Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar say a recently released Republican Party platform that promotes the transfer of federal public lands to states is bad for the country.
During a media phone conference July 19, Hickenlooper sharply criticized the Republican movement to give up federal lands, calling it “reckless, and an assault on not just public lands in Colorado, but against all of our national public lands that have been held in trust for all Americans for over 200 years.”
“Teddy Roosevelt and pioneers of conservation would be rolling over in their grave if knew there was a movement in the Republican Party to basically give away all these lands,” Salazar said.
The response came after the Republican National Committee released its party platform goals in advance of their national convention in Cleveland last week.
“Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to the states,” the RNC platform stated. “The residents of state and local communities know best how to protect the land where they work and live.”
But Hickenlooper said he fears that such action could have unintended consequences such as states selling the land for short-term economic gain. He said privatization of public lands puts at risk Colorado’s thriving outdoor industry that generates “tens of billions of dollars.”
The country’s 640 million acres of public lands are a “core American value,” Hickenlooper said. “Putting them at risk is a slippery slope with long-term consequences that pull at the roots of the country.”
Colorado land expert John Swartout also joined the conference call to speak against the idea. Swartout said the state has a history of bipartisan management of public lands, for example, when both parties successfully negotiated the formation of Sand Dunes National Park.
“Public lands require a balance of protection and opportunity to extract resources,” Swartout said. “We have always had this debate about where the balance is, and I understand that federal decision-making can be frustrating, but the Republican language is out of touch with any kind of balance. It is out of the mainstream.”
He said federal public lands bring in critical federal funding, including $72 million in 2013 to fight Colorado wildfires.
“The state can’t afford to take on those lands and puts them in a position to divest in lands to open up development,” Swartout said.
Montezuma County commissioners have expressed support for transferring of federal lands to state and county control.
Last year, they lobbied the U.S. Forest Service to transfer Sage Hen, House Creek and the McPhee Reservoir boat ramp over to the county. They want Sage Hen to reopen for camping, and expressed frustration at the pace of bringing back marina services.
In response, the San Juan National Forest, which manages recreation on McPhee, prioritized issuance of a concessionaire permit for the marina, and it reopened this year after a 15-year absence.
Also, in 2014, the county joined the controversial American Lands Council, which advocates for transfer of federal lands to states, except for national parks, wilderness areas, military bases and Native American reservations.
Commissioner James Lambert, a long-time advocate for state control of federal lands, said that when Colorado became a state, “legal language said the federal government would return the land to the state.”
Lambert said that if the state had control of federal lands, there would be more opportunity for logging, mining and oil-and-gas production.
“Right now, the federal lands are managed on a one-size-fits-all approach out of Washington D.C., and that does not work,” he said. “Regulations for mining, oil and gas, and logging right now are extremely burdensome.”
Lack of logging is especially troubling, Lambert said, because it contributes to beetle kill and catastrophic wildfires. As an example, he cited a blow-down of thousands of spruce trees in the Creede area that lumber companies weren’t allowed to harvest.
“As a result, all those downed trees became a breeding ground for destructive beetles, and they went on to wipe out a lot of forests,” Lambert said.
Lumber mills do not want to come here, he said, because the Forest Service only gives five-year contracts, but “companies need 20-year contracts to make it worthwhile.”
The commissioners reject the argument that states would be forced to sell off acquired federal lands to raise management funds. They say fees from mining, logging, grazing and oil and gas royalties would pay for land management, according to a Commissioner’s Corner website post.
“These are not insignificant amounts,” they said.
Still, obtaining federal lands will be an uphill battle, Lambert said. First, the state must prepare a plan to take them on, a persistent goal of the Utah Legislature. But the Colorado Legislature rejected a bill that would have paved the way to research the transfer of federal lands, such as building up agencies such as the state forestry department to handle the job.
Also, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is not gung-ho about the transferring federal lands to the state.
In a January interview with Field and Stream, Trump was asked if he supported the land transfer.
“I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do,” Trump said. “I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble?”
Lambert said Trump is “not in favor of it because he is not a Westerner. He’s a talented businessman who’s an expert in building golf courses and high rises, but if he were elected he could be educated on the practical advantages of federal transfer of lands.”