Editorial: Make sure federal lands stay in federal hands
At first blush, the lack of funding for the federal program called Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, might seem like a snoozer for most Roaring Fork Valley residents. We see a connection to the long-term status of national forests and other federal lands.
PILT is meant to help offset the federal government’s exemption from paying property taxes on federal lands. Many counties around the West have a great deal of land managed by federal agencies. So instead of that land being assessed by counties for residential, industrial or agricultural uses, it is off the tax rolls.
About 81 percent of the land in Pitkin County is managed by federal agencies, along with 78 percent in Eagle County and 63 percent in Garfield County. That means a lot of land isn’t subject to property tax assessments.
The federal government decided in the 1970s to reimburse counties for some of that lost revenue. After several decades of support, the PILT program wasn’t funded last week in the budget approved by the U.S. House and Senate. Lawmakers contend it will be handled in the controversial Farm Bill being negotiated and facing a vote in the near future. We’re not confident the funds will materialize, and neither is Colorado’s congressional delegation, which is fighting to retain the program.
Pitkin County received $1.26 million in PILT funds in 2013. The money goes into the general fund and isn’t earmarked for specific uses. The county won’t go broke if the program expires, but it will feel the sting. Other counties without the resources of Pitkin County will be stung harder.
If the program disappears forever, we believe the pressure will increase on the federal government to sell off federal lands to help with rural economies. That sentiment already exists in more conservative quarters. Some folks would like to privatize our federal lands by selling out to recreation companies, timber firms and miners.
We want national forests, magnificent red-rock canyons and seashores to remain firmly under federal government control. In a small way, the continued federal support of PILT can help achieve that goal.