DENVER - A Colorado Senate committee Thursday advanced a bill that would study transferring federal public lands over to the state's authority.
The Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee passed Senate Bill 232 on a 5-4 party-line vote, with Sen. Ellen Roberts of Durango joining her Republican colleagues to pass the bill. The bill now heads to the full Senate.
"I would be turning a deaf ear if I did not support this. I would be turning a deaf ear to a number of my county commissioners and constituents," Roberts said. "For a lot of my constituents, they'd like to see this kind of study."
The issue has been surrounded in controversy, as outdoor enthusiasts - many from Southwest Colorado - fear that the bill is the first strike in an eventual transfer. They worry that charging Colorado with managing 23 million acres of federal land could result in closure of those precious spaces. Cost estimates begin at $27 million for the state to manage federal wildlands.
A chorus of hunter and anglers and conservationists lined up to oppose the bill, echoing concerns over the proposed 15-member study commission, which would include county commissioners and representatives of the Western Slope, Southwest Colorado and northeastern part of the state. But it doesn't require industry stakeholders.
"This is a complex, very broad, very large task, that requires experts in all sorts of areas and stakeholders from all of the industries that are impacted," said Greg Holm, with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. "All those people need to be represented."
But one of the bill's sponsors, Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, said he deliberately chose county commissioners because they represent Coloradans.
"You and I all know county commissioners are made up of the regular folks in Colorado," Sonnenberg said. "They're farmers, they're ranchers, they're businessmen, they're retired, they're community organizers."
Critics of the bill pointed to a conservative movement to force the federal government to give more control of government-owned Western lands to state and local authorities. They made the same argument Tuesday when the Senate backed a bill that would clarify state jurisdiction over federal lands.
Both bills face an uphill battle in the Democrat-controlled House.
One of the issues the task force would possibly study is having the federal government sell to private buyers any of the federal lands or face a property-tax bill from the state. But legal conundrums surround that proposal.
"The proposed study would look at selling or leasing public land that's likely highly valued by hunters, anglers and wildlife watchers," said Suzanne O'Neill, Colorado Wildlife Federation executive director. "It is unacceptable to finance transfer of public lands to the state by selling off blocks to private bidders and charging very high fees to access what remains."
When asked whether she would support such a transfer, Roberts said: "Wholesale, no, but that's why this study would produce some interesting conversation."