Roush said. “Either you’re an advocate for public lands or you’re not.”

Roush said he expects more fights over public lands and other issues in the future.

“(People need to) turn anger into action,” he said. “It’s really going to take people pushing back on this.”

Richards echoed those comments.

“The public has to be more engaged and more vocal,” she said. “We’re becoming a kleptocracy. Everyone’s out to get as much as they can. They’ve thrown the barn door open.

“They don’t believe we are one nation indivisible. They are more than happy to create winners and losers.”