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As militia takeover unfolds, Colorado lawmakers to debate state control of federal lands

January 15, 2016, 8:47 am

Fed-lands-mapEditor’s note: A version of this story first appeared in The Colorado Statesman:

With the ongoing Bundy family militia takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon as a backdrop, several Republican Colorado lawmakers said they understand citizen frustration with federal government mismanagement of public lands, but they stopped short of committing to more state-control legislation this session.

A Colorado Democrat, meanwhile, told The Colorado Statesman she plans to introduce a bill supporting the current system of federal ownership and management and opposing state or private takeover of public lands.

Kerry Donovan

Kerry Donovan

“It’s something that’s still on a lot of people’s minds as far as who controls the land, whether it’s local or the federal government,” said state Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, who last session ran an unsuccessful bill to study how the state might assume control of federal lands and the potential economic benefits of such a move.

“There are a lot of arguments on both sides as far as the constitution, as far as giving [the federal government] the authority to actually own anything,” he added. “Being stewards of the land is one thing, but actually owning the property, I’m not sure exactly how that falls into the constitution.”

But Baumgardner told The Statesman he’s “already billed up” and at his limit of five proposed laws, and that he won’t take another stab at what would be a largely symbolic bill with little chance of passing in the Democrat-controlled House. However, he added it’s an important discussion given how poorly the 37 percent of Colorado controlled by the federal government is being managed.

In particular, he points to the lack of logging and the mountain pine bark beetle infestation that has ravaged the forests in much of his district and made it arguably more susceptible to wildfire.

Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, has the exact opposite opinion of federal land management policies, and she cites public polling that shows overwhelming support by a majority of Coloradans for the current system of public lands management.

“I’m looking at a bill that will communicate how important our public lands are — how they define our state as a great place to live and visit – and have a proactive message,” Donovan said. “Something that really honors our outdoors and is a way to make a strong statement on our public lands staying public.”

That’s a bill that may have a hard time making it out of the Republican-controlled Senate, where Western Slope lawmakers like Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, say the federal government has gone too far with actions like closing recreational trails for Jeeping and ATV riding on public land and blocking oil and gas drilling and other extractive industries.

“Is there are a heavy hand coming out of D.C.? Yeah, I agree with that,” Scott said. “I call it the 10-month problem. We have to wait for the next election to see what happens, and hopefully we get an administration [in the White House] that, whatever side of the aisle they’re on, can look at these things a little bit differently and say, ‘Wait a second, we’ve gone too far.’”

Scott, who said he would support state-control legislation but is not necessarily running such a bill, told The Statesman that states with lower percentages of federal-land ownership are having a better time economically. He cited the 3.9-percent federal land ownership in North Dakota, where a recent fracking boom in the oil and gas industry ignited the local economy.

“When I was up in North Dakota meeting with the governor, he said they had a real problem. They had too much money,” Scott said, alluding to budget issues likely to dominate the current Colorado legislative session. “The natural resources tend to be Colorado and west, so the federal government’s not stupid. If they give that up, how many trillions of dollars do they give up, and are they willing to do that? More than likely not.”

Federally owned lands, managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and other agencies, operate under a multiple-use philosophy that does allow for mining, logging, grazing, outdoor recreation and other public uses, but typically under fairly stringent permitting guidelines.

Bills were introduced in 11 western states last year to promote some form of state or private control of federal lands, although critics have called such laws constitutionally questionable. State lawmakers from Oregon and Nevada have reportedly either spoken to or met with the Bundy family near Burns.

State control of federal lands was also a hot top during the 2014 elections in Colorado, where Republican challengers railed against federal overreach and ballot questions were contemplated.

Utah’s legislature last year passed a bill demanding the federal government turn over control of more than 20 million acres of land in that state, which is 66.5 percent federally owned – second only to Nevada at 81 percent.

Colorado state Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, R-Colorado Springs, told The Statesman that high percentage of federal ownership in Nevada is one of the reasons the Bundy family hails from there and is now spreading its protest movement to other western states like Oregon.

“I was raised on a farm, so I support property rights, especially in rural areas for private citizens,” Klingenschmitt said. “Unfortunately, the big-government Democrats have either abandoned property rights as an issue or they are confusing the term public land with land that is only accessible to government bureaucrats.”

But Klingenschmitt made it clear he does not support violent protest.

“When you see the same thing happening in Oregon – and by the way I repeat that I specifically denounce any acts of violence by protesters – there needs to be some kind of peaceful protest to get people’s land back from the takers,” Klingenschmitt said.

 Critics of the state-control movement say its rhetoric is inciting a minority fringe of extremists to take drastic and dangerous action.

 “Charges of government overreach from the ideological fringes are making headlines, but in reality most westerners in [a new] poll favor greater protection and sensible use of the open lands and national treasures that define the region,” said Eric Perramond, professor in the Southwest Studies and Environmental Programs at Colorado College, which released a new survey on the topic Monday.

The State of the Rockies Project Conservation in the West Poll found 59 percent of the residents of seven Mountain West states, including Colorado, oppose giving state governments control over public lands and 59 percent oppose selling significant chunks of public lands to reduce the budget deficit.

“These results make clear western communities care deeply about the public lands that embody the best of our nation’s culture, spirit and beauty,” said former U.S. Interior Secretary and Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar. “Western voters see our outdoor heritage as integral to our economy and our way of life, and they certainly don’t want to see their public lands seized by ideologues or sold off by politicians in Washington.”

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is the editor and co-founder of RealVail.com and has had his awarding-winning work (see About Us) published in more than 75 newspapers and magazines around the world, including 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), the Anchorage Daily Press (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Boulder Daily Camera, the Casper Star Tribune (Wyoming), the Chicago Tribune, Colorado Central Magazine, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), Colorado Newsline, Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Colorado Times Recorder, the Cortez Journal, the Craig Daily Press, the Curry Coastal Pilot (Oregon), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Del Norte Triplicate (California), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Gazette, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, Explore Big Sky (Mont.), the Fort Morgan Times (Colorado), the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), the Kingman Daily Miner (Arizona), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the Las Vegas Sun, the Leadville Herald-Democrat, the London Daily Mirror, the Moab Times Independent (Utah), the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), the Montrose Daily Press, The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, the Rio Blanco Herald Times (Colorado), Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), the Salt Lake Tribune, SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Sky-Hi News, the Steamboat Pilot & Today, the Sterling Journal Advocate (Colorado), the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Health Magazine, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail, Westword (Denver), Writers on the Range and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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