What Colorado’s Decision to Establish a “Public Lands Day” Means for the West and for the Nation
By Scott Braden, Wilderness Advocate
Colorado just became the first state in the nation to establish a day celebrating its parks, forests, and other public lands, passing a bipartisan bill that the governor just signed this past week. This means that May 20, 2017 will be the first “Colorado Public Lands Day.”
But what does it really mean?
First, we have to take a step back and understand the context in which this holiday was designated. Debate about public lands have roiled the West, with states like Utah leading the charge to attempt a radical takeover of our public lands heritage by passing or attempting to pass laws demanding that the public lands be turned over to the control of states or private interests.
The politicians pushing this agenda, like Utah Representative Ken Ivory and his organization called the American Lands Council, have an agenda for these lands that would shock most us: huge increases in drilling, mining, and logging to pay for management of lands now shared by all Americans; increased privatization to make public lands available to developers; and diminution of wilderness, wildlife, and recreation on public lands as they are crowded out by industrial extractive uses. Their agenda could render the public estate unrecognizable to most Americans, who greatly value our nation’s shared natural treasures.
Colorado has not been immune to these threats. Our state legislators have introduced eight bills in the past five years to seize or otherwise undermine control of our public lands. Each have been defeated, and each has been a fight. But this year, something remarkable happened. Senator Kerry Donovan introduced a simple bill to declare a public lands holiday, and, despite a rocky path through the legislature and adding and striking of several anti-public lands amendments, the bill passed and became law.
And that represents a watershed moment not just for our state, but for the whole American West.
Colorado has done what no other state has done.
It has taken a definitive step away from the politics of public lands seizure and instituted a tangible recognition that public lands are an enormous public good. Our public lands support our legendary quality of life and lift our economy. We have changed the tenor and tone of the debate. We have again demonstrated that it is a Western value to collaborate and improve, rather than pursue conflict and bluster.
I believe that the public lands seizure political movement hit rock bottom when armed militants held the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year, spouting the same rhetoric of “returning” public lands to private interests as Rep. Ivory and his acolytes in statehouses across the West. The public watched in horror as the refuge was trashed, new roads bulldozed across wetlands, and Native American artifacts were disturbed by bullies toting semi-automatic weapons. The standoff ended in violence and the confederates are now largely in jail. The seizure movement has been in a tailspin ever since.
So my hope is that with the establishment of the Colorado Public Lands Day, we will have more bills across the West and nation that foster partnership and stewardship of public lands. There is surely room for improvement in the management of these lands, and hopefully this holiday can serve as a reminder that we can work together to solve problems and that enormous benefits accrue to us because of our public lands.