Guest column: Public Lands Day, and why it matters

Nathan Fey
Guest Column
Nathan Fey

Public lands are vital to Colorado’s way of life, our families and our businesses. They are a resource for the many, not the few. As one who works in the outdoors and for its conservation, I know well the remarkable recreation opportunities these lands provide, creating a tremendous boon for Colorado’s economy. These lands are about our identity, our culture and the legacy preceding generations left for us.

I am a sixth-generation Coloradan. In my 38 years, I have come to know Colorado’s forests, rivers and plateaus like I know the back of my hand. Like my father, grandfather and great-grandfather before me, I have explored this terrain by foot, bike, boat and backroad. Every summer, multiple generations of my family gathered together in the Elk River Valley in the Routt National Forest, fishing the South Fork and exploring the wilderness. We also explore the spectacular lands in the San Luis Valley, where my family settled generations ago, coming west by covered wagon to what is now Great Sand Dunes National Park.

My family shares these public lands with our neighbors. Like any community, we help one another collecting and transporting raw materials, building homes and schools together and driving sheep through high-mountain meadows. I grew up with the firm belief that public lands were entrusted to us all, providing a foundation for our communities — and that in turn we must protect and conserve them. As Coloradans, we are all intrinsically shaped by a tradition and identity that public lands provide.

So I’m deeply proud and pleased that the third Saturday in May is now going to be an official Colorado Public Lands Day and that Gov. John Hickenlooper will sign that designation into law today.

But with that sweet victory comes the bitter reality that today, public lands are at risk in Colorado and across the West, threatened by a movement that wants to trade our lands for the glimmer of short-term gain. This shortsighted view encourages us to overlook the opportunity and identity these lands provide and forget completely the dots that connect yesterday’s public-lands benefactors with today’s and tomorrow’s. Some Colorado Senate members still want to wrest control of lands we all cherish through Senate Bill 160, allowing special interests to decide what deserves protection. We must ensure that tools such as the Antiquities Act are not undermined by special interests.

My family’s tradition of hard work helped build the economy and communities of this great state. Public lands were fundamental to this success and our state today. We must ensure Colorado’s future generations can draw from that same foundation.

The majority of Coloradans want to keep public lands in public hands, but policymakers have been slow to speak out against this heist of our heritage. Such reluctance has enabled this land-grab notion to gain traction in state capitols throughout the west, including Denver.

These two bills ­— one a victory and one a real threat ­— provide an opportunity and duty for us all to speak up and express support for our public lands, because once these places are gone, there’s no replacing them, and a priceless component of our Colorado identity will be lost forever.

Nathan Fey is director of the Colorado River Stewardship Program for American Whitewater.