On this day a year from now, Coloradans will get to celebrate Colorado Public Lands Day, thanks to a bill that squeaked through the gridlocked legislature this year.
But in terms of better protecting Colorado’s public lands, that hat-tip is about all that got accomplished this legislative session…
And like most discussions of the increasingly politicized issue of public lands in the West, the commemorative day turned into a mountain-sized argument. Kerry Donovan, a Democratic state senator from Vail, introduced Senate Bill 21 during the first week of the four-month session in January, and it passed during the session’s last week in May.
Amendments in the legislature larded up the bill with partisanship and acrimony. Finally, Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a strong conservative from Sterling, brokered a solution in a committee tasked to find a compromise.
The committee stripped out all the added amendments and preserved just the day and its name…
House Democrats killed another Republican bill this year that would have given local and state law enforcement more authority over federally managed lands…
In a West Vail diner this week, cradled by the high, green shoulders of the White River National Forest, Donovan reflected on the work that led to Hickenlooper’s signing her bill into law, making the third Saturday in May each year Colorado Public Lands Day…
Over eggs benedict and coffee, Donovan pulled out a letter her grandfather, Bill Mounsey, wrote to Gov. Dick Lamm in 1976. He compared the growing public push to preserve public lands to the American Revolution. Mounsey helped chart the boundaries for the Eagle’s Nest, the Flat Tops and the Weminuche wilderness areas for The Wilderness Society.
Her parents successfully sued the U.S. Forest Service in the early 1970s to prevent a timber sale in what would become the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness Area, protections that were pending before Congress.
To Donovan and countless Coloradans, public lands are a lot more than trees and dirt — they’re a fight worth having.
“They’re one of the most beautiful examples of democracy, right?” she said. “It doesn’t matter what your station in life is or how much money you make or what your background is or anything. We all have the same ability to go to a trailhead, walk out and have the experience of enjoying those lands.”
Sonnenberg is in the camp that public-lands advocates such as Donovan and Scott Braden of Conservation Colorado fear most. He supports more state control over federal lands to allow more use of the economic resources and more access for the public. Sonnenberg thinks the federal government does a horrible job of it at Coloradans’ expense, citing wildfire prevention, pest control and over-regulation.
The cost for Colorado to control federal lands could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars each year, but Sonnenberg said the state could swing it by allowing more use with responsible management, the way it manages state lands.
“I’m afraid the issue has become too polarized on both sides,” he said this week. “We need to find something in the middle and cut all the rhetoric on both sides, to get down to what the issues are. Public Lands Day came together at the end, because people were willing to do that.”
“It’s easy to go inflammatory on this [state takeover of federal lands],” Donovan said. “Will the Maroon Bells be sold off? No. We’re not going to sell off these incredible vistas and the most valuable assets. But would public lands across the state start getting chunked off without a lot of people being able to keep track of it? Absolutely. And who’s going to be the highest bidder? Not some land-conservation nonprofit.”