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Colorado has sued the BLM over its resource management plan for the Uncompahgre Plateau that expands energy production opportunities in places like the North Fork Valley. (Provided by Mason Cummings, The Wilderness Society)

Conservationists in Colorado are dreaming big. 

In a time of political turmoil and legislative impotence, a consortium of Colorado conservation groups is floating an audacious plan to conserve 30% of the land in the state — roughly 20 million acres — by 2030. Since statehood, the state has protected only 6 million acres. 

The state is losing open land more quickly than it is protecting it. Since 2001, about a half-million acres in Colorado has been lost to development. That is reflective of a worldwide trend that has some lawmakers and conservationists galvanized to make the U.S. a global leader in slowing the loss of wildlife and rainforests. 

The Global Deal for Nature movement calls for Earth’s residents to protect half the planet’s land, waters and oceans by 2050. Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and New Mexico U.S. Sen. Tom Udall have sponsored legislation — the “Thirty by Thirty Resolution to Save Nature”  — to protect 30% of the country’s lands and waters by 2030. California Gov. Gavin Newsom last week made the 30-by-30 goal a formal state policy. 

And now a coalition of conservation groups in Colorado has detailed a roadmap for how the state can reach the bold goal and protect more than 14 million acres of land in the next decade. The “Colorado Pathways to 30-by-30” proposal expands the definition of conservation, with state-level reforms to limit the impacts of energy development, executive orders, federal and state land manager policies and private landowner protection all included in the toolbox. 

“Protecting 30% of Colorado’s lands by 2030 will require a variety of approaches and creative solutions,” reads the plan, which calls for a unified effort involving federal and state land managers, tribal leaders, local communities and private landowners.  

The state of Colorado has 2.7 million acres of trust lands, given by the federal government at statehood and managed to generate revenue for public schools. State trust lands are not necessarily public; access is limited to only 500,000 acres or so, mostly managed by the State Land Board for hunting and fishing access. The “Colorado Pathways to 30-by-30” plan suggests the State Land Board could develop long-term “conservation and recreation leases” that produce revenue for schools while limiting the need for energy leases. The plan also suggests the federal government and State Land Board work together to identify possible land exchanges that could link scattered parcels that hinder access and conservation efforts.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has 42 parks on 205,000 acres and 350 state wildlife areas totaling 684,000 acres that are protected for wildlife and habitat. The agency has invested $164 million into conservation easements that protect more than 300,000 acres. The 30-by-30 plan calls for Colorado Parks and Wildlife to lead a statewide conservation and recreation plan not unlike the Colorado Water Plan while working with lawmakers to pursue “an ambitious vision and numeric goal” for new parks and wildlife areas.

The plan also calls for an executive order from Gov. Jared Polis, a la Newsom in California, that commits to 30-by-30 while expanding state conservation funding to leverage the expected fourfold increase in federal dollars coming from the Great American Outdoors Act’s full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The list of priorities continues with implementation of the Colorado climate plans,  implementation of “just transition” policies to support rural areas moving beyond a reliance on fossil fuels and “complete oil and gas regulatory reform” outlined in 2019 legislation. 

The federal government manages 24 million in acres in Colorado, roughly 36% of the state’s land. The Forest Service manages 14 million acres spread across 11 national forests. Wilderness designation and the Colorado Roadless Rule are two primary conservation tools for protecting Forest Service lands. The Colorado Roadless Rule covers about 4.1 million acres in 363 areas but since those areas do allow for some energy development and motorized trail access, the report calls for Congress to legislate “a higher and more permanent level of protection for these areas.” 

Autumn foliage stretches over Boulder Creek in the early morning hours. Oct. 12, 2020. (Lucy Haggard, The Colorado Sun)

The report says conservation efforts in Colorado would benefit from passage of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Economy Act, or CORE Act, which would protect more than 400,000 acres in Colorado. The CORE Act wrapped together several land protection bills that had languished for more than a decade and marks one of the most ambitious public lands protection proposals for Colorado in 25 years. (Congresswoman Diana DeGette has proposed a wilderness protection bill 20 years in a row.) 

The Bureau of Land Management manages 8.3 million acres in Colorado, mostly spread across the Western Slope. The BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System includes 65 areas in Colorado spanning more than 1 million acres. The BLM also manages public lands for energy development with lease programs to access nearly 27 million acres of federal mineral estate in Colorado. The 30-by-30 report calls for the BLM to revise its management plans to prioritize conservation as fossil fuel production declines. The report calls for Congress to reform oil and gas leasing programs with a moratorium on new leasing to energy developers and a permanent end to coal leasing. 

The pathways report urged engagement with Colorado’s tribes, including the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, whose reservations total 1 million acres. 

“Given Colorado’s violent history of oppression and expulsion of native people, there is a restorative justice element to inclusion of tribes in future conservation planning,” reads the report, which also urges communities to include people of color in the conservation effort as a way to connect under-privileged and overlooked communities with parks and public lands. 

The racial and economic disparities surrounding the access to open spaces, parks and public lands is known as the “Nature Gap.”

“Communities of color have less access to public lands than white communities and communities of color are 20% more likely to experience nature deprivations,” said Jessica Goad, the deputy director of Conservation Colorado, which assembled the 30-by-30 plan. 

Privately owned property accounts for nearly 60% of all the land in Colorado, ranging from single-family homes in cities to large ranches. A statewide coalition of land trusts called “Keep it Colorado” is developing a plan to guide private land protection — and incentivize conservation easements — over the next decade.

More than 33 miles of streams feeding the Navajo River are protected in the conservation easement on southern Colorado’s Banded Peak Ranch. (Provided by John Fielder / The Conservation Fund)

The overarching message in the 30-by-30 plan is that land conservation must dovetail policies to reduce the impacts of climate change. 

“I do think this is the vision that shows the human impact on land and the human impact on climate are one in the same,” said Andre Miller, the western lands policy analyst for Western Resource Advocates. “I think for a long time the climate effort focused on rightfully closing down coal power and shifting to a clean energy economy but I think a lot of scientists are realizing that lands and climate are one in the same and you need this wide-reaching approach to addressing the climate crisis.”

Miller sees growing support for large-scale conservation work in Colorado. Sen. Bennet and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse both are champions of the 30-by-30 movement. And this year’s State of the Rockies conservation poll by Colorado College showed 74% of Colorado residents support a national goal of protecting 30% of the land, water and ocean by 2030. 

To establish Colorado as a policy innovator in reaching 30% conservation in the next decade will require commitment by state lawmakers and a lot of money. Miller points to the relatively swift establishment of the state’s new Fishers Peak State Park in Trinidad as an indication that conservation can happen quickly. He hopes support from Polis would lead to state agencies and federal land managers working together to create more national monuments, more wilderness areas, more state wildlife areas and as many as 10 new state parks in the next 10 years. 

“We will need a bold shift toward this type of landscape scale protection,” Miller said.

Conservation groups in Colorado already are at the forefront of legal and policy action. They champion bills like DeGette’s 660,000-acre Colorado Wilderness Bill and the CORE Act. They fight just about every lease sale by the BLM. They advocate for Gunnison sage grouse and other species threatened by development. And they even sue the BLM over resource management plans that lean toward oil and gas development and away from evolving economies like those in the North Fork Valley, where recreation small-scale agriculture and wine are driving an economic renaissance away from a sole reliance on extractive industry.

“What 30-by-30 does is it gives us the chance to harness these things together so we can be bigger than the sum of our parts,” said Scott Braden, the interim director of the Western Slope Conservation Center, which, incidentally, is among a consortium of climate and conservation groups suing the BLM over its approval of a resource management that expands oil and gas development in the Uncompahgre Plateau’s North Fork Valley.

Conservationists and the Forest Service are raising money to protect Sweetwater Lake bordering the Flat Tops Wilderness in Garfield County. (Todd Winslow Pierce, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The biggest challenge for the plan is “political will,” Goad said. 

The plan needs support in Washington,D.C., and among state and local leaders as well as private landowners. And that has happened before in Colorado, said Goad, pointing to clean energy initiatives that have made renewable energy in Colorado cheaper than coal in the last decade. 

The impacts of climate change are driving the need for land conservation, Goad said. 

“Look at this summer of wildfires,” she said. “For the first time, many of us in Colorado are checking the air quality index before we go outside every day and that is a real impact from climate change.” 

The pandemic also is elevating the need for land protection as more Coloradans explore the state. 

“I think Coloradans are just feeling so lucky to live in this state during the pandemic and are really embracing the Colorado way of life and outdoor lifestyle and we know we need more protected land,” Goad said. “And investment in our public lands and water has to be part of our economic recovery, with the protection of public lands economically linked to our rural economies.”

The Colorado Sun — Email: Twitter: @jasonblevins