The whisper of transferring federal lands to states typically ignites firestorms, with conservationists, sportsmen and mountain communities fearing a shift of ownership could lead to unfettered development, lost access, habitat degradation and injury to recreation-based economies.
But this week’s proposal by the Bureau of Land Management to transfer 17,700 acres of federal land and 6,000 acres of mineral estate to the Colorado State Land Board hasn’t raised a hackle. Yet.
The BLM wants to pay a 143-year-old debt it owes the state. Under the Statehood Act, the federal government doled out land — a pair of 1-mile sections for every 36 square-mile township — to state land trusts to generate revenue for public schools.
When Colorado became a state in 1876, it got about 4 million acres. The State Land Board has about 2.8 million acres left that the board has leased to generate more than $1.7 billion for public education in the last decade.
The feds still owe the state about 9,900 acres that could not be delivered in 1876 because much of Colorado’s land on the Western Slope belonged to the Utes. Now the BLM wants to pay back that acreage, or the equivalent value, spread across 16 counties.
The BLM and the State Land Board have spent eight years working to identify transferable lands. Eliminating the debt has been on the land board’s to-do list “literally for 143 years,” board spokeswoman Kristin Kemp said.
“This land has been owed to Colorado’s schoolkids in the form of a trust since statehood,” she said.
Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed an order in March directing the BLM to safeguard public access for recreation when identifying lands for potential disposal or exchange. So the acres identified in this proposal largely includes smaller parcels near or intermingled with State Land Board land and will not change existing leases for oil and gas or grazing and will not impact access for recreation.
“At first blush, I don’t see any particular issues with what is being proposed. In fact, at least in some of the proposed parcels, it’ll likely lead to better management,” said Luke Schafer, the Western Slope director for Conservation Colorado. “Obviously, the devil will be in the details, but I’m not alarmed by anything that is being proposed.”
Aaron Weiss, the deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, has some questions about a few of the proposed transfers along rivers and close to highways in Eagle, Garfield and Routt counties, but the overall plan did not raise any immediate issues.
“In general, this appears to be on the up-and-up, especially the parcels that complete, or are adjacent to, existing state land,” Weiss said.
Kemp said if the lands are transferred, the use of those parcels will not change “in the short-term.”
“But over time, those lands will be integrated into existing state trust land uses,” she said, noting that the land board leases 98% of its lands for agricultural uses, while also providing leases for oil and gas development, renewable energy development and recreational uses like hunting and fishing.
This summer the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Montana digital mapping company OnX issued a report showing 1.78 million acres of the land trust’s 2.8 million acres are closed to recreation in any form. The prohibition of access to those lands isolates 18,000 acres of federal land from public access, according to the report, which also identified 435,000 acres of state land board property that is inaccessible to the public because they are surrounded by private land.
In July the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission expanded its Public Access Program, adding leases for an additional 100,000 acres of State Trust Land for hunting and fishing. The state land board now allows hunting and fishing on 585,000 acres of its lands and hunters and anglers have joined CPW with a goal to lease another 400,000 acres of trust land in the next two years.
“State trust lands are managed in a very different way than BLM lands,” said Tim Brass, the state policy director for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, noting that hunting access on state trust lands costs much more than hunting access to BLM land. “As we’ve seen with Colorado trust lands, recreational access for hunting and fishing is definitely not guaranteed and while we have made great progress thanks to a supportive governor and the folks at CPW who helped broker this new agreement, there is a lot of work to be done to get even close to the hunting and fishing opportunities that are available on BLM land.”
Brass said BHA would be taking a closer look at the proposed exchange and will be engaging the State Land Board to protect recreational access.
While the Bernhardt order requires the BLM to consider recreation when transferring public lands, it does not control what happens to those lands after the lands are transferred to a state and agency’s existing leases expire.
“They will be state trust lands and over time they will be released and managed like all other Colorado state trust land to fund Colorado public schools,” Kemp said.
The BLM is seeking public comment on the proposed transfer. The proposed transfer will get a second public scoping in March and the state land board hopes to hold a public meeting next spring to review the transfer, Kemp said, with hopes that a deal can be finalized in the summer of 2020.