Rep. Bob Rankin: Public lands issues are unique to western Colorado; pay attention, feds

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Colorado House District 57 Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale

It’s impossible to represent and listen to folks in the northwest corner of Colorado without feeling the impacts of federal land management decisions. The socioeconomic impact of federal decisions on the local communities of western Colorado is enormous. This month’s column focuses on that single, critical issue.

Our agriculture and ranching, mineral extraction, recreation and local government tax collections are dependent on federal lands. While related issues determine the very quality of life in western Colorado, local government and advocacy groups feel helpless in the face of vast federal bureaucracy.

Yet because we live in a special place, the Colorado west, we know we have a special responsibility, and we want to exercise that responsibility. The many years of experience gained by generations of citizens and the knowledge of county and municipal governments add up to a body of expertise that we, as western Coloradans, think is superior and more thoughtful than that used in Washington policymaking.

But we see too many examples of wasted time and money and worse: the results of poor decisions and unintended consequences. When federal policies seek to preserve our mountains by restricting access by humans, we have fewer humans who understand and care about preservation. When policy dictates that we don’t manage forests, we spend more money on firefighting than we would creating healthy forests. When lawsuits tie up decisions for years, uncertainty and job loss threaten the economy of our small towns.

The laws governing federal land decisions date back to the 1970s. The National Environmental Protection Act outlines a process for completing an environmental assessment and, if required, an environmental impact assessment. These terms are familiar to every local government and advocacy group but perhaps not to the average citizen. The law contains a process for local and state input in the planning stage. It also provides for public comments to the drafts of plans as they develop. The system for local and state input is imperfect at best and leads to lawsuits in a high percentage of cases. When, if ever, a decision gets made, it’s usually based more on money for lobbying, politics or the avoidance of legal action than on the facts. Advocacy groups actually are reimbursed by the government for suing the government under the Equal Access to Justice Act.

Our public lands issues are unique to the western part of the state because we are 70 percent public lands. We don’t get much attention from Front Range legislators who have other pressing issues and little public land.

Our local governments are very active and spend a lot of our taxes participating and defending these issues. In some cases, citizen advocacy groups like the Thompson Divide Coalition and our local recreation clubs have been active. The ranching community is on top of issues with grazing rights. But we need to be even more aware and active.

I think state government could add weight to the process and focus on the true cost of the decisions made in Washington, but the state should not usurp the leadership of local government in the process. Because of the socioeconomic impact of these decisions locally, I’ll be sponsoring a bill in the 2014 Legislature requiring the state to coordinate all of its departments early in the decision-making process and to analyze the impacts of federal legislation.

State Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, represents House District 57, which includes Moffat, Rio Blanco and Garfield counties.

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