President Trump and the future of Colorado’s public lands
On Jan. 21, 2016, nearly one year to the day before he will be sworn in as president of the United States, Donald Trump gave an interview to Field & Stream magazine on the issue of public lands.
Republicans had been talking a lot, as they continue to do, about transferring the control of federal lands to individual states, which would then be able to manage — or sell — the lands as they saw fit.
Trump bucked his party line. “I don’t like the idea,” he said, “because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do. We have to be great stewards of this land. This is magnificent land.”
In the same interview, Trump was asked about the mixed-use nature of public lands. How would he balance energy extraction with recreation, with conservation?
Here, he returned to a more Republican stance. “Well, I’m very much into energy, and I’m very much into fracking and drilling,” he said. “I am for energy exploration, as long as we don’t do anything to damage the land.”
The fate of public lands is of paramount concern to Coloradans. The state is home to more than 23 million federally-owned acres, including 14.5 million acres owned by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and 8.3 million owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In terms of percentage of total land set aside for public use, Colorado ranks ninth among all 50 states.
One recent poll found that 76 percent of business leaders across the state believe that elected officials here should advance policies to conserve public lands; another found that 67 percent of Colorado voters would prefer a candidate who proposed more protections for public lands, while only 20 percent of voters signalled a preference for a candidate who would open up such lands to more private development. Still, fossil fuels are a major facet of Colorado’s economy, and Coloradans generally oppose an outright ban of natural resource extraction on public lands.
Though Trump’s own outdoorsmanship doesn’t extend much beyond the golf course, his two eldest sons, both avid big game hunters, are proponents of federal lands. Donald Trump, Jr. has been outspoken about his desire to “keep public lands public and accessible.” He is also a believer in multiple uses: He told Mesa County Republicans in September that “We can have grazing, we can have energy, we can have hunting and fishing on the same lands.”
Balance has always been a critical part of federal lands discussions. How can Colorado balance the interests of hunters, anglers, campers, ranchers and drillers, tapping the land’s economic potential while preserving it, in all its splendor, for future generations?
To call Trump’s policies on climate action and environmental conservation unpredictable is an understatement. Throughout his campaign, he threatened to back out of the Paris climate agreement, to “cut” the Environmental Protection Agency and to bring back lost coal jobs while also boosting the natural gas industry, two goals that, as many have pointed out, are at odds with one another. Trump called a carbon tax “job-killing,” said the Clean Power Plan was “stupid” and, of course, infamously tweeted that the concept of global warming was created by the Chinese. On Tuesday, he told the New York Times that he will “have an open mind” towards climate change policy and is “looking at it very closely,” but also said that windmills “don’t…work at all without subsidy” and “kill all the birds.”
In the weeks leading up to his inauguration, as he begins to appoint his cabinet, Trump’s already murky stances on important environmental issues have become increasingly uncertain. Those two comments in Field & Stream say next to nothing about the actual policies we can expect, but they do help to summarize the two main concerns environmentalists have about public lands under a Trump administration: Who will manage them, and how will they be used?
Far more remains unknown than known about how Trump’s presidency will affect the land that has drawn so many to Colorado. The Colorado Independent spoke with several experts to see what we might expect.
Q: Will President Trump transfer control over federal lands to Colorado?
A: It’s not up to him — but Republicans sure want to.
The first question that many people ask regarding federal lands under President Trump is about control. The BLM and Forest Service, which are funded by federal dollars, currently manage all federal lands across the U.S. under the same rules and processes. That means permits, environmental impact statements and lease sales face the same requirements in Alaska and Nevada as they do in Colorado and Oregon.
In Washington, D.C., Republicans have spoken widely about their desire to transfer control over federal lands to the states, which would then be able to manage or privatize them at will. The official GOP platform calls on Congress to “immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states.”
Aaron Weiss, spokesman for the Center for Western Priorities, a Denver-based conservation advocacy group focused on the protection of communities, land and water in the American West, called this platform “a disaster.” And Trump’s stance? “As with so many things on the Trump campaign, he’s never really had a specific position on it,” Weiss said.
Trump’s comments in Field & Stream and beyond demonstrate a lack of enthusiasm for the idea, but the Republican party platform is what matters here: Congress, not the executive branch, gets to decide whether or not federal lands are transferred to the states.
Jon Goldin-Dubois, the director of Western Resource Advocates, said there is no way that states could take control of federal lands without Congressional support. He cites a recent fight in Utah in which the state attempted to take control of certain swaths of federal public lands. A bipartisan group of federal experts and politicians from across the West who met to discuss the possibility reached, as Golden-DuBois put it, “a unanimous agreement that there is no way states can take over these lands that is in accordance with federal law.”
He added, “The lands are federal; they have always been federal. This idea that we can ‘take them back’ is laughable.”
But though states can’t override Congress and claim federal lands for themselves, there’s nothing preventing the legislature from handing them over. Republicans argue that federal land transfers would save federal money, improve the tax bases for states that sell the lands and encourage greater land use for lucrative mining, ranching and logging.
Despite the GOP platform, Coloradans on both sides of the aisle tend to dislike the idea of state control over public lands. In 2014, then-gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez fell out of step with public opinion when he called for the transfer of federal lands to Colorado. That year, a statewide poll found that 59 percent of Coloradans felt the costs of administering such lands were too high.
Goldin-Dubois said that the idea of Congress dumping public lands into state hands was unlikely, saying, “There is a whole legal infrastructure precedent that would argue against that being possible.” And the GOP platform called on leaders to transfer lands to “all willing states,” for which Colorado would likely not qualify.
Plus, environmental experts like Goldin-Dubois say that the question of interest will likely be a major driver on this issue. Both houses of Congress are currently deeply divided, but “the reality is that public lands transcend the public partisan divide,” said Goldin-Dubois.
“There are Republicans and Democrats, hikers and sportsmen and mountain bikers, people who love to hunt and fish — they love these lands, and they want them to be managed by the current land management structure,” he said. “I think anybody who wanted to take that on would do so at their own peril, because [federal public lands protection] has the kind of bipartisan support that doesn’t exist for a lot of issues.”
And perhaps that support wields influence. Beauprez, who recently admitted to being on Trump’s shortlist for Interior Secretary, lately has kept quiet about the issue. In an interview with the Denver Post regarding the position, he didn’t mention lands transfer, instead calling for a “symbiotic fit” between various land uses. Neither Beauprez nor Ken Salazar, the previous Interior Secretary under President Barack Obama, could be reached in time for publication.
Q: Will Colorado see more energy extraction on public lands under a Republican administration?
A: National policies will likely change, but the impact on Colorado is unclear
The use of public lands, in the words of Western Resource Priorities’ Weiss, is “a much bigger concern” under Trump than a transfer of lands to the states. Unlike the transfer issue, which would require Congressional action, land use falls under the control of the president-appointed Interior Secretary. Weiss spent much of last week recording an episode of his new podcast, Go West, Young Podcast, on this very topic.
The Secretary of the Interior appoints the chief of the BLM, which oversees more public land than any other federal agency. That includes more than 245 million “surface acres” and 700 million acres of subsurface minerals across the country. The BLM manages federal lease sales for oil and gas drilling, conducts environmental impact statements for proposed resource extraction projects and approves new drilling permits. And though many of the rank-and-file BLM employees can expect to keep their jobs, a new BLM chief appointment will likely cause trickle-down changes in the agency’s leadership down to the state level.
Officially, the BLM’s mission is to “sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” That means it works with states to determine how best to manage land use for a variety of interests, including habitat preservation, recreation and energy extraction.
But many environmentalists worry that a Trump appointment could shift this balance in favor of more fossil fuel extraction — at a time when climate change calls for less drilling, not more. In addition to Beauprez, the President-Elect’s shortlist for Secretary of the Interior currently contains oilmen Forrest Lucas and Harold Hamm, venture capitalist Robert Grady, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.
Of these choices, Weiss said that Grady would be preferable, saying that the avid sportsman “appears on paper to be a solid Republican choice, certainly compared to other choices that wouldn’t appear to have the policy knowledge to be Interior Secretary.”
Weiss points out that an appointee from the oil and gas industry, like Hamm or Lucas, would have friends and businesses that would stand to benefit from increased drilling on Colorado’s public lands. The Interior Secretary wouldn’t be able to immediately overhaul land use policies, but could certainly streamline permitting processes to make such drilling easier and cheaper.
That change is appealing to the oil and gas industry. David Ludlam, the executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said that “the Colorado federal leasing program has been devastated under [the Obama] administration,” and calls two additional layers of environmental review that have been implemented over the past eight years “duplicative and unnecessary.”
Ludlam doesn’t have a stance on land transfer — “It’s not something we debate, I don’t see it happening soon” — but he expressed disdain for the current environmental review process for new drilling permits. Some, he said, have been undergoing review for nearly a decade. Having so much federal land puts Colorado at a disadvantage, he said, because states can approve drilling permits “in under two weeks.”
Ultimately, said Ludlam, “I think this administration will have a greater appreciation for what we do, not only for the state at large but for the emerging global economy.”
Pete Maysmith, director of Conservation Colorado, disagrees. Under a Trump administration, he said, “It could well be open season on our public lands here in Colorado, but we still don’t know exactly what that looks like.” He added that, depending on his Interior Secretary appointment, Trump could well usher in “a drill, baby drill attitude.” Goldin-Dubois, too, expressed fears of potential “harmful, unbridled energy development on these lands.”
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell addressed such fears during her visit to the Colorado Capitol last week to officially cancel 25 oil and gas leases in the beautiful Thompson Divide area near Aspen. The cancellation, a hard-won compromise celebrated by a diverse group of Coloradans, prompted questions as to whether Jewell was hustling to pass land protection measures before Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 21.
Ludlam and much of the industry saw the cancellations as an assault on their property rights. “If we can just get some certainty and get someone who will be an honest broker in the granting of permits, that will be a huge step for us,” he said.
Jewell hadn’t yet heard anything from the Trump transition team, but she said she and her staff were “geared up and ready” to begin working with them. The Secretary assured the audience that she was simply “tying up loose ends” on conservation projects so that the next administration could have a fresh start.
Mike Freeman, a Colorado environmental attorney with Earthjustice, was less optimistic, wondering if Jewell wasn’t simply “learning from the experience of the [George W.] Bush administration, where a lot of efforts to open up public lands to the oil and gas industry resulted in years of contentious battles to protect these lands.” In his mind, Jewell and the Obama administration could be protecting lands “precisely to avoid the kind of drawn out battles that we’ve seen in the past.”
BLM Colorado spokesman Steven Hall wouldn’t speculate on what changes could be expected under a Trump administration, saying only that BLM land use is “always going to be a balancing act,” and that “depending on where you stand, there are always going to be different points of view on how those lands will be managed.”
As to Colorado specifically, Gov. John Hickenlooper said that Colorado simply doesn’t have the same potential for increased drilling that other western states do. “[Colorado]…we don’t have many lands that are presently excluded that could be opened up,” he told Colorado Public Radio this week. “We’re not going to see a lot of change in Colorado. There are, perhaps, other parts of the American West where more land that has higher potential will be opened up. The bottom line is I don’t think there’s very much of it.”
It’s crucial to understand the importance of price when it comes to natural resource extraction on federal lands. Regardless of the permitting process for drilling, oil and gas companies won’t extract fuels if there is no market for them. Colorado saw a boom in production following the improvement of fracking technologies, but with prices low, more operators are keeping wells idle, waiting for the market to recover.
“In some sense the free market is already a check on oil and gas and coal production on public lands,” said Weiss. “If you increased fracking on public lands, that only serves to lower prices more.”
Lower gas prices are not only detrimental to oil and gas operators, but they further harm the already-struggling coal industry Trump has promised to revive. Coal companies, Weiss said, are already sitting on unused coal leases that they aren’t mining because prices are simply too low.
Hickenlooper agreed. “The real reason coal has gone downhill so dramatically is how rapidly the price has gone down on natural gas, and how rapidly the price has gone down on wind,” he said. “I think it’s a steep hill to get coal jobs back.”
Q: What about national monuments in Colorado and beyond?
A: It all depends on strategy
Environmental groups have been imploring President Barack Obama to proclaim the Bears Ears area of southern Utah a national monument, a power granted to him by the 1906 Antiquities Act. Then-President Theodore Roosevelt passed the Antiquities Act to allow presidents to protect areas of historic or scientific interest without having to go through Congress.
Now, with a Trump administration looming and uncertainty surrounding the fate of these lands, the pressure is on. Groups are also pushing for the protection of sites like the perimeter of the Grand Canyon, which is otherwise at risk for uranium mining, and an expansion of Colorado’s Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, near Durango.
There’s a mentality that Obama, who has already established 23 national monuments, should use his authority to protect these lands from a president who may or may not want to drill or mine them.
However, there’s nothing saying that Trump couldn’t simply repeal these presidential proclamations. Mark Squillace, a professor of natural resources law at CU Boulder, said there’s a chance that Trump would not only overturn national monuments established under Obama, but that Congress could even seek to repeal the Antiquities Act. Squillace wonders if it wouldn’t perhaps be preferable to not declare any new monuments, and thus not draw any extra attention to them.
At the same time, Squillace and others acknowledge that there is a lack of precedent for repealing presidential decrees on national monuments, and such an attempt would more than likely see backlash.
“If Republicans were to mount an attack on the Antiquities Act you would see strong, unified opposition from conservation groups across the board,” said Weiss. He’s even “pretty confident” such a proposal in the U.S. Senate would warrant a filibuster.
Conservation Colorado’s Maysmith has no doubt that environmental concerns are about to have a rough ride. “There will be myriad attacks coming out of the Trump administration in the first 100 days, and in the next four years,” he said. Yet he remains stubbornly optimistic about the state’s ability to overcome dangerous policy proposals.
“In the wake of what we expect to see in terms of environmental attacks at the federal level, we will see a shift in states being the focus of environmental work,” he said, recalling a major tenet of the Paris Climate Talks, where state and local governments were encouraged to step up. “We need to be incredibly vigilant.”
Said Center for Western Priorities’ Weiss, “Call us concerned and cautious.”
Photo credit: Kelsey Ray
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