Guest column: Don’t let public’s voice get cut out of public lands conversation | AspenTimes.com

Guest column: Don’t let public’s voice get cut out of public lands conversation

Alicia Zeringue
Wilderness Workshop

Editor's note: Starting this week, The Aspen Times will host a guest column every Monday from a Roaring Fork Valley nonprofit, government agency or local entity.

Growing up in Wyoming and Montana, I spent my childhood recreating on public lands.

I learned the tremendous value they hold, not only from hiking, fishing, camping and finding spiritual solace on these lands, but in school, too, where significant time was dedicated to teaching kids about the historical relevance of public lands to Western history, culture and livelihoods. Though I have always valued public lands and known many of the challenges they face, I have to admit that I was somewhat blissfully unaware of the degree and regularity to which our elected officials are feverishly orchestrating attempts to sell off, give away and deregulate our public lands, especially now under this administration.

Over the past four months, and since joining the team at Wilderness Workshop, I have had the privilege of becoming schooled in the politics surrounding public lands, as well as the local, state and national policies and laws that govern their management.

Importantly, I've become keenly aware of how some of our elected officials have been using public lands to wager a bet on their own positions of power.

They're wagering that Americans don't care enough about our public lands to notice when they make moves to give away large swaths of our federal land and drastically loosen common-sense regulations to protect the land, water, wildlife and habitat. They're betting that the vote of their pro-development campaign contributors matters more than the vote of their broader citizen constituency — that's likely why there has been an onslaught of bills churning out of Congress that are bad news for our public lands.

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One such bill is the "Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017" (H.R. 2936), introduced by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Arizona) and co-sponsored by our own Rep. Scott Tipton. Though the name sounds reasonable, this bill aims to expedite logging activities in our national forests and on public lands by rolling back environmental review requirements like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. It would actually leave millions of acres of national forest and public lands vulnerable to excessive logging and make them susceptible to long-term and irreversible environmental impacts from projects that have not been properly assessed. Importantly, it also guts public participation in the environmental review process.

The National Environmental Policy Act helps protect our public lands from the detrimental environmental effects of development and resource extraction by requiring the management agencies to analyze, discuss and disclose impacts and allow for public comment. It keeps the review process for projects on our public lands open, transparent and democratic. H.R.2936 cuts the legs out from under NEPA by forcing the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to circumvent public comment and full agency review through the use of categorical exclusions. A rule meant for small, inconsequential projects on small areas of land — the rule would be extended for use on clear-cutting forests on tens of thousands of acres of land per project.

Bills like H.R. 2936 and others that aim to free up public lands for unsustainable resource extraction while limiting public participation in the review process, and improperly assessing impacts to wildlife, habitat and air and water quality, are a huge threat to our state's economy.

According to an article published by The Denver Post in June, tourism and outdoor recreation are two of Colorado's most significant economic drivers, contributing "$28 billion and $19.7 billion, respectively, in consumer spending last year." Colorado's pristine forests, majestic mountains, wild lands and clean air and water are the key ingredients to our flourishing economy, not only attracting tourists, but also beckoning top talent and a highly educated workforce to want to live, work and play in our state.

I, for one, am outraged with the idea of having the public's voice cut out of the management process for our public lands, especially when so much of our local and state economy depends on maintaining the pristine and beautiful landscapes that have been unscathed by development. And this bill is just one example of the many wretched bills in Congress that aim to kick back more profit to private development, shortcutting environmental analysis and cutting out the public.

Our elected officials are betting we're asleep. I'm betting we're not. If you care about your public lands and want to continue to have a voice in how they are managed, please hold your elected officials accountable when they attempt to pass legislation that would take away your voice and your right to collectively benefit from our public lands. Scott Tipton can be reached in his Grand Junction office at 970 241-2499.

Alicia Zeringue is the new community organizer for the nonprofit environmental group Wilderness Workshop.