Colorado’s population and recreation economies are booming. The state’s outdoor opportunities are the catalyst behind this growth. 

A side effect of this growth is the strain on existing public lands and recreational infrastructure. Permit systems have been proposed for the Maroon Bells Wilderness, campgrounds are booked months in advance, and anglers stand shoulder to shoulder in Front Range streams. 

Liz Rose

State government can easily alleviate much of this strain on recreational infrastructure by providing public recreational access to the 1.78 million of acres of state trust lands in Colorado that currently are accessible but closed to public recreation.

Colorado is known for our public lands. Few are aware, however, of what Outdoor Life calls “Colorado’s big secret.” 

We remain the only state in the West that prohibits public recreational access to state trust lands. Colorado Parks and Wildlife pays the Colorado State Land Board more than $1.3 million annually for public access to less than 581,000 of Colorado’s 2.8 million acres of state trust lands (21%), with hunters and anglers picking up the tab via license fees. 

Coloradans are effectively locked out of the remaining two million-plus acres — no hunting, fishing, camping or hiking allowed. Instead, private recreational access to a growing percentage of Colorado’s state trust lands is being auctioned off to a select few who pay to secure exclusive rights to recreate on our state trust lands.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 1992, the threat of a ballot initiative aiming to open state trust lands to public recreation free of charge led the state land board to enact a “multiple use policy.” 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

The State Land Board pledged that “over 10 years this policy will permit recreational uses on approximately one-half of the state trust lands, or around 1.5 million acres.”

The policy’s original intent was to create a win-win situation whereby public access would increase, while more revenue would be generated for trust land beneficiaries, namely Colorado public schools. 

Today, around two million acres of state trust lands are still not leased for recreation, giving us an opportunity to substantially increase recreational access to state lands.

Hundreds of Colorado big game licenses remain unpurchased each year, which, in most cases, only remain left over because of a lack of public access. 

Hunters continue to be a viable economic force, and we lose sportsmen’s dollars when they don’t have reasonable opportunities to go afield. According to Hunting Works for Colorado, each hunter spends an average of $1,800 each year, which is part of what makes up the $465 million that sportsmen contribute to rural economies annually.

Hunting and outdoor recreation have the potential to sustain the economies of Colorado’s communities and help fund Colorado public schools. 

Colorado leads the way when it comes to investing in our outdoor recreation economy through popular programs like Great Outdoors Colorado, the establishment of the Outdoor Recreation Industry Office and, now, hosting the largest outdoor retailer show in the world. 

Every other Western state has found ways to benefit economically and support outdoor recreation by providing public recreational access to state trust lands. 

Colorado can, too. More than 3,300 sportsmen and women have signed a petition urging state decision-makers to change the current, antiquated state trust land policies. Our quality of life and economy will benefit. 

I’d like to thank Gov. Jared Polis for prioritizing state trust land access. We also need our representatives in the legislature to realize the tremendous potential that these lands hold for Colorado’s outdoorsmen and women and for rural economies.

Liz Rose is a candidate for a Masters of the Environment, Environmental Policy Specialization, University of Colorado Boulder; Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers

Special to The Colorado Sun