2021 Western states legislative summary

During a legislative session like no other, Western states moved to conserve public lands, address drought and wildfire

Lauren Bogard
Westwise

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Lake Mead National Recreation Area | Photo by Andrew Cattoir, NPS

Despite significant disruptions and budget shortfalls caused or exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, states across the West continued to invest in conservation, renewable energy, and improve access to the outdoors during the 2021 legislative session. In some cases, the ability and the necessity to conduct hearings and testimony over Zoom actually led to improvements for democratic participation (and let’s be honest, also lots of frustration).

Building on previous analysis in 2019 of Western states’ legislative challenges and accomplishments related to public lands conservation, climate change, and responsible energy development, the Center for Western Priorities spoke with state-based conservation organizations to develop a legislative summary of the highlights and challenges for conservation from the 2021 legislative session, including:

  • Substantial funding for state parks and trails in Arizona;
  • A new program to generate sustainable revenue for state parks and wildlife in Colorado;
  • Budget surplus dollars in Idaho directed toward improving trail maintenance and infrastructure;
  • Dedicated funding for state parks, trails, and wildlife in Montana from recreational marijuana sales revenue;
  • A state-level resolution to protect 30% of Nevada’s land and waters by 2030;
  • Newly available funds to support local water projects in New Mexico;
  • The creation of two new state parks in Utah;
  • Funding to support two mule deer crossing projects to protect wildlife and public safety in Wyoming

This assessment coincides with another report from the Center for Western Priorities on how Western states are contributing to the bold campaign to protect 30% of America by 2030. The report specifically looked at the tools and resources used by state governments in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming to engage in conservation activities across six subject areas, including state conservation areas, conservation funding, state trust lands, voluntary private conservation, promoting ecological connectivity, and protection for fresh waters. The results show that Western states are leading the way when it comes to implementing creative approaches to conservation. Indeed, many states are already taking steps toward reaching the goals outlined in the America the Beautiful report, the Biden administration’s statement of guiding principles and recommended approach to achieving the bold vision of the 30x30 goal.

Below is an overview of key accomplishments and noteworthy activities from the 2021 legislative sessions in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.

Arizona

Slate Fire in Arizona’s Coconino National Forest | Credit: Coconino National Forest.

Wildfire season came early and drought is here to stay

Key action: The legislature restored $5 million in funding for the Arizona State Parks Heritage Fund, a program that was created in the 1990’s but chronically unfunded for decades. In addition, $250,000 in funding will be directed to the Arizona Trail, a hiking and horseback riding trail that traverses the length of the state. These achievements demonstrate that despite a particularly divisive and dysfunctional legislative session, voters expect their legislators to provide dedicated funding for conservation.

Legislative summary: The impacts of severe drought across the Southwest continued to be a concern for Arizona’s 2021 legislative session. Fortunately, the state budget includes $160 million for a new drought mitigation fund and $40 million directed to a water supply fund established by the drought contingency plan two years ago. The passage of House Bill 2056 will allow surface water users to work with the Arizona Department of Water Resources to create new voluntary conservation programs without facing the risk that their water rights will be forfeited under Arizona’s “use it or lose it” clause. The bill received strong bipartisan support in the legislature and a rare unanimous vote.

Several bills were introduced to address climate resiliency and ground and surface water shortages that didn’t get hearings or were otherwise stopped from moving forward because of partisan gridlock. This includes continuing efforts to incentivize farmers to conserve and to keep more water in the Verde River by decreasing withdrawals. Though the measure fell short this session it may be attempted again in 2022. Fortunately, an effort was blocked that would have slowed down Arizona’s clean energy transition. A pair of bills (House Bill 2248 and Senate Bill 1175) would have stripped the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) of its rulemaking power to determine the state’s energy mix, which could have jeopardized the ACC’s efforts to update energy rules that will allow the state to realize the economic benefits of carbon-free energy while also reducing emissions.

Arizona got an early and aggressive taste of the 2021 wildfire season that prompted the closure of several national forests. During the special session, nearly $100 million was approved for immediate fire suppression needs, with some dedicated funding directed toward efforts to reduce hazardous fuels that increase wildfire risk, and hiring additional firefighting personnel to increase wildfire response capacity.

Colorado

Colorado’s Powderhorn Wilderness | Photo by Bob Wick, BLM

Improving access to the outdoors

Key action: The big win in Colorado is the creation of the Keep Colorado Wild Annual Pass, a new funding program that will generate sustainable revenue for state parks, wildlife conservation, and outdoor recreation programs through a vehicle-displayed pass that will be added when Coloradans register their vehicles (unless they opt out). The pass will both facilitate equitable access to the state’s outdoor opportunities through automatic discounted access, and protect those resources from the impacts of increased visitation through investments in maintenance and infrastructure.

Legislative summary: The Colorado legislature directed millions of dollars in additional funding toward its state parks at the same time that it authorized the creation of the Colorado Outdoor Equity Grant Program. The grant program supports organizations providing outdoor education and recreation opportunities for Colorado’s youth who may not have access to outdoor experiences otherwise. The legislature directed $3.5 million to the State Wildlife Action Plan to provide funding for a new wildlife corridor and road crossing coordinator to support habitat connectivity, and both chambers passed a bipartisan resolution to protect the state’s wildlife corridors, an important element of the 30x30 goal. Colorado also took strides to support the reintroduction and management of gray wolves in the state through the implementation of the recently voter-approved Proposition 114.

This session addressed forest health and wildfire risk mitigation through a $6 million forest restoration grant program and a $30 million investment to the Colorado Water Resources Board Watershed Restoration grant program. The Colorado Water Plan Implementation Fund received a $15 million infusion, and $5 million will be directed to the Water Supply Reserve Fund for statewide water roundtables. Finally, the legislature modified the conservation easement tax credit program to expand opportunities for private and working lands conservation efforts.

One of the most hard-fought battles of the 2021 Colorado legislative session were the negotiations around efforts to advance previously passed legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and implement climate justice work for impacted communities. The final negotiated air pollution reduction and environmental justice bill will create enforceable pollution limits and set specific timelines for meeting emission reduction goals for three of the top polluting sectors of the state’s economy: oil and gas exploration, industrial activities, and electricity generation. The legislation also clarifies the definition of communities disproportionately impacted by pollution and takes steps to address systemic environmental injustice. Finally, the bill creates new funding to support the Colorado Air Pollution and Control Division staff to conduct permitting activities, monitoring, regulatory efforts, and community outreach regarding the rulemaking, and established the Community Cash Impact Fund to direct money from fines collected for air quality violations to the communities that are most directly impacted.

Idaho

Gray wolf | Photo by Scott Flaherty, USFWS

Wolves and bitter relations

Key action: In an extreme move, the legislature passed and the governor signed a proposal to exterminate 90% of the state’s wolf population through the use of contractors. The legislation sailed through the state legislature and was signed into law by Governor Brad Little. However, there is some hope the legislation will not have the desired effect of drastically culling the state’s wolf population given they are hard to hunt and the target is said to be unrealistic. The bigger issue is a concerted effort to chip away at the authority of the Idaho Fish and Game Department to oversee the management of Idaho wildlife populations.

Legislative summary: There isn’t much to celebrate from this year’s legislative session in Idaho, the longest in the state’s history. The exception is that, due to persistent underfunding of state services, Idaho had a massive budget surplus, $3 million of which Governor Little directed as one-time funding for Idaho parks to be used for trail maintenance and infrastructure and help with the increase in visitation to public lands during the pandemic.

This legislative session had its fair share of threats to public lands, including an anti-public lands resolution to set aside $250,000 for a study to determine the taxable value of public lands. The resolution passed, and is suspiciously similar to a presentation given by former Utah State Representative and land seizure proponent Ken Ivory to an association of Idaho counties regarding a “pilot technology” to determine the taxable value of public lands. The legislature also passed a bill to allow the farming of domestic reindeer despite the extreme risk of chronic wasting disease inherent with farmed herds, and the jeopardization of successful efforts to reintroduce woodland caribou in Northwestern Idaho.

In a piece of good news, three efforts to attack the Office of the Attorney General’s authority to represent the Idaho Department of Lands failed. If passed, the bills would have weakened the AG office’s ability to defend against takeovers and use violations on public lands. In other good news, a bill to increase fees for electric vehicle registrations died, as did a proposal to remove county-by-county requirements for emissions testing to be completed annually.

The Idaho legislature turned down millions in federal funds for Covid-19 relief money, and generally devoted their time to curbing the governor and state agencies’ executive authority in retaliation for any efforts to enact restrictions related to mitigating the spread and public health risk of Covid-19. While there aren’t many signs of hope that relations between the legislature, the lieutenant governor, and the governor will improve, there is likely to be proposed legislation in the 2022 session to increase hazard pay for firefighters to get the compensation in Idaho in line with the federal government and other states.

Montana

Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River | Photo by Bob Wick, BLM

Defense wins games in Montana

Key action: The best news coming out of the Montana legislative session was a successful effort to defend the allocation of funding for conservation through the taxation of recreational marijuana sales revenue. In 2020, Montana voters approved an initiative to legalize recreational marijuana, impose a tax on sales, and dedicate half the ensuing tax revenue to conservation through land acquisition and habitat protection. However, Governor Gianforte and others in the legislature threatened to obstruct the will of the voters by attempting to redirect this new funding stream to other purposes. Because of successful efforts to block the governor’s interference, Habitat Montana will receive dedicated funding for state parks, trails, and non-game wildlife conservation.

Legislative summary: Defensive efforts were crucial during the 2021 Montana legislative session when it came to opposing bad policy proposals. This included efforts to facilitate the transfer of public lands; to compensate landowners whenever a regulation diminishes the value of private property, including for commonsense energy and wildlife management efforts; and to put taxpayers on the hook to pay for an aging coal-fired power plant in Colstrip. Unfortunately, some bad bills could not be stopped, including a successful effort to repeal the state’s renewable portfolio standard, which had been a significant driver of economic and renewable energy development since 2005.

A bill to eliminate restrictions on nuclear energy facility siting was approved and signed into law, essentially weakening the public’s voice when it comes to whether or not to pursue nuclear energy development. Another bill designed to intimidate Montanans from peacefully exercising their first amendment right to protest also passed, despite vague language and harsh reprimands. The stated purpose of the bill was to severely increase penalties for trespassing or tampering with energy infrastructure, despite existing laws that prosecute trespassing and vandalization.

Nevada

Redstone in Lake Mead National Recreation Area
Photo by Andrew Cattoir, NPS

Leading the way on 30x30

Key action: Nevada became the first state in the country to pass a resolution to protect 30% of the state’s land and waters, similar to the national 30x30 goal outlined in the Biden administration’s America the Beautiful report. This work builds on the previously successful effort by Clark County and is particularly notable given that Nevada is one of the fastest growing states in the nation. The resolution incorporates the Spirit Mountain/Avi Kwa Ame national monument proposal as an area of cultural significance, as well as wildlife habitat, landscape connectivity, and a dark sky designation.

Legislative summary: The Nevada legislature meets every other year so each session is action-packed, and this year was no exception: the state suffered severe economic fallout from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and had to cut $1 billion out of a $4 billion statewide budget. While the financial reality may have tempered expectations around what could be passed, many renewable energy and public lands-related bills still received bipartisan support.

The legislature attempted to pass several resolutions in an effort to address the environmental impact of mining and the fact that mining companies were paying little to no revenue to the state. However, because mining revenue deals with taxes, any reforms must be passed through a ballot initiative process and be approved by voters after passing in two consecutive legislative sessions. When it was all said and done, three of the resolutions died in exchange for a compromise bill that raised revenue on mining without needing to go to the ballot.

A few pieces of legislation related to energy efficiency passed this session, including a requirement for utility companies to set aside a fund to help low income households pay their utility bills and upgrade to more efficient energy infrastructure within homes. In an effort to avoid rolling blackouts, a legislative proposal was passed that will upgrade transmission lines and connection infrastructure to better manage energy across the entire statewide grid. In addition, funding was allocated for upgrading electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Unfortunately, Nevada is not on track to meet its goal of generating 100% renewable energy by 2050, a proposal passed during the previous legislative session in 2019. A proposal designed to help Nevada meet its renewable energy goal by requiring natural gas infrastructure to follow an integrated planning process in line with renewable energy goals did not pass this session, and some observers fear this is a sign of bigger fights to come as heavy opposition from the oil and gas industry is expected to continue.

A legislator with a background in real estate led a successful legislative effort to require developers to avoid, minimize, and mitigate impacts to wildlife by working closely with the Nevada Department of Wildlife. In a related effort, the legislature passed a ban on new non-functioning, nonresidential turf and will require removal of the same (as in grass in highway medians, commercial office parks, etc). Nevada is the first state in the nation to pass a resolution of this kind, and will effectively remove 31% of grass in southern Nevada, relieving pressure on already stretched water supplies.

New Mexico

Sierra Vista National Recreation Trail in southwestern New Mexico | BLM Flickr

Legislative gridlock stymied progress on climate, conservation bills

Key action: One of the biggest achievements of the 2021 New Mexico legislative session was the successful effort to free up $80 million that was originally allocated for a dam on the Gila River. The newly available funds will support local water projects following the elimination of the Gila River diversion project. The successful passage of this bill is hailed as an example of the positive impact of the pandemic for enhanced democratic participation as many New Mexicans made their voices heard on this issue by providing testimony.

Legislative summary: The world was essentially upside down at the beginning of the 2021 legislative session in New Mexico due to the severe economic and public health impacts of Covid-19. As a state heavily dependent on revenue from oil and gas, New Mexico’s public services and economy suffered when the spot price of West Texas Intermediate dropped to historic lows. This set the stage for a practical, “no frills” approach to the legislative session and an emphasis on public health. Early estimates indicated the potential for flat cuts across all state agencies, although several small bills advanced that allowed for modest budget increases for the environment and minerals and natural resource departments. In addition, continued funding for the Outdoor Equity Fund was secured, as well as funding for a trails package.

A few items were introduced related to climate and clean energy, including the Climate Solutions Act, which would put into statute Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s 2019 Climate Executive Order of setting a target of statewide net-zero emissions by 2050. The legislation would have created a climate leadership council and a sustainable economic development subgroup and explicitly give a seat at the table to frontline Indigenous, people of color, and low-income communities who carry a disproportionate burden from climate change impacts and from the transition away from fossil fuels. Unfortunately, the bill did not pass, but the sustainable economic development subgroup was included in another bill, and a climate leadership council was created within the minerals and natural resources department to support the creation of a strategy to get to net zero emissions by 2050.

For public lands and wildlife, a few bills passed to facilitate prescribed burns on private lands by creating a burn permit through the New Mexico forestry division, and a bill to eliminate the use of snares or traps for hunting on public lands. A bill to establish a “right to hunt and fish” was defeated that tapped into long-simmering stream access issues and opposition from private landowners. Most noteworthy is the passage of the Environmental Database Act, a bill to create a map-based, publicly available and centralized database of information from various state agencies covering natural resources, environmental, and non-proprietary industry information. Once completed, the database will facilitate interagency collaboration and make state planning efforts more efficient and effective.

A major choke point in the New Mexico legislative process is the requirement for bills to be reviewed by the senate judiciary committee, which sat on more than 150 bills at the end of the session. As an example, time ran out for consideration of a bill that would have made necessary updates to the state’s Natural Lands Protection Act and the Natural Heritage Conservation Act. If passed, the bill would have enhanced the state’s ability to conserve land, wildlife, and outdoor heritage by restoring working lands, rangelands, watersheds and wildlife habitat, as well as providing authority to purchase conservation and agricultural easements and acquire land to create new parks, wildlife areas, and local open spaces with dual recreation and conservation benefits. On the optimistic side, this kind of legislative dysfunction may set the stage for legislative reform efforts in future sessions.

Utah

Colorado River | Photo: Utah Department of Natural Resources

Unity for fighting other states about water

Key action: Utah lawmakers teamed up to easily pass a bill creating the Utah Colorado River Authority, an entity that would help Utah renegotiate its water allocation from the Colorado River. While the lawmakers successfully argued that Utah needs to ensure its water needs are met, critics are wary of the chaos that could ensue by opening up meetings on Colorado River water use and apportionment. A bill also passed to phase in secondary water metering, meaning Utahns will be billed for the water they use on their lawns.

Legislative summary: Like many states across the West, Utah’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic set the tone for the legislative session. Masks were required in the capitol building, handshakes were banned, and plexiglass dividers were installed. The restrictions prompted a backlash from the legislature, which enacted sweeping limits on the executive branch’s emergency powers.

In budget news, around $100 million was set aside to fund state parks and trails. In addition, lawmakers passed a bill to create two new state parks: Utahraptor State Park outside Moab and Lost Creek State Park at Lost Creek Reservoir. A pair of lawmakers worked together to establish a commission for a visitor’s center at Bears Ears National Monument. The bill raised some eyebrows not because of what it does, but because of who co-sponsored it: Representative Doug Owens, a champion for public lands, and Representative Phil Lyman, who was convicted for organizing an ATV protest in Recapture Canyon in southern Utah in 2014 in an attempt to challenge federal management of public lands. After being sentenced in 2015 to serve ten days of jail time along with three years probation and a $96,000 fine, his conviction was later pardoned by former President Donald Trump. Both Rep. Lyman and Rep. Owens insist that all tribes with a stake in Bears Ears have the opportunity to participate in its creation, though it is unclear whether their efforts are supported by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. A bill also passed to begin a process to change the names of landmarks that are deemed offensive to Native Americans. Fittingly for the “Beehive State,” a bill passed to offer grants for more “bee friendly” pollinator plants in an effort to help save declining bee populations.

The legislature tried and failed to more than double the annual registration fee for electric vehicles. If passed, Utah would have had the highest EV registration fees in the nation, putting the state at a market disadvantage as major automakers transition to clean transportation vehicles. Critics also pointed out the impact to the state’s air quality through disincentivizing the use of electric vehicles.

Wyoming

Deer in Wyoming | BLM Flickr

A mixed bag on energy

Key action: A successful bill to provide funding to the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust to support two mule deer crossing projects demonstrated the persistent collaborative support for efforts to protect public safety and address wildlife crossing needs. In addition, the bill included an appropriation to mitigate the spread of two highly invasive annual grasses, medusahead and ventenata, which can increase wildfire risk and compromise ecosystem health if their spread is unabated.

Legislative summary: The 2021 legislative session in Wyoming was a mixed bag consisting of some positive efforts to support conservation and public lands access, as well as a trove of bad ideas backed by fossil fuel interests, some of which were beaten back by vociferous citizen opposition.

Several attacks on Wyoming’s treasured public lands and resources are the result of a pervasive state budget crisis due to a structural reliance on declining mineral tax revenues. The decline of fossil fuel-related revenues is the result of long-term shifts in global energy markets away from fossil fuels that were further compounded by the impact of Covid-19 on energy production activities. Murmurings of anti-public lands extremism found their way into the debate in the form of legislation to support the transfer of federally managed lands to the state. Thankfully, the infeasibility of these proposals and their general unpopularity prevented them from making significant legislative progress.

A legislative proposal designed to acknowledge the economic shift from traditional mining and energy practices toward more sustainable, cheaper sources and take meaningful steps toward a just energy transition for workers and communities was met with opposition from the state’s entrenched fossil fuel interests. The bill did not pass, nor did a bill designed to identify prospective economic development zones that included outdoor recreation and reclamation activities.

In a related legislative fight, a bill was defeated that would have threatened Wyoming’s existing net metering law that allows residents, small businesses, and local governments to produce their own renewable energy and sell it back to the grid at a retail rate. The bill’s defeat was a testament to the strong and vocal support from rooftop solar owners in Wyoming. Finally, a bill passed that will inject uncertainty into the Public Service Commission’s evaluation of utility rates and sources. The bill was developed as a mechanism to block utility proposals to retire coal-powered facilities and replace them with less expensive renewable power generation.

Conclusion

As the 2021 legislative sessions came to a close, many Western states were already grappling with the impacts of wildfire and drought, driven by climate change. It’s only July, and we’ve already seen blistering heat waves across the region, shattering temperature records in the pacific northwest. The heat and resulting “aridification” of the landscape is literal kindling for larger, more intense, and more dangerous wildfires, stretching an already overstretched firefighter workforce even before the height of wildfire “season.” The water level in the Lake Mead reservoir is the lowest it’s been since the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s, threatening both the hydropower supply and drinking water for millions of people who depend on the Colorado River. To escape the heat and enjoy the easing of public health restrictions, crowds are pouring into national parks and public lands, in some cases straining visitor capacity and infrastructure like parking lots and visitor facilities.

Fortunately, many states are rising to meet these challenges. In Arizona, legislators acted to fund hiking trails and drought mitigation efforts, as well as immediate fire suppression needs in tandem with long-term efforts to decrease fire risk and increase response capacity. Colorado created a new funding program to generate sustainable revenue for state parks and wildlife protection, and reached a compromise on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and addressing environmental justice concerns around energy development. Idaho directed $3 million toward trail maintenance and infrastructure improvements to deal with the influx of visitors to public lands. The Montana legislature successfully defended the will of the voters to direct revenue from recreational marijuana sales toward land acquisition and habitat protection for wildlife. Nevada became the first state in the country to pass a resolution to protect 30% of the state’s land and waters by 2030. New Mexico’s legislature freed up $80 million to support local water projects with the help of many passionate New Mexicans who made their voices heard on this issue. Utah acted to invest in public lands by creating two new state parks. Wyoming enacted protections for wildlife through establishing additional mule deer migration corridors that will also enhance public safety.

Despite the achievements of the 2021 legislative session, there is more work to be done to advance the transition from fossil fuel extraction to clean energy and take steps to meaningfully address drought and wildfire challenges and promote sustainable wildlife populations. At this pivotal moment, as states emerge from the worst effects of the coronavirus pandemic, it is more critical than ever for state leaders to embrace the will of a majority of Western voters and make the necessary investments to protect 30% of America’s lands and waters by the year 2030 and transition to clean energy. By doing so, we may yet have a chance of addressing the dual climate and nature crises for the benefit of all who live in and enjoy the West.

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Lauren Bogard
Westwise

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