Legislative waste

Time and energy squandered demanding Washington hand over federal lands

The amount of work facing the Colorado Legislature each year is typically ambitious in proportion to the time available to lawmakers. As such, the Legislature must discipline itself to focus on the important business facing the state, and while each year brings with it a handful of silly measures that are quickly dispensed with, that should not encourage the practice.

It is good, then, that the House Education Committee killed a measure that would have demanded the federal government transfer to state control most of the land it manages in Colorado. House Bill 1322 is absurd on more levels than this space allows, and Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, should be embarrassed for having introduced the measure.

Leaving aside for now the issue of why on earth Sonnenberg felt compelled to champion such a notion, the measure was wrought with procedural and policy holes large enough to fit all 23 million acres of federal public lands in the state. Primary among these is whether the state Legislature — Colorado’s or that of any other state — can simply whip up legislation commanding the federal government to do anything, let alone hand over title to one of its essential resources. With the right to that land comes no small amount of responsibility, and for better or worse, federal land managers such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have a lengthy history of doing that effectively. These agencies have made it their goal to consider and attempt to balance the various competing demands for how land is managed through a multiple use ethic. That is no easy undertaking and striking the balance requires constant vigilance, refinement and significant resources. Had the federal government delivered the public lands — and the associated tasks of managing them — to the state as commanded, Colorado’s land management agencies would have received quite a shock.

The rather obvious question of just how the state would work such a massive undertaking into its workload — let alone budget — was not analyzed in the measure. Sonnenberg, though, seemed rather unconcerned by this omission, saying that figuring out how to account for the managing of 23 million new acres of land is, “Difficult to guess. It’s a new adventure,” he said.

Adventure indeed. It was an adventure in absurdity that is, unfortunately gaining traction in other western states. Utah passed a similar measure this month, and the Arizona Senate did as well. The momentum behind the movement is one and the same as that calling for the dismantling of the federal government — albeit not in so many words. How unfortunate that Colorado lawmakers gave the notion an audience for discussion.

Embracing that sentiment at the state level in such ridiculous efforts is disheartening and counterproductive. There is real and important work to be done at the Colorado Legislature and, by and large, lawmakers have much to be proud of thus far in the 2012 session. The House Education Committee was absolutely right to kill Sonnenberg’s measure, just as he was absolutely wrong to pursue it in the first place. There is a time to make an ideological statement, and there is a time to forgo opportunities to grandstand and instead focus on doing the state’s business. House Bill 1322 died a deserved death — and none too soon.