Guv race sparring over public lands likely not consequential, but revealing
It wasn’t surprising that Bob Beauprez’s line about federal overreach drew cheers at the recent gubernatorial debate in Grand Junction — even if some of the crowd had little idea they were cheering a fringe strain of anti-federalism that experts say would result in a politicized short-term approach to issues that benefit most from a long view.
The governor of Colorado may not have a big say in how federal lands in the state are managed, but Western Slope voters want to know where the candidates stand on important topics like forest health, water use and energy development.
Beauprez, the challenger, and incumbent Governor John Hickenlooper presented starkly different visions of life in the West. Beauprez promised that he would challenge the feds, while Hickenlooper emphasized that collaboration can help achieve state goals while still meeting the federal government’s legal requirements for public lands.
Hickenlooper held up his work on sage grouse conservation as example of a practical approach that gets results. His administration has also worked with the federal government on several larges-scale wildfire mitigation projects around Denver Water supply areas that garnered consensus support, and also helped finalize a sweeping state-specific version of a roadless rule affecting millions of acres of publicly owned and federally managed national forest lands.
Beauprez responded by attacking the federal government.
“The states are supposed to be sovereign. The federal government took title to that land initially,” Beauprez said at the Sept. 9 debate. He then hurried through a folkloric explanation of U.S. land-use history that’s a touchstone for many Western conservative politicians who like to portray it as a mythic Western showdown.
“This is a fight we have to wage … if you believe in state sovereignty … We do need to stand up and push back on the federal government. This is supposed to be Colorado’s land, not the federal government’s,” Beauprez said, repeating language used by so-called sagebrush rebels that’s meant to evoke visions of white-hatted cowboys riding out to defend the homestead from federal encroachment.
Beauprez’s stance may help him with his conservative base, but doesn’t address a complex tangle of issues that are critical to voters in western Colorado. Many of the region’s communities are inextricably linked to federally managed public lands, depending on water flowing from national forests, using national forest mountains to operate huge ski resorts, and leasing tracts for cattle grazing and energy development.
Beauprez’s populist talk of fighting the feds appeals to a rural place-based sense of righteous indignation that runs deep in western culture. But his calls for a showdown with the federal government clashes with the modern, pragmatic approach that’s now commonly used in more progressive parts of the West, where anglers, hunters, conservationists, boaters, ranchers and local officials now commonly work with federal land managers to find win-win solutions.
Beauprez’s campaign team didn’t respond to requests for an interview and wouldn’t elaborate on the candidate’s debate statements about public lands. So It’s unclear, for example, if Beauprez knows that the U.S. Forest Service has an orderly process for transferring land to local governments.
The process has often been used to facilitate trades or transfers of federal lands around Colorado resort communities in win-win deals that often garner widespread community support. Summit County’s bustling medical facilities near Frisco — built on land once owned by the Forest Service — show how local governments and federal agencies can work together for the benefit of communities.
Ever Since the Gold Rush
Management of publicly owned land in the West has always been a big deal, ever since the days of the California Gold Rush.
“You had a nation, even then capitalistic, with the federal government owning about 85 percent of the land at that time. That’s just an amount that you’re going to have people scrambling over,” said University of Colorado, Boulder Professor Charles Wilkinson, one of the West’s leading natural resource scholars.
In today’s economy, the boom is all about fossil fuels, and the extraction of oil and gas in western Colorado will be on the agenda for the next governor, as drillers eye sites near Mesa Verde National Park and Dinosaur National Monument. The inevitable controversies surrounding those decisions have deep historical roots.
“When it really got serious was during the progressive era,” Wilkinson said, explaining that President’s Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation push drove the extractive industries crazy — something that hasn’t changed much in the past century.
Just in the past few years, there have been showdowns over fossil fuel extraction on the Roan Plateau and the Thompson Divide, both in western Colorado. The state hasn’t been a big player in those cases, but the Colorado Legislature did get involved in a water rights dispute with the U.S. Forest Service, taking sides with the ski industry against the federal government. How those natural resources on federally managed public lands are used is a hot topic in western Colorado, so the Grand Junction debate crowd perked up when Beauprez trash-talked the federal government.
“If this were private land and the federal government were the tenant, we’d cancel the lease. They do that bad of a job of taking care of the land,” Beauprez said without citing specific examples.
Many of Colorado’s large federal workforce — including members of watchdog groups like Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) -— would say his choice of words does nothing to soothe a sometime volatile ideological climate in which some westerners paradoxically see themselves as “patriots” if they oppose federal laws. Renegade Utah cattle rancher Cliven Bundy recently made headlines, and became a hero of sorts to other would-be sagebrush rebels, when he publicly defied the feds by refusing to pay years-worth of grazing fees.
At worst, watchdog groups have said that persistent anti-federal language used by conservative western politicians can fuel militant acts. Wanton destruction of national forest signs by shotgun fire has long been common, and PEER, for years, has tallied ideologically motivated attacks on rangers and other federal personnel.
Beauprez’s anti-federal message isn’t just election season ballyhoo. His record in Congress representing Colorado’s 7th Congressional District from 2003 to 2007 shows he voted repeatedly in favor of Bush administration proposals to cut federal land management budgets, to weaken environmental standards and protections on public lands, and to smooth the way for fossil fuel companies seeking to drill for oil and gas on public lands managed by the federal government.
Limits of Governorship
Regardless of what they say in their stump speeches, state candidates for governor and other posts have limited say in what happens on federally managed lands.
Hickenlooper is well aware of that fact. In 2012,he sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging a speedy review of Denver Water’s proposal to expand the Moffat Tunnel collection system. The letter didn’t seem to hasten the review. Much later in the same process, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineersturned down a request by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet for a comment period extension.
The reality is that federal lands are managed under very specific and rigorous requirements for review and environmental protections. Beauprez didn’t have much luck changing those laws while he was in Congress, and he’d have even less say as governor.
In any case, experts agree that ideologically based policies based on the four-year election cycles are not the best way to handle the long-term land management and resource issues that face Colorado and the West. Common sense suggests that there is room for agreement and room for legitimate debate, Wilkinson said, adding that informed civic discussion about natural resources should be part of community discourse.
Wilkinson said there’s little question that most Americans, and especially Westerners, see the country’s public lands legacy as one of their greatest rights. Beauprez’s language on state sovereignty is an expression of a radical position that “represents an extremely small part of citizenry,” he said.
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