Our view: Land Board lacks foresight

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A study the State Land Board released last week concluded that cattle grazing is an appropriate use of two square miles of state land within Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge.

The previous Moffat County commissioner board was a driving force behind the study. Several years ago, when the refuge's operating agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, offered to purchase the two parcels for $273,000, the commissioners lobbied against and ultimately blocked the sale.

Most of the sale money would have been allocated to the Colorado school system; it's the mission of the State Land Board to manage state land to generate revenue for schools.

Soon after the sale fell apart, the State Land Board stopped leasing the land to the refuge, the land's tenant for the previous 30 years. Vermillion Ranches, owned by former Moffat County Commissioner T. Wright Dickinson, began leasing one of the parcels to graze cattle. The lease price -- $500.

Do the math. It was not a sound business decision by the State Land Board.

In the interim, Dickinson and the refuge clashed about management of the land. Dickinson claimed the refuge didn't provide adequate access to the Green River for cattle he grazed on landlocked Bureau of Land Management grounds south of the refuge. The disagreement ultimately resulted in the grazing study that was released last week.

Instead of raising more than a quarter-million dollars for the state's schools, the State Land Board spent $37,500 to determine land's grazing suitability for one rancher's cows.

We first would urge the State Land Board to reconsider the refuge's offer, if it's still on the table. The state, currently enduring a financial crisis that likely will only get worse, is in no situation to reject such high priced offers for rural, undevelopable land.

Moreover, the current situation benefits just one rancher. The sale of the land would benefit Colorado's schoolchildren, wildlife, tourists and future generations.

The contractors who conducted the study, Natural Resource Options of Bozeman, Mont., observed wildlife and inventoried vegetation. They did consider some other land uses in the study. According to their research, the state land parcels could support cattle while providing habitat for migratory birds and forage for deer and elk.

But just because the land can support cattle doesn't mean steers should be placed on it. The study did not investigate whether grazing was the best use for the land.

Developing our tourism industry has been a hot topic lately. Perhaps the refuge in itself doesn't qualify as a tourist destination, but certainly it would be a pleasant stop for those traveling across the West off the beaten path of interstates. When tourists stop there, wouldn't they rather see migratory birds than grazing cattle?

Some in Moffat County would say that eliminating grazing as a use of public land is to go against the custom and culture of the county.

Moffat County's culture is stronger than that. It cannot be undone by eliminating grazing from two square miles of land. Multi-generation ranchers are among the best stewards of the land in Colorado. We don't mean to suggest otherwise.

But we think that in this instance, the State Land Board made a myopic decision that didn't reflect the best interests of the public.

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