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Colorado Senate Bill 232 is more than a study – it’s a land grab in the making

Judith Kohler April 15, 2015

Image: Sarah Pizzo

It’s only a study. It’s only a study. It’s only a study.

As the Colorado legislators sponsoring Senate Bill 232 kept saying that, I flashed back several years to a cheesy horror movie promotion: ‘’To avoid fainting, keep repeating: it’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie.”

Right. It didn’t work then and it didn’t work Thursday as I watched the state Senate Agriculture Committee vote 5-4 for a bill mandating a study of a possible state takeover of national public lands in Colorado.

“This is nothing more than a study,” insisted Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, one of the bill’s sponsors.

Then why am I afraid of SB232 actually making it through the legislature? Lawyers not looking to make money off the latest Sagebrush Rebellion agree the Constitution gives the federal government authority over the public lands and the absolute right to decide whether to keep or get rid of those lands.

But legal arguments aren’t going to break this land-grab fever raging through the West. While states from Montana to New Mexico spent the winter debating the issue, Congress has been lining up bills to undermine federal agencies’ authority to manage our national public lands, hamstring presidents’ ability to establish national monuments and, in the case of Nevada, authorize the transfer of certain national public lands to the state. Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, has promised hearings this spring and summer on federal land ownership in the West. Rep. Ted Poe of Texas, where there's little public land, has introduced a bill that would require the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management open a third of the land they manage to sale.

The land battles in the statehouses are providing a lot of fodder for the members of Congress who want to shoot holes through our public lands heritage. The game plan and even some of the people are the same, as Environment & Energy Daily reported in a March 11 story about the American Lands Council, the group that has fomented the takeover frenzy in the Rockies. It has asked its lobbyist to take up shop in D.C. to “educate congressional lawmakers on the benefits of relinquishing federal lands to the states.”

There’s no such thing as “just a study.”

Which brings me back to SB232 and its advance in the Colorado General Assembly. During the committee hearing, Sen. Sonnenberg downplayed what will happen if his bill becomes law.

Will the commission tasked with the study determine the state would better manage public lands?

Would public access increase under state control?

Could the state raise more money for schools if it took over public lands?

“I don’t know,” Sonnenberg repeatedly responded to his own questions. So why not do a comprehensive study and see?

The language in his bill sounds a lot more certain. Some examples: “Increased control by Colorado over the public lands within its borders would benefit the residents of Colorado significantly...A study by the state, in contemplation of congress turning over the management and control of public lands in  Colorado to the state, would assist in ensuring that the transfer proceeds  in a timely and orderly manner.”

Sounds to me like some Colorado legislators are just waiting for Congress to hand them the keys to America’s natural treasures. The bill’s opponents outnumbered supporters during the public comment. Representatives of the Colorado Wildlife Federation, Conservation Colorado, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, the Sierra Club and Colorado Mountain Club as well as Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards and Steve Bonowski of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship were among those making impassioned, cogent arguments. They noted the makeup of the study panel is heavy on county commissioners and excludes many other types of Coloradans, such as sportsmen and women, business owners, outdoor recreationists and federal land managers. They discussed surveys showing overwhelming public support for keeping national public lands national and studies by other states that have revealed the economic pitfalls of assuming control of tens of millions of acres of land. As the bills  come due,  we can expect ramped-up logging, mining, drilling on fish and wildlife habitat, recreation areas, in watersheds and the sale of the most scenic landscapes for more trophy homes or private hunting and fishing operations.

Why all the fuss, supporters repeated. It’s just a study.

John Singletary, a sportsman and former member of the state wildlife and agriculture commissions, said he understood what the bill says. “I just hope it’s not the first step of finding the means of disposing of public lands. You say it’s just a study, but recommendations are going to be made.”

Here’s a recommendation to Coloradans who care about public lands – make sure SB232 dies a much-deserved death. Don't give Congress a reason to think the public supports this nonsense.