When federal land agencies buy private land, they should offer the same amount of public lands back to the private sector, says the Montezuma County commission.
Noting that the county is 26 percent private land, 40 percent federal land, and 34 percent Ute Mountain tribal land, the commissioners passed a resolution in February supporting No Net Loss of Private Lands.
“We are in peril if our land is taken out of private and put into public, so I’d like to see some equity there,” said commissioner Keenan Ertel.
Of the 1.3 million acres that make up Montezuma County, about 40 percent is controlled by the San Juan National Forest, Mesa Verde National Park, Bureau of Land Management and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
Since 2000, Canyons of the Ancients has expanded by 12,000 acres by purchasing private inholdings from willing sellers, including the Wallace Ranch, and part of Trail Canyon.
The county commissioners argue in the No Net Loss resolution that private property is key for economic opportunity and property tax revenues.
“This concept entails offsetting the acquisition of federally owned lands with an equal allocation of private land. ... This balance can be achieved through land exchanges within Montezuma County, auction of equitable public lands to the private sector, or other available legal means,” according to the resolution.
The federal government compensates counties with Payment in Lieu of Taxes funding, annually authorized by Congress to compensate counties for lost private property tax revenues due to large tracts of federal lands. But those funds aren’t reliable year to year, said commissioner Larry Don Suckla, and are not a permanent appropriation. County officials added that Ute Mountain territory does not count toward the PILT funding formula.
Montezuma County typically receives about $170,000 per year in PILT funding.
To consolidate Canyons of the Ancients, monument managers tapped funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to purchase private inholdings from willing sellers.
Monument manager Marietta Eaton says the buyouts make monument lands contiguous, limit habitat fragmentation and give landowners an opportunity to put land in permanent conservation.
The agricultural lands don’t provide a substantial amount in property tax revenues, but Suckla says that misses the point.
“That is a narrow vision in my opinion,” he said. “You don’t know what will be there on that land in 50 years.”
In Alamosa County, agricultural land was converted to solar farms, and the property tax revenues went up substantially, Suckla said.
Another pet peeve of the commissioners is what they see as a limited scope of what Land Water and Conservation Fund program covers. The fund, which is derived from federal, off-shore oil-and-gas royalties, had a budget of $450 million in 2016.
But it is earmarked for land acquisition and special projects, not necessarily to boost the general management budget for federal land agencies.
“They don’t have the budget to manage what they have, yet they are expanding their footprint,” said Ertel.
Lack of funding has reduced boat inspections at McPhee Reservoir, limiting public access. Citing budget constraints, the U.S. Forest Service has closed campgrounds, including the once-popular Sage Hen area, and taken out public bathrooms.
Lack of maintenance funding has shut down a popular ruin at Mesa Verde National Park. And funding is needed for a new parking lot and Lamb House restoration at the Sand Canyon trail system. A local bike club had to pitch in $5,000 toward required archaeological studies for a proposed BLM trail expansion at Phil’s World bike park.
In a Feb. 11 letter to the Interior Subcommittee on Appropriations, the commissioner said the Land Water Conservation Funds are a possible solution to budget shortages.
“A reliable, dedicated federal funding source to address the deferred maintenance backlog ensures that we preserve historic buildings, sites, and necessary infrastructure in safe condition, and that parks remain open and accessible so that the public can continue to learn from and experience the stories that tell our nation’s history,” the letter states. “To continue to expand the federal land base while no additional funding is being earmarked to catch up on deferred maintenance is irresponsible and unethical. It is high time the Land and Water Conservation Fund is reallocated to cover the expense of maintaining the federal land base we already have.”