Connecting state and local government leaders
At a Council of State Governments West annual meeting, some lawmakers push ideas to boost local input in federal land management decisions.
VAIL, Colo. — State and local governments need to be increasingly assertive in the growing battle over how federal public lands are managed in the West, according to lawmakers at a recent conference in this ski town literally surrounded by U.S. Forest Service land.
More than 300 state legislators from 13 western states gathered for the Council of State Governments West annual meeting last week, and one of the hottest topics was state and federal government relations at a policy meeting of the newly formed CSG West committee.
In Colorado, more than 36 percent of the state is owned by the federal government and managed under a longstanding multiple-use policy that allows for everything from outdoor recreation such as ski areas to timber harvesting to cattle grazing, mining and oil and gas drilling.
Some state lawmakers and a growing number of candidates for state office claim they have a better handle on what types of uses are appropriate on federal lands within their state, county and municipal boundaries. According to the sportsmen’s advocacy group Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, 37 bills were introduced in 11 western states in 2015 “to promote the transfer of federal public lands to individual states,” which the group dubbed a land grab.
“As with all natural resources, whether it’s public lands or water or energy, we’re all talking about the same thing: How do we learn to share and get along?” CSG West chairwoman and Colorado State Sen. Nancy Todd said at the annual meeting.
“It’s a matter of fairness and protection, but also it’s a matter of being comprehensive with problem solving so it’s not just one or two people out there saying, ‘Well, we’ll make the decision and pass it on to you.’”
Small Colorado communities in and around public lands have been struggling this summer with issues ranging from an endangered coal mine on federal land near Craig to a proposed land swap between a private resort developer and the U.S. Forest Service near Vail.
Alaska state Sen. Gary Stevens, a former chairman of the national CSG organization, decried the sometimes heavy-handed approach of federal agencies in drafting rules and regulations without adequate input from state and local governments.
“The states’ responsibility is to develop innovative ways of doing things—ideas and policies,” Stevens said at the CSG West meeting. “We all know that one of the basic foundations of state legislatures and state governments is to be the laboratory of democracy."
Stevens, a former mayor of Kodiak, Alaska, added: “Innovation has been so important, and that’s been one of the problems with federalism is the federal government can kill innovation so quickly. We’ve seen it happen in so many cases with regulations.”
Chuck Poplstein, state director for U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., told the state lawmakers not to worry about pushing their position too hard with their representatives in Washington.
“I don’t think there’s any place where anybody’s stepping on each other’s toes,” Poplstein said. “We probably need to step on those toes a little more often to be honest with you, to make sure we’re having a dialogue and that we can come together more and say, ‘Hey, this is working in Colorado and the state, why isn’t it working in the federal?’”
Federal land managers say they’re very open to dialogue with state and local governments, especially where economic and environmental concerns converge.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams, who manages the largest national forest in Colorado and the 12th largest in the United States, argues that land-use decisions are never made in a vacuum in Washington, D.C., and that local public input is sought constantly through the National Environmental Policy Act process and other tools.
“As the demands continue on public lands, whether it’s recreation or extractive or whatever, this approach is probably going to end up as maybe not perfect but the best we can come up with, and again, I point to the fact that this is such an American ideal,” Fitzwilliams said in a phone interview. “It’s the envy of other countries.”
Still, the topic of federal overreach sparked intense debate in the Colorado state legislature during its most recent session, prompting a pair of bills intended to increase state control over federal lands or at least study such a move.
Republican Colorado state Sen. Randy Baumgardner, whose district includes the litigation-endangered Colowyo Mine near Craig, lamented the failure last session of a bill to at least study increasing state control over federal lands in Colorado.
“It wasn’t let’s take our federal lands away and the state run them, it was a study to take a look at the feasibility if the states do take care of the federal lands,” Baumgardner said in a phone interview. “But it doesn’t even seem like [Democrats] want to study it to see if there’s more money there that the state could have to actually pull away from the federal government.”
Democratic Colorado State Sen. Kerry Donovan counters that increased state control over federal lands could lead to more development and endanger the state’s outdoor recreation and tourism industries. The real key, she says, is giving local communities the tools they need to provide better input to the federal government when it makes sweeping land-use decisions.
Donovan helped run a successful bipartisan bill (H.B. 1225) in the Senate that provides state funding and expertise to towns and counties looking to have greater input on federal land-use decisions that impact local communities.
Administered by the state departments of Natural Resources, Local Affairs, and Agriculture, the program is funded by the state’s Mineral Impact Fund and Severance Tax Fund. Grant application information is available on the DOLA website.
“If whatever federal department is coming in and they’re looking at a new management plan for whatever Forest Service, BLM [Bureau of Land Management] or wilderness parcel, they’re required to look at local land-use planning documents,” Donovan said. “What often happens is that those local land-use planning documents either don’t exist or they’re not written in the language that answers the questions that the feds are asking.”
David O. Williams is a journalist based in Avon, Colorado.