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Valuing Our Western Public Lands Report

Western Public Lands


  Flickr: Conlawprof

A significant portion of the land area of Colorado – over 35% – is public land. These public lands include national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, monuments, wilderness areas and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Colorado’s public lands feature a diverse range of landscapes, from the snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains down to arid mesas, redrock canyons, and narrow mountain valleys. The public lands of western Colorado offer an intriguing glimpse of the past. Fossils mark where dinosaurs roamed; ancient ruins and petroglyphs dot the canyons; and historic mining towns nestle in steep-sided valleys.

Colorado’s public lands support a wide variety of activities, from recreational pursuits such as camping, hunting, fishing, and hiking to natural resource development. They also provide clean air, clean water and picturesque scenery, resources enjoyed by all Coloradans and by visitors who flock to Colorado from around the world. Colorado’s public lands also provide habitat for hundreds of wildlife species, from popular game species like mule deer and elk, to the rare lynx and Colorado River cutthroat trout.

Assessing the Economic Value of Public Lands

Public lands have a substantial impact on the Colorado economy. These lands support a booming tourism and outdoor industry. People travel to Colorado from around the world to see and explore its natural marvels, such as Rocky Mountain National Park and the Great Sand Dunes, and to camp, hunt and fish on thousands of acres of pristine wildlife habitat. In addition, the natural amenities offered by Colorado’s public lands attract new businesses and a skilled workforce, which boost economic growth in communities located near public lands.

Colorado’s Public Lands Support a Booming Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Industry

Outdoor recreation and tourism are a vital part of the Colorado economy. The Colorado Tourism Office reports that the state hosts over 50 million domestic visitors annually. Total direct travel spending in Colorado is over $15.9 billion per year, supporting 141,400 jobs with earnings of over $4.1 billion, as well as $879 million in local and state tax revenues. The Outdoor Industry Association has found that active outdoor recreation contributes over $10 billion annually to Colorado’s economy, supports 107,000 jobs across the state, generates nearly $500 million in annual state tax revenue and produces $7.6 billion annually in retail sales and services across Colorado - accounting for 4 percent of gross state product.

Colorado’s Public Lands Provide Opportunities to Hunt, Fish and Watch Wildlife

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that each year 2.3 million people participate in hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching in Colorado - 767,000 fish, 259,000 hunt and 1.8 million participate in wildlife-watching activities. The Colorado economy benefits from $3 billion in annual spending on wildlife-related recreation.

Colorado’s Public Lands Influence the Economic Structure of Nearby Communities

Like other western states with a large percentage of public lands, Colorado is outpacing the nation in economic growth. The competitive advantage offered by its public lands attracts talent, investment, and businesses to Colorado, contributing to its high rate of employment and income growth. A majority (63%) of Colorado small business owners choose to do business in the state because of opportunities tied to public lands.

Colorado vs. Non-Western U.S., Percent Change, 2000-2011. Source: Headwaters Economics. West Is Best: Protected Lands Promote Colorado Jobs and Higher Incomes. November 2012. http://headwaterseconomics.org/land/west-is-best-value-of-public-lands-co/


Coloradans Value Public Lands

Public opinion polls prove that people and businesses come to Colorado and choose to stay because of the quality of life tied to public lands. Colorado residents enjoy spending time outside and engage in a wide array of outdoor recreation activities. A 2013 bipartisan poll conducted by the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project showed that a majority of Colorado voters (65%) hike regularly, and 52% are regular campers. Over one third (38%) of Colorado voters are hunters or anglers. Eighty-two percent (82%) of voters in the state plan to visit a national park this year. These Coloradans recognize the economic and intrinsic value of public lands and want to see these lands protected for future generations.

Colorado Voters Recognize That Public Lands Support the Economy

The State of the Rockies poll shows that Colorado voters clearly value the impact public lands have on their economy – virtually all (98%) say they are an essential part of the state’s economy and 85% agree that the state's public lands help attract high quality employers and good jobs. Seventy-nine percent of Coloradans believe public lands in the state support the economy, provide recreation opportunities and enhance quality of life, rather than being a fiscal burden and preventing creation of jobs in traditional industries. Half of Colorado small business owners agree that Colorado’s national parks, forests, monuments and wildlife habitats are essential parts of the state’s outdoor culture and quality of life and that they are reasons to run a business there.

Colorado Voters Support Protections for Land, Water, Air and Wildlife

A solid majority of 54% of Coloradans want environmentally sensitive public lands to be “permanently protected” from oil and gas production.  Two-thirds of Colorado small business owners support a proposal to establish a national monument at Browns Canyon and the Arkansas River Valley

Colorado Voters Oppose Proposals to Sell Off Public Lands

Most Coloradans (74%) oppose the sale of Colorado’s public lands as a way to reduce the nation’s budget deficit.

Elected Officials Are Out of Touch

Far too many of Colorado’s public lands are under attack by Congress and the state legislature. For example, throughout the 112th and 113th Congresses, elected lawmakers introduced dozens of bills that sought to roll back protections for public lands. In addition, Colorado is one of seven western states that have passed, introduced, or explored legislation in the past year demanding that the federal government turn over millions of acres of federal public lands to the state. If the sponsors of these proposals succeed in their aims, these lands will be used in whatever way the new owner – state or private – wants to use them. This generally means maximizing private profits through resource extraction rather than managing for the long-term benefit and use of the public. To learn more about why these proposals are problematic, read the full report, Valuing Our Western Public Lands: Safeguarding Our Economy and Way of Life.

Attempts to Transfer Public Land Out of Public Ownership

Colorado Senate Bill 13-142 would require the federal government to turn over all “agricultural lands” to the state by December 31, 2014.  The bill, introduced in January 2013, failed in committee in early February. The idea was reintroduced as Senate Joint Resolution 13-031 in April 2013 and failed to pass before the end of the legislative session.

Several bills proposed in the U.S. Congress would force the sale of public lands in Colorado:

●      American Land Act (H.R. 1017, 113th Congress), by Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX). This bill would force the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to sell 8 percent of their respective federal land to the highest bidder, annually until 2017. This year alone, the two agencies would be forced to sell off nearly 36 million acres of forest and public land to corporate interests.

●      Action Plan for Public Lands and Education Act (H.R. 2852, 112th Congress), by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT). This bill would force the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to give away, free of charge, 5 percent of their lands to each Western state. This would leave 30 million acres in the West vulnerable to more resource extraction and development.

●      Disposal of Federal Lands Act (H.R. 1126, 112th Congress), by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT). This bill would force the Bureau of Land Management in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming to sell off “excess” public lands to the highest bidder. This bill was also incorporated into the House budget bill in the 113th Congress.

Attempts to Weaken Protection of Public Lands

For decades, cornerstone conservation laws like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) have protected public lands and natural resources. Recently, many members of Congress have been working to dismantle these vital protections and open public lands to increased resource exploitation and development. For example, in the first session of the 112th Congress, House Republicans voted 191 times to weaken environmental protections, halt wilderness designations, and remove protections for wildlife. For a list of some of the legislation that poses significant risks to our public lands, read the full report, Valuing Our Western Public Lands: Safeguarding Our Economy and Way of Life.

Why the Disconnect?

Why is there an ideological gap between the actions of our elected officials and the values of their constituents? Clearly the power and influence of industry lobbying and campaign contributions plays a role. But the Colorado College State of the Rockies poll offers an additional explanation: the majority of voters in western states are not aware of their representatives’ view on public lands issues. Indeed, survey data indicates that while most Colorado voters take a positive view of a candidate who supports protecting public lands and espouses pro-conservation positions, a majority (54%) say they are not sure what position their member of Congress has taken on protecting land, air and water.

Get Involved

It’s up to individual citizens to hold elected officials and decision makers accountable to the values that define Colorado’s public lands heritage. The most important thing you can do is let decision makers know that you are paying attention. To have your voice heard and demonstrate your commitment to preserving our public lands:

1.     Inspire your children and grandchildren to become the next generation of conservation leaders by taking them outside to hike, fish, hunt, and watch wildlife. Visit OPL’s Colorado Resources page for information about visiting Colorado’s public lands.

2.     Join local, regional, and national groups like the National Wildlife Federation that fight for your priorities. Visit OPL’s Colorado Resources page for a list of wildlife and conservation groups that work in Colorado.

3.     Take advantage of opportunities for citizen involvement in decisions affecting our public lands: public meetings and hearings with decision makers, public comments periods, town hall meetings, and other forms of citizen engagement.

4.     Reach out directly to your elected officials through letters, phone calls, or social media platforms. Tell them you value our public lands. Your representatives are duty-bound to listen. Visit the links below to find and contact your elected officials.

Contact Elected Officials About Public Lands Issues:


Click here for Resources about Colorado's Public Lands and Wildlife



Center for American Progress, Goad, J. and Kenworthy, T., State Efforts to ‘Reclaim’ Our Public Lands http://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/GoadLandsReclaimBrief-1.pdf

Colorado College State of the Rockies Project, Conservation in the West Poll http://www.coloradocollege.edu/other/stateoftherockies/conservationinthewest/

Colorado Division of Wildlife, The Economic Impacts of Hunting, Fishing and Wildlife Watching in Colorado http://www.socioeconimpacts.org/documents/sei_12.pdf

Colorado Tourism Office http://www.colorado.com/

Headwaters Economics, Colorado’s Economy and the Role of Federal Protected Lands, http://headwaterseconomics.org/wphw/wp-content/uploads/Colorado_WestisBest.pdf

Headwaters Economics, West Is Best: Protected Lands Promote Colorado Jobs and Higher Incomes http://headwaterseconomics.org/land/west-is-best-value-of-public-lands-co/

Outdoor Industry Association, The Outdoor Recreation Economy – Colorado http://www.outdoorindustry.org/images/ore_reports/CO-colorado-outdoorrecreationeconomy-oia.pdf

Small Business Majority, Colorado Small Business Owners Believe Protecting Public Lands is Good for Business and Support ‘All-of-the-Above’ Energy Policy http://www.smallbusinessmajority.org/small-business-research/public-lands/051512_colorado_public_lands_poll.php

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation – Colorado http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/fhw11-co.pdf

U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Energy and Commerce Minority Staff, The Anti-Environment Record of the U.S. House of Representatives 112th Congress, 1stSession http://democrats.energycommerce.house.gov/sites/default/files/image_uploads/_Anti-Environment Report Final.pdf