Whose lands should those be?

Proposed bill presses for increased state control over public lands; opponents express concerns over expense and access


Among the bevy of bills introduced at the start of the Colorado legislative session in January was Senate Bill 15-039, which takes a complex spin on a question that’s increasingly coming up in western states’ legislatures: Who should hold jurisdiction over public lands?

The bill states that because policing and management activities often work best on smaller, local levels, Colorado should be granted concurrent jurisdiction of lands currently managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service. Sportsmen’s advocacy groups including Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Colorado Wildlife Federation have responded that legislation of this kind could restrict public access to those lands, put many of them at risk of sale and leave the state with a bill for their management that could bankrupt the budget.

The Colorado Wildlife Federation opposes extending state jurisdiction to public lands in Colorado and plans to oppose the bill, says Kent Ingram, president of the Colorado Wildlife Federation. He calls SB 15-039 “a thinly veiled mechanism to establish control over public lands.”

The bill has been introduced to state senate committee. Requests for comment to bill sponsors state Sen. Kent Lambert (R-Colorado Springs) and Rep. Stephen Humphrey (R-Severence) were not met by press time.

“This bill is honestly a little bit more nuanced, but it’s all under the same umbrella,” Tim Brass, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Southern Rockies media coordinator, says of SB 15-039. “We’ve seen much more blatant attacks in the past.”

Those attacks have included a bill that would transfer all federal lands that have any sort of agricultural or logging value over to state management.

The machine behind these repeat attacks appears to be the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, an association of state legislators that crafts boilerplate legislation to be shipped around the country and marketed as serving local interests. (Lambert was named American Legislative Exchange Council “Legislator of the Year” in 2013.)

Legislation to increase or study state control often dies in committee, but in 2012, Utah’s governor signed into law the Utah Transfer of Public Lands Act, which asked the federal government to cede the title to federal lands it owns in Utah — some 31 million acres or about half of the state — except wilderness areas, national parks and land used by the military, by Dec. 31. The Utah governor told the Deseret News in 2013 he expected to see at least five other states with similar laws on their books by the end of the 2015 legislative session. However, the deadline for the federal government to cede control came and went quietly without any such land transfer taking place.

“I don’t think you can force the government to do something and I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Ingram says. “All the court cases so far have supported federal control over state wishes to have those lands transferred. … I’m not sure what Utah does [next]. They kind of drew a line in the sand and nothing happened, so it kind of shows that their bill doesn’t make sense.”

Still, the efforts continue. A Wyoming legislative committee is currently considering a bill that would allow for a $100,000 study on the transfer of federal lands to state control.

“We haven’t really been taking it seriously because it’s such an outlandish idea, but it’s become clear that the folks behind it are well-funded and they’re organized,” says Joel Webster with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

A national coalition of 25 sportsmen’s organizations and companies are using www. sportsmensaccess.org to gather 50,000 signatures to petition U.S. legislators to fight back against state bills that seek to reclaim federal lands. Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Trout Unlimited, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Colorado Wildlife Federation are also holding a rally for public lands at noon on Wednesday, Feb. 25 at the State Capitol building in Denver in an effort to show legislators this isn’t an issue Colorado voters will ignore.

“Management of our federal lands is not perfect, it’s not easy, and it can be challenging, but the thing about the whole idea of a state managing these lands is fundamentally flawed because the state doesn’t have the resources,” Webster says. “Also, state lands are managed to maximize revenue. They’re not managed for multiple use. So what would happen if states were to take over management of federal lands is they would retain the lands that can generate the most profit and then sell the rest, and the result is the public would lose out.”

So would the U.S. economy. Outdoor recreation supports $646 billion in revenue and 6.1 million jobs nationwide, according to Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and in Colorado alone, there are 919,000 hunters and anglers in the state and they are estimated to spend $1.3 billion each year on outdoor activities. The Outdoor Industry Association estimates that outdoor recreation creates twice as many jobs as oil and gas and timber combined.

The federal government owns roughly 640 million acres or 28 percent of land in the United States, and that land is overseen by the Forest Service, Department of Agriculture, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service, according to a 2012 analysis by the Congressional Research Service.

In a November 2014 report, Our Public Lands: Not For Sale, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers reiterates that states cannot afford the management costs of these lands, meaning those lands are likely to be sold, presenting a one-time boost to the budget but compromising the ongoing revenue streams from outdoor recreation.

The likelihood of that course of action is evinced by the fact that the 11 western states that were given land grants from the federal government upon statehood have all sold off a portion of those original lands. Colorado retains 2.9 million acres of the 4.5 million originally granted.

“We have access to 18 percent of state trust lands,” Brass says. “The other 80 percent are leased out privately, so you can’t bike, you can’t hunt, you can’t fish.”

Colorado’s 23 million acres of federal lands are part of what makes Colorado iconic, and changing and challenging the ways they’re managed may incur more problems than it solves, Ingram says.

“If you took away public lands what do you have, you just have nice scenery that you can’t touch without hefty sums of cash,” he says. His recurrent joke is, “This isn’t Texas,” — and he means, this isn’t a state where a hunter has to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars to access land open to hunting.

More than two-thirds of hunters in western states depend on public lands for all or part of their hunting, according to Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

When bills come up that challenge federal jurisdiction and push for increased state control, Ingram asks about the unintended consequences.

Their concerns with a previous bill that would have required the federal government to work with counties and cities on wildfire matters included financial ramifications of the bill — that it might hit an already cash-strapped state parks system with the variable costs of fighting wildfires.

“Wildfires cost $1.7 billion in 2013 — that’s a huge amount of money that the federal government currently pays, and if that responsibility were to be transferred to the state along with jurisdiction of these public lands, they’d go broke, and they’d have to sell lands in order to cover those costs,” Webster says.

The lands the state could keep, he argues, would be managed with profits, not public access, in mind.

Federal land management also allows for public input and interest in ways state lands management doesn’t, he adds.

“So what you have are a narrower group of interests making decisions and oftentimes the more local you get, the more opportunity there is for special interest to influence decisions,” Webster says. “If you’ve got local folks making decisions, they have friends and relatives that are involved in certain industries that use public lands and it’s easier for those types of relationships to carry more weight on decisions in a way that’s not necessarily in the best interest of the public.”

Federal agencies make an effort to ensure that land managers are not hired to oversee federal lands in the places where they grew up precisely to avoid the requests and pressure for special treatment that familiarity can breed, he adds.

“The idea of transferring to the states is an unworkable idea and it’s destined to fail, and what we really need to focus on is how do we engage in the democratic process of trying to fix the shortfalls of our federal land management by getting engaged and working together to identify and then resolve those conflicts,” Webster says. Those include conflicts over resource management and concerns over maintenance, restoration and fire mitigation projects.

He suggests paying attention to measures like the federal Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which would treat wildfires as national disasters and add sources of revenue for fighting those fires, freeing up portions of the Forest Service budget. Webster adds, “This whole idea of transferring lands is really just a distraction to take us away from the real issues that we need to be talking about, which is management of these lands as they are.”

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