Public lands’ promise hinges on {dollars} | Premium

There’s no question: Colorado loves the great outdoors. Arguments to the contrary — politically, socially or economically — are out in the cold.

The real issue is how do you pay to care for the public’s property, while working to preserve habitat and clean water in a fraught climate? The struggles and costs are myriad and stretch from Denver to Washington, D.C.

In Colorado, the struggle to protect in lieu of profit is a challenge of the times, while Coloradans are already being tapped to the tune of about $4 billion more in fees to pay for transportation and spending $4.7 billion in state and federal stimulus.

In Colorado, parks and most outdoor amenities are paid for with fees paid by hunters, anglers and paying visitors, and it’s not nearly enough. In 2018, they raised fees on licenses and outdoor activities, bringing in 20% more revenue to more than $96 million in 2019.

At the same time, however, the agency’s Public Access Program grew from about 465,000 acres in 2018 to more than 774,000 acres in 2020.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jared Polis opened a new state park, Fishers Peak in Animas County, in October and has his sights set on opening another.

In March, he signed Senate Bill 112 to take $20 million from the state budget to fix up existing state parks, a relatively small amount for the vast acreage and vast support for public lands in this state.

Investing in parks “charts a road map for Coloradans to embark on daring adventures, take a much-needed breather for which we need open skies,” the governor said. “We need to show kids we value conservation and recreation. I’m looking forward to continuing down this road to a sustainable future with great opportunities in our vast outdoors.”

There on the dock at Cherry Creek State Park on a sunny Sunday in March, he promised a large, sustainable source of state money over the horizon. Polis says the Democrats delivered, but it’s Coloradans who will have to pay.   

About a month later, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder and Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Democrat from Vail, introduced Senate Bill 249 to create the Keep Colorado Wild pass, which would collect a fee to be set by the state Parks and Wildlife Commission when Coloradans register their vehicles.

The bill is expected to raise about $37 million a year for public lands by tacking a fee onto car, truck and motorcycle registrations.

The 42 state parks would receive $32.5 million, search and rescue operations are slated to receive $2.5 million annually and $1 million would support the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Public lands aren’t the only thing motorists are being asked to help pay for.

Senate Bill 260, legislation titled the Sustainability of the Transportation System, would assess an escalating table of higher fees on gasoline, deliveries, ride-sharing and electric vehicles.

Theoretically, however, vehicle owners could opt out of the Keep Colorado Wild charge instead of opting in. Choosing not to participate would hamper them from registering a vehicle.

Though he’s an avid conservationist, Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from Sterling, said the opt-out scheme seemed dishonest at worse and complicated at best.

“This is done in a way where they put it on your tax bill for your car or truck with the other fees you’re going to encounter in the near future,” he said. “Then they put that on and you have to say, ‘Oh, no, I don’t want that. I don’t want that fee. I don’t want that park pass.’”

Most people notice or go to the trouble to remove the charge, he said. If it were an opt-in, however, it would bring in less money, Sonnenberg safely surmised.

“They’re counting on the general public not to pay attention,” he said.

The precedent is long established that people who use parks, backcountry and public waters pay to support them through licenses and fees for those respective activities. Charging a wider swath of payers — in this case, vehicle owners — is a nod toward declaring the outdoors a common good.

Hunters and anglers were already paying.

The federal Pittman-Robertson Act (the 11% excise tax on guns and ammunition that raised nearly $1 billion last year) and the Dingell-Johnson Act (a 10% levy on boating and fishing that raised $971 million) to pay for restoration, conservation and management.

Blame climate change, but huge chunks of federal money for forests go to fighting wildfires: $952 million last year, including at least $214 million in Colorado.

Members of the state’s congressional delegation campaigned and lobbied to restore the Land and Water Conservation Fund last year, which is paid for with royalties on offshore oil leases.

The bill was reauthorized for $900 million a year for five years as part of a nearly $2 billion Great American Outdoors Act to address long-neglected upkeep at parks, forests, refuges and conservation districts.

President Donald Trump zeroed out the fund in 2018, and the Biden administration blocked Trump’s order that cut the spending in half. All of Colorado’s Democratic congressional members signed on to a letter accusing the administration of trying to siphon off money approved by Congress days before a new president took office.

Lack of funding doesn’t track with public opinion, however, unless what people say and what they will pay are different things.

Soon after taking office in January, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to take on climate change domestically and abroad. Tucked in it was a critical national goal to conserve at least 30% of U.S. lands and freshwater, plus 30% of U.S. jurisdictional ocean by 2030, commonly called 30×30.

Biden called for a report to outline how to get there.

This month, the departments of Agriculture, Commerce and Interior, as well as the president’s Council on Environmental Quality, delivered a 22-page plan to the National Climate Task Force called “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful,” a nod, intentional or not, to Colorado where Katharine Lee Bates was inspired to write the famous song atop Pikes Peak in 1893.

Success will depend on voluntary and locally led conservation efforts, tribal sovereignty and private property rights, authors wrote, calling them “essential ingredients to building and maintaining broad support, enthusiasm and trust for this effort.”

What’s resulted is a mix of hope and apprehension on what exactly it means, with the far left hoping for a big stick to protect America’s treasures, while those who depend on that land for their livelihoods have concerns that big government could put a big hurt on their bank accounts with more rules and fewer areas to prosper.

The result is likely to be somewhere in the middle, said advocates and skeptics, citing the gulf between words and action.

Denver public lands advocate and biodiversity analyst Mark Smith said the talk of the moment is gratifying, but it’s not tangible yet. A lot depends on Biden and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis winning a second term, he said.

“I’m cautiously optimistic about the future of public lands, if we stay on the path we’re on, but I’d say I’m more cautious than optimistic, having been here before,” Smith said.

There’s a lot of ground to cover in the next 8½ years. Currently, about 12% of U.S. land and 11% of freshwater are under some level of government protection.

About 23% of the waters surrounding U.S. property is protected.

In March, Denver’s Michael Hancock and Boulder’s Sam Weaver were among 70 mayors from 29 states to endorse Biden’s proposal in a letter.

“Efforts to conserve, protect, and restore our natural world will be guided by science, protect private property rights, honor tribal sovereignty and engage local communities to ensure that the benefits of nature are equitably shaped and shared by all,” states the letter organized by the League of Conservation Voters.

“Positive, bipartisan, community-driven conservation efforts are already happening in our community.”

The underfunding and political jousting, however, doesn’t track with public opinion.

The State of the Rockies poll released by Colorado College in Colorado Springs in February gauged attitudes on the outdoors in eight Western states.

Of Biden’s 30×30 promise, 81% of Coloradans supported it, including 92% who identified as Democrats and 63% of self-identified Republicans, the Colorado College survey indicated.

When the poll was conducted in January, 88% of respondents across the West said they had visited a national park or federal public lands in the past year.

An October 2019 poll by New Bridge Strategy, a Colorado research firm that typically advises Republicans, indicated two-thirds of Western Slope voters backed designating more public land as wilderness areas.

“Our public lands are highly valued and need to be protected as economic drivers for our communities and for the ecosystem service benefits they provide,” San Miguel County Commissioner Hilary Cooper said.

Preserving private interests

It isn’t Christmas-come-early for environmental activists, however.

“Traditional mechanisms of land protection like permanent acquisition, easement or federal designation will rightfully play a role in achieving 30×30,” the Western Landowners Alliance, a Santa Fe, New Mexico-based nonprofit for those making a living off private and leased land, said in a statement about the Biden plan, adding, “Working landscapes are the cornerstones of communities and functional ecosystems in the West. They are disappearing and taking nature with them as they go.”

The American Farm Bureau, an advocacy organization for farmers and ranchers, also is leery of Democrats’ green deals, especially if it affects agricultural operations, particularly cattle grazing.

Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the proposal seems to acknowledge the “oversized contributions of farmers and ranchers to conservation while feeding the world.”

The process and end product will bear a close watch to make sure it stays that way, he said.

“The report is a philosophical document that emphasizes important principles such as incentive-based voluntary conservation, protecting personal and property rights and continued ranching on public lands, but it lacks specifics,” he said.

He vowed to work with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to make sure “the details live up to promises made to protect American agriculture.”

Colorado is ahead of the game. More than 43% of the state’s landmass is managed by the state or federal government.

That’s not nearly good enough for the Colorado politicians, sensing the winds of public opinion and political opportunity.

For more than a decade, almost since he got to Washington, Sen. Michael Bennet has been calling to protect more public lands.

Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat from Lafayette who was elected to Congress in 2018, has been the Robin to Bennet’s Batman on public lands legislation. In February, he was elected chair of the House Natural Resources Committee’s subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.

Also in February, the U.S. House passed the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act to protect more than 400,000 acres of public lands in Colorado, including new wilderness, recreation and conservation areas. The bill is pending in the Senate.

The Neguse bill was packaged with eight public lands bills that would protect nearly 3 million acres in Colorado, Arizona, California and Washington.

The Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act is sponsored by Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette of Denver.

As in the past, the bill is throttled in the Senate, which is led by Democrats.

This month, Bennet and Neguse backed a bipartisan, bicameral Joint Chiefs Landscape Restoration Partnership Act to step up forest and grassland restoration projects across public and private properties through voluntary projects.

The bill would provide up to $90 million for grants annually.

“In the West, our forests are an integral part of our infrastructure and our economy,” Bennet said.

In 2017, he and then-Rep. Jared Polis introduced legislation to preserve nearly 100,000 acres of wilderness, recreation and conservation areas along the Continental Divide in the White River National Forest.

The bill would have created three wilderness areas and expanded three existing ones. In the bargain, Colorado would have the first National Historic Landscape around Camp Hale, the famous World War II training base north of Leadville.

The Continental Divide Recreation, Wilderness and Camp Hale Legacy Act never came up for a vote in the Republican-led House, but it’s not incorporated into the CORE Act.

Donovan, the state senator running for Congress next year, is the mother of Colorado’s Public Lands Day, the first such official observance in the country designated by the legislature in 2016. She also led a state resolution in support of the national designation for Camp Hale in 2017. Her grandfather Bill Mounsey was a 10th Mountain Division soldier who trained there.

DeGette also has been one of the strongest advocates on public lands for two decades.

In February, the Democrat from Denver reintroduced the Colorado Wilderness Act to protect almost 660,000 acres. She passed it out of the Democratic-controlled House a year ago, then tucked it into a multistate proposal to preserve 1.4 million acres of public lands, only to see both languish in the then-Republican-led Senate.

Times, priorities and majorities have changed in Washington this year.

“For those of us who’ve been leading the 30×30 charge in Congress, having a partner in the White House is invaluable,” DeGette tweeted in January. “Soon, we will be reintroducing the Protecting America’s Wilderness Act to preserve more than 1.3 million acres of wilderness.

“This is the year we get it done!”