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Gov. John Hickenlooper will be in Vail on Tuesday to sign Senate Bill 21 that establishes the third Saturday in May as Public Lands Day in Colorado – a bill sponsored in the state Senate by Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, and in the House by Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs.
The seemingly innocuous law to recognize “the significant contributions that national, state, and local public lands within Colorado make to wildlife, recreation, the economy, and to Coloradans’ quality of life” – as stated in the summary – met stiff resistance from some Republicans who have been battling for increased state control over federal lands.
“It’s an important discussion that happens because it does reveal different approaches to how the [two major political] parties perceive public lands in some areas,” Donovan said. “But there’s broad support for the establishment of the day; the idea is something everybody can stand behind.”
It passed both chambers with bipartisan support — 36-29 in the Democrat-controlled House and 25-8 in the Republican-controlled Senate – but bounced back and forth between both chambers and was hotly debated in different committees as language was inserted to assert more state control over natural-resource development on federal lands.
Donovan first introduced the bill during the militia takeover of a federal wildlife reserve near Burns, Oregon in January, and some state lawmakers in Colorado and across the West expressed sympathy for the frustration of residents who feel the federal government exercises too much control over public lands in the region.
But bill proponents say most Coloradans support U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management policies in managing the one-third of the state that is federally owned.
“Colorado is a national leader when it comes to conservation issues, and our support for public lands is no exception,” said Scott Braden, Wilderness and Public Lands Advocate at Conservation Colorado. “People come from far and wide to visit our mountains, deserts, forests, and grasslands, and for that they deserve to be celebrated.”
Braden took passage of the bill as an opportunity to slam the Bundy family militia movement that started in Nevada and shifted this year to Oregon.
“Coloradans want to celebrate, not seize our national public lands,” Braden said. “We have no patience for extremist attempts to privatize or undermine our shared outdoor heritage. We hope that our efforts here in Colorado send a message to the Bundys and their political sympathizers: we are going lead the West in turning the tide away from their dangerous agenda.”
Conservative opponents of federal land management policies say too much emphasis is placed on conservation of public lands without enough focus on local jobs in the mining, logging, agricultural and oil and gas industries. At one point, an amendment expressing that sentiment was inserted into the bill:
“Coloradans would be well-served by a reform and greater legislative oversight of the current federal regulatory process, wherein the diverse vital interests of Coloradans are too often not adequately represented in the adjudication and settlement of federal regulatory issues, resulting too often in ‘sweetheart’ consent decrees between plaintiffs and federal agencies.”
That reference to environmental lawsuits that sometimes slow or altogether halt development projects on federal land was later stripped out.
The first salvo was fired this week in what promises to be a busy summer of heated exchanges on the campaign trail for a U.S. congressional seat that represents most of Colorado’s Western Slope. It had to do with oil and gas leases on public lands between Glenwood Springs and Carbondale in an area known as the Thompson Divide.
Former state Sen. Gail Schwartz, a Democrat from Crested Butte who used to hold Donovan’s state Senate District 5 seat, blasted U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, for floating a draft bill to resolve a longstanding dispute over Thompson Divide oil and gas leases without a plan to permanently protect the area from drilling. Language from the draft was lifted verbatim from a lobbying group for Tipton’s biggest donor, SG Interests, which owns many of those leases.
Schwartz, who’s challenging Tipton for his CD3 seat, told The Colorado Statesman that the incumbent congressmen should listen more closely to local officials and residents of five Western Slope counties that have been working for years to preserve the area instead of a Houston-based oil and gas company that contributes heavily to his campaigns.
A Tipton spokesman countered that Schwartz was offering no real solutions to the problem, just criticizing his attempts to fairly compensate companies that own leases in the area but may not be able to drill there. Asked about the economic importance of energy extraction on public lands, Schwartz said she backs an all-of-the-above energy portfolio that includes fossil fuels but also renewable resources.
“But it is also a situation that we’ve got to look at what are our traditional industries? Agriculture, which relies on clean water, and then also recreation,” Schwartz told RouteFifty.com. “When Colorado’s population will be doubling, supposedly, which is our projection in the water plan, we are only going to see more pressure on these public lands and the opportunity for our recreation and outdoor industries to thrive as a result of growth.
“We are not in a situation where we can cut back and impact our public lands and not have them available for these broader uses.”
The signing ceremony for the Public Lands Day bill will be held at 12:45 p.m. in the Grand View Room at the Lionshead Parking Structure in Vail.