Colorado legislators discuss implications of GOP’s public lands party platform
September 11, 2016
A little more than 30 miles northeast of Greeley, the 190,000 acres of open prairie that make up the Pawnee National Grasslands unfold. The 30-by-60 mile short grass prairie, which is managed by the federal government, provides grazing land for about 8,000 Weld County cattle every year. Or at least it has in the past. Democrats in the Colorado state government are afraid that may change soon.
The source of their concern is a platform adopted by the Republican Party at its national convention in July in Colorado Springs.
The platform reads:
"Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation … requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public land to the states."
Translations: Certain public lands would no longer be managed by the federal government and would instead become the state's responsibility.
"To say we're going to take 140 million acres (of public lands across America) and give that back to the states, where all too often, decisions are made on a short term basis – the only way to describe that is reckless," said Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper during a July conference call. "It's literally an assault not just on Colorado, but on all of the country."
Hickenlooper, a Democrat, also said he's concerned about the effect the policy change would have on irrigation in particular, saying the transfer of public lands to state governments would upset the water system in place for farmers and ranchers.
As of January 2016, 35.9 percent of Colorado's land area is owned by the federal government, according to a Time magazine article, placing it at No. 9 on the list of states with the most public acreage. It is important to note, even if the GOP's policy were enacted, not all of Colorado's 24 million acres of public land would necessarily become the state's responsibility — the platform only calls for a transfer of "certain" public lands.
But that's little comfort for those on the other side of the issue.
"What comes to mind for me is grazing on public lands," John Swartout, a land expert and member of Hickenlooper's administration, said on the same call. "My concern would be if lands were transferred to the state, we may be in a position, from a budget standpoint, to have to raise the price substantially for grazing on public lands, and many farmers may not be able to afford that."
The debate touches on the overarching issue of how much control the federal government should have in states' affairs, and it's not the first time public lands have come up in this context. In 2014, Sen. Ted Cruz , R-Texas proposed legislation prohibiting the federal government from owning more than 50 percent of the land in any state. Another Republican senator – Marco Rubio of Florida – supported policies that would allow states to develop energy resources on public lands.
Colorado has a history as a battleground between the two parties in this debate. In February 2015, President Barack Obama designated Browns Canyon, in Chaffee County, a national monument. He did so after being urged to make an executive order by Sen. Michael Bennett, D-Colo. Bennett and Hickenlooper previously tried to approve a site near Salida as a national monument, but were defeated by Congress.
Obama's actions drew criticism from Republicans because an executive order bypasses Congress, allowing the president to act unilaterally.
"Unlike the president, who uses executive fiat to increase restrictions on federal lands like he did with Browns Canyon, we must proceed carefully when transferring public land management responsibilities," read a July statement from the office of Sen. Ken Buck, R-Colo. "Public lands should always be used for public benefit, which means trusting states to manage certain categories of public land for the good of the state."
Democrats in Colorado's state government disagree.
"This stuff isn't American," said Hickenlooper. "This is pulling out the roots of us being the country that we are." ❖