DOW takes heat for buy up of private land

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— Some long-held grievances have put the Colorado Division of Wildlife in the bull's-eye of at least three rural Republican lawmakers who believe the agency is out of control in its buy up of privately owned land.

"They answer to no one," said Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, who is putting final touches on a draft of a bill to rein in the DOW's outright purchase of land to add to its wildlife management portfolio. "It's doing things without any accountability to the Legislature."

District 1 Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, said he would be the Senate sponsor of Sonnenberg's bill if it passes the House.

"I just don't want them buying any more land because it takes it off the tax rolls and out of production," Brophy said. "I'm opposed to the government's purchase of more and more land. There are better ways to do it."

Brophy and Sonnenberg are joined by Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, in their belief that the agency should concentrate more on voluntary programs, such as more use of hunting, access or conservation easements.

Taylor introduced a bill Wednesday - the first day of the 2008 legislative session - to keep the division from shutting down three game management programs aimed at improving public access to hunting on private land.

"Two of the three are working and shouldn't be shut down because the third one isn't," said Taylor, whose Senate Bill 35 carries Sonnenberg's name as the House sponsor.

Taylor said the elk management program on two northwest Colorado ranches owned by Howard Cooper, who gets hunting license vouchers in exchange for allowing public access, are so successful that Cooper wants to expand it.

"He had 23 public hunters come on his property last year, and he's willing to do more because he has too many elk," Taylor said.

Sonnenberg said the pronghorn management program in northeastern Colorado also is well established.

The lawmakers said, however, that because a mule deer program in southwestern Colorado has not met the DOW's objectives for game management, the entire program is scheduled to end this year.

The legislative declaration in Taylor's bill states that the third program, aimed at maximizing hunter opportunity, "unfortunately has presented difficulties in implementation. The current statute requires the wildlife commission to implement all three programs if it implements any one of the three."

The DOW has a policy of not directly supporting or opposing any bills, but is prepared to defend its activities if asked, said the agency's public information officer, Tyler Baskfield.

"Our statutory requirement is to preserve, protect and make available wildlife for hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing and recreation," Baskfield said. "If our only option is to buy a piece of property that is so valuable for wildlife that we don't want to pass it up, how are we meeting the requirements that most of the people believe we should be meeting by preserving someplace for wildlife."

Baskfield said obtaining easements already is preferred to obtaining fee title.

The agency's spokesman also disputed the lawmakers' claim that there is no legislative oversight of the DOW. He noted that all land acquisitions go through the joint House and Senate Capital Development Committee and eventually approved by the full Legislature in the budget process.

Sonnenberg said that isn't enough. He wants every land or water acquisition, or any interest in land or water, whether by gift, transfer or purchase, to go through the full bill and committee process.

"The CDC basically rubber stamps everything the division is doing," he said.

Sonnenberg's bill, which has not yet been formally introduced, would require the division to sell land or water of equal value within a year of every acquisition so that the total property assets do not grow.

"I want the private sector to own the land," said Sonnenberg, who is a farmer. "It's always been my belief that the private landowner does a better job of providing habitat than any government agency. One of the things I always hear is that once (the agencies) get it, they don't take care of it."

Another portion of Sonnenberg's bill requires the commission to repay the counties for any lost revenue resulting from land being taken off the tax roles.

Baskfield said the agency already has a link on its website where counties can apply for payments in lieu of taxes.

Sonnenberg and Taylor, while supporting the agencies mission to support wildlife habitat, both cite a long litany of complaints against the DOW for heavy-handedness. In eastern Colorado, the disputes are more about land use, while in northwestern Colorado, the acrimony is about the behavior of game wardens.

"It's a bad-apple situation," Taylor said. "There are some bad apples in their approach to enforcement, and if the bad apple gets the rest of them in trouble, then they need to clean up their act."

Taylor said he has had trouble getting constituents to go public with their complaints because they feel intimidated.

"There is no reason any state agency should put a citizen of this state in that position, particularly when those are the people who are feeding their wildlife," he said.

The DOW is one of several agencies in the Department of Natural Resources. Its proposed budget of $83.8 million for the next fiscal year is funded largely through state lottery proceeds (Greater Outdoor Colorado), hunting and fishing license fees, and federal grants through the U.S. fish and Wildlife Service. About $11.5 of the proposed budget would come from the state's general fund.

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