DENVER – Two public lands bills in the Colorado General Assembly on Monday both boiled down to ideological and party differences over federal management and regulations.
The Democratic-controlled House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee advanced one measure that would create a Public Lands Day in Colorado, and killed another that would have clarified state jurisdiction over federal lands. Both received party-line votes.
The Public Lands Day bill is perhaps the clearest example of how politicized the subject has gotten. What started as a simple effort to declare the third Saturday in May as Public Lands Day, has become a battle between the left and the right over federal lands.
With the issue playing out on the national level, tensions are running high. A recent standoff in Oregon, where a group occupied a federal wildlife refuge headquarters protesting federal lands policies, highlighted the debate.
Earlier this year in a Colorado Senate committee, the Public Lands Day bill was amended to state: “Coloradans are too often not adequately represented in the adjudication and settlement of federal regulatory issues, resulting too often in ‘sweetheart’ consent decrees.”
With Democrats opposing, Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, worked out a compromise amendment that toned down admonishment of the federal government by eliminating “sweetheart consent decrees” and instead stated: “Coloradans would be well-served by a reform and greater legislative oversight of the current federal regulatory process.”
Democrats in the House, however, still felt that went too far. On Monday, they amended the bill to strike the earlier language, and instead state: “It is imperative to encourage effective cooperative and collaborative engagement among counties, municipalities, the state and federal land management agencies.”
In pushing for the amendment, Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs, said of the earlier amendment: “The language that we see... I don’t think helps us get to those kinds of really valuable cooperative partnerships that have already proved to be very valuable.”
If the newest amendment survives the full House, it would go back to the Republican-controlled Senate, which could result in the bill dying, or another compromise.
The conservative side of the debate tends to follow similar messaging from a movement known as the new “Sagebrush Rebellion,” a resurgence of the effort in the 1970s to force the federal government to give more control of government-owned Western lands to the states.
The bill pushed by Republicans on Monday would have clarified that the state has jurisdiction over federal lands to manage emergency situations, such as wildfires.
The bill’s sponsors say the effort has nothing to do with transferring federal lands over to the state. They say the measure is in response to deadly wildfires that they believe could have been more quickly contained if local authorities had the authority to act.
“We, as individuals within this state, have a right to equal participation in the conversation when we’re discussing what happens on the lands that might be owned and titled to the federal government, but lived on by the people of Colorado,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, a co-sponsor of the bill.
Environmental interests, however, say access to public lands is at stake.
“Coloradans want to celebrate, not seize our public lands,” said Scott Braden, wilderness and public lands advocate for Conservation Colorado. “Our Legislature today echoed those values by ending the journey of an unnecessary and legally problematic land-seizure bill, while simultaneously advancing a bill to establish the first-in-the-nation Public Lands Day.”