2019 Western States Legislative Brief

Western states took strides to promote conservation, clean energy development, and outdoor recreation

Lauren Bogard
Westwise

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Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest | U.S. Forest Service, Will Pattiz

Over the last two and a half years, the Trump administration has launched an assault on America’s public lands and wildlife, prioritizing drilling and mining over conservation and recreation. Extractive industries have had a cozy relationship with the Interior Department to such an extent that executives at the Independent Petroleum Association of America, a former client of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, were recently caught on tape bragging about their unfettered access to him.

In the absence of leadership at the federal level, many states in the West are moving to promote conservation and clean energy, while enacting safeguards on oil and gas development. Indeed, Western state legislatures used their 2019 sessions to pass landmark renewable energy and climate legislation, bills to celebrate our public lands, and measures that increase funding for recreation and wildlife conservation.

In 2017, the Center for Western Priorities completed a conservation scorecard that ranked states across the West on a series of benchmarks, including public lands and access, outdoor recreation, and responsible energy development. In an effort to assess the progress states are making in these areas, the Center for Western Priorities spoke with representatives of state-based conservation organizations around the region to identify the biggest “wins” for conservation in the Rocky Mountain West from the 2019 legislative session, as well as areas where there is more work to be done. Below is an overview of the key legislative accomplishments and noteworthy activities from the 2019 legislative sessions in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.

Arizona

Arizona’s Vermilion Cliffs National Monument | Bureau of Land Management, Bob Wick

Tackling water conservation

Faced with decreasing water levels in Colorado River reservoirs, the Arizona legislature passed the enabling legislation necessary for the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, a critical part of the ongoing effort to get the final seven-state plan over the finish line. The legislature also reestablished the State Parks Heritage Fund, which would provide critical resources for state parks, but failed to provide funding for the measure during this session. Hopefully, it’s a good starting point for the next session. As in sessions past, there were several proposals to transfer ownership of national public lands to the state. Thankfully, those measures received bipartisan opposition and did not reach the governor’s desk.

Key takeaway: The legislature unanimously passed legislation to create an Arizona Public Lands Day on the third Saturday in April, celebrating all types of public lands — national, state, and local. This was the first attempt to designate a Public Lands Day in Arizona. The establishment of a state public lands day can help galvanize volunteer projects and advocacy efforts related to celebrating all types of public lands in Arizona.

Colorado

Colorado’s Maroon Bells, White River National Forest | U.S. Forest Service

Leading on climate and clean energy

The first legislative session under Governor Jared Polis saw the passage of major legislation to advance clean energy and conservation. The legislature passed measures seeking to reduce the state’s carbon emissions 90 percent by 2050 and directing the Public Utilities Commission to establish a social cost for carbon dioxide emissions. Successful legislation also directs the state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, to submit a plan to achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2030. On conservation, the legislature passed bills to update conservation easements, which will help support wildlife corridors. Legislative efforts to fully fund and implement Colorado’s Water Plan⁠ — a blueprint of water conservation goals aimed at sustaining water supplies for a growing population⁠ — are ongoing and include a proposal to direct revenue from legalized sports betting toward implementation. The measure would have to be approved by Colorado voters.

Key takeaway: Colorado’s crowning achievement from the legislative session was the passage of SB 181, significant oil and gas reform legislation that requires state regulators to prioritize public health when evaluating drilling decisions, allows for more control over oil and gas development in local communities, and charts a path for the development of stronger pollution and safety regulations.

Idaho

Idaho’s Jim McClure — Jerry Peak Wilderness | Bureau of Land Management, Matt Liedecker

Celebrating public lands

The first legislative session under new Governor Brad Little happened to be one of the longest sessions in Idaho history. While the session was underway, Idaho Power announced it would move to 100 percent clean energy, replacing its coal-fired power plants with solar and wind resources by 2045. This compliments the legislature’s passage of a bill preventing homeowners associations from banning rooftop solar panels, allowing Idaho to join a long list of states with similar policies.

Key takeaway: The legislature advanced conservation by adding a line-item in the state budget to protect wildlife species and habitat through the Idaho Fish and Game Department, and the governor proclaimed May 2 as Idaho Public Lands Day.

Montana

Montana’s Glacier National Park | National Park Service

Strengthening public lands access

The Montana legislature charted a more balanced course than in years past on public lands issues, including passage of legislation to increase license plate fees, with proceeds funding state trails and parks. The legislature also passed a healthy budget for the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, and continued funding for the state’s Office of Outdoor Recreation. Governor Steve Bullock vetoed a bill that would have added a new layer of uncertainty to conservation easements by requiring state land board approval, and the legislature defeated a bill that would have prohibited public input on wildlife and land management decisions. Finally, Montana’s sage-grouse conservation plans were added to state statutes.

Key takeaway: The legislature increased funding for state parks and trails by $2 million and passed the bipartisan Public Access to Lands Act (SB 341), giving land owners up to $15,000 to build infrastructure and provide access to landlocked public lands.

Nevada

Nevada’s Pine Forest Wilderness | Bureau of Land Management, Bob Wick & Rita Ayers

Gaining ground on renewable energy

The Nevada legislature, working with new Governor Steve Sisolak, wrapped up their session in early June with a strong finish on several conservation items, including the authorization of $217 million in bonds to fund conservation efforts, legislation to establish an Office of Outdoor Recreation, a bill to enact legal penalties for any person blocking access to state or federal public lands, and finally, a bill to authorize a youth outdoor education grant program. The legislature passed legislation to expand solar energy, creating pilot programs that give low-income and residential customers who can’t install rooftop solar access to low cost solar energy. Finally, the legislature approved $5 million to fund a wildfire study, specifically how to prevent, prepare for, and manage wildfire in Nevada.

Key takeaway: The biggest legislative accomplishment of the session was the passage of SB 358, raising the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard to 50 percent clean energy generation by 2030. This was a high-priority effort by multiple advocacy groups that began in 2016 and finally came to fruition with the support of Governor Sisolak. Nevada also made history this session as the first state in the U.S. with a majority of female lawmakers with 51 percent women.

New Mexico

New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge | U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Marvin DeJong

Charting a new course on energy

The first legislative session under Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham saw major strides forward for conservation and clean energy. The legislature established an Office of Outdoor Recreation to promote economic development and created an Outdoor Equity Fund to support outdoor opportunities for low-income youth. After a court ruling prevented state regulators from assessing fines to oil and gas companies, legislation re-established such penalties, capped at $2,500 per violation, per day. The legislature rejected a bill supported by the State Land Office to increase royalty rates on high producing wells — a missed opportunity to ensure taxpayers receive a fair share of energy revenues — and defeated a bill to establish a state-managed environmental review process. Finally, the legislature approved bills to assist utilities with the development of electric vehicle charging infrastructure, to establish funding for a wildlife corridor study, and a study to examine the quality of soil health statewide.

Key takeaway: The New Mexico legislature passed the landmark Energy Transition Act, marking the state’s most meaningful action on climate change in nearly a decade. The bill raises the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard to 50 percent by 2030, 80 percent by 2040, and requires 100 percent carbon free energy by 2045. Notably, the legislation includes funding for apprenticeships, retraining, and workforce development and seeks to convene a broad set of stakeholders to strengthen and diversify local economies that have long been reliant on coal and natural gas.

Utah

Utah’s Dixie National Forest | U.S. Forest Service, Pattiz Brothers

Seeking fossil fuel exports

Utah’s state legislature continued its trend of passing legislation favoring fossil fuels, but made slight progress on reducing air pollution and increasing water conservation. In the 2019 session, the legislature approved changes to an inland port planned near Salt Lake City, allowing coal and oil shipments to be exported more easily. The legislature also allocated nearly $55 million for a coal port in Mexico and approved legislation allowing for more nuclear waste disposal within the state. After efforts to increase water conservation within the state, the legislature passed a bill that would require metering of untreated water use, but only on new construction after April 1, 2020. Notably, the body defeated a bill that would have prevented cities from banning plastic bags.

Key takeaway: The legislature passed a bill to approve deals between municipalities and Rocky Mountain Power to achieve 100 percent “clean” energy goals, setting the stage for local communities to lead on climate.

Wyoming

Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest | U.S. Forest Service, Will Pattiz

Strengthening conservation funding

The Wyoming legislature, working with new Governor Mark Gordon, conducted a productive legislative session. Notably, the state increased available funding for wildlife conservation and mitigation through the Wyoming Wildlife Natural Resource Trust. The legislature established a Wyoming Public Lands Day and passed a measure to address the issue of oil and gas companies skipping royalty payments. Several notable measures were defeated, including bills to decrease severance taxes for oil and gas drilling and strengthen penalties for “crimes against critical infrastructure,” a response to pipeline protests on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.

Key takeaway: After the legislative session wrapped up, an effort to allow Wyoming, rather than federal land management agencies, to conduct environmental analyses for energy development projects on national public lands was shot down during an interim session. Such a policy would have turned over decision-making on public lands to Wyoming, likely leading to greater impacts from oil and gas development and increased legal challenges, as the state lacks the capacity to adequately conduct such reviews.

From the Grand Canyon to Glacier National Park, the Mountain West is home to some of America’s most iconic public lands. With extensive drilling and mining throughout the region, states are grappling with how best to transition to clean energy and mitigate the impacts of climate change. While the Trump administration is rolling back the clock on conservation and energy, Western governors and state legislatures used the 2019 legislative sessions to pass policies that conserve our parks and public lands for generations to come.

For more information, visit westernpriorities.org. Sign up for Look West to get daily public lands and energy news sent to your inbox, or subscribe to Go West, Young Podcast.

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Lauren Bogard
Westwise

Director of Campaigns & Special Projects | Center for Western Priorities | Denver, CO