Conservation Colorado: America’s public lands — our greatest gift to each other
November through January is called, in many countries, the “silly season.” When I see homemade fringed and bedazzled candy cane sweaters, reindeer horn bedecked vehicles and eggnog drinking parties, I have to admit that this is a season filled with silliness. The frivolity seems to appear in the strangest of places as our President pardons gobblers and our politicians rush to pass bills like last minute gift givers rush to complete shopping on Christmas Eve.
One of the silliest things I’ve noticed recently is the idea of the states taking over control of America’s public lands. This topic was debated during the gubernatorial race and most recently at a December Club 20 forum. Political pundits are suggesting that at least one bill proposing the idea will be introduced at the Colorado legislature next year.
Narrow special interest groups are espousing the idea that is more dangerous than a homemade Christmas sweater. They claim that state control is local control and as such would provide better public access, environmental health and economic productivity. These claims are rhetorical smoke and mirrors. The expensive reality of such proposals would almost inevitably lead to auctioning off our treasured hunting, fishing and recreation spots to the highest bidder. But, let’s be silly for a moment and imagine if states took control of America’s public lands.
First, we would lose Payments in Lieu of Taxes or PILT. In 2014, Moffat County reportedly received $550,000 or about 10 percent of the county Road & Bridge Department budget from PILT. Next, we would assume full costs of lands management, including during emergencies such as wildfire and floods as well as special management of species such as wild horses. A single large wildfire can cost $100 million to fight. BLM spends $47 million annually on wild horse management alone. That’s a lot of money to find in the state budget. Additionally, ranchers would pay more for grazing rights, which are measured in Animal Unit Months or AMUs. BLM’s 2014 charge was $1.35/AMU compared to the 2014 State Land Trust grazing fees averaging $11.88/AMU.
Since our state is required to balance the budget, the loss of PILT revenue and prohibitive costs of taking over public lands management would force our state to either increase taxes, which is not always a popular proposition, or auction off lands to the highest bidder. And ranchers would certainly need to pass along the costs of higher grazing fees, translating into higher prices at the grocery store.
Already, this idea seems impractical. However, for the sake of the silly season, let’s drink a bit more eggnog and consider some of the other arguments by state seizure proponents. Despite their claims, in Colorado, state control would not create better access. America’s public lands are governed by a multiple use doctrine that recognizes everyone has a right to use public lands and then manages accordingly. This does not mean every acre is open for every use, but it does mean that most acres of public lands are accessible. In comparison, in Colorado only 20 percent of state lands are open to the public use, while the other 80 percent are leased out to the highest bidder.
State control is not local control. Local is relative in this connected world of ours and proximity to a place doesn’t determine if management will improve environmental health and productivity. In the dead of winter, it is sometimes quicker to fly to Washington D.C. from the Yampa Valley Airport than to drive Interstate 70 into Denver. In fact, while regulations are finalized in the seats of power, actual management is, has and probably always will be done by people living right here. If states started to auction off our lands to pay for their upkeep, you can bet it would end up in the hands of wealthy out-of-state landowners, not under local ownership.
The founding fathers of our great country were wise to know that those who hold the land, hold the power. They rejected the feudalistic idea that only the wealthy were entitled to property. They enshrined the right of every American to own, use and care for our shared lands in the U.S. Constitution. State seizure of public lands would lead to costly lawsuits.
Keeping land open, free and available for the use and enjoyment of all Americans is one of the greatest gifts we, the American people, have ever given each other. I can’t help humming the Woodie Guthrie song — “This land is your land, this land my land.” Let’s stop the state seizure silliness and keep America’s public lands in public hands.
Sasha Nelson is a field organizer for Conservation Colorado in Craig.