GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — Fruit trees, United Nations-plot theories, and a big chunk of land with his name on it have landed former congressman and failed gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis in a new swirl of controversy — this time as a rookie county commissioner.
The latest tempest tied to McInnis has to do, on the surface, with a mundane-sounding effort to place a conservation easement on 22 acres of peach and apricot trees near Palisade. Such easements allow private landowners to voluntarily donate property rights and restrict development on parcels of land in return for tax credits and, in some cases, payments.
McInnis, who took office on the three-member Mesa County Commission in January, refused to lend county support to a land-trust funding application for an easement that would have preserved an orchard for agricultural use. It would have been the latest piece in a conservation effort that has preserved about 760 other acres in this popular peach and wine country about 10 miles east of Grand Junction. His two fellow Republican commissioners joined him in withholding approval, a turn-down that had not happened before in the 35-year history of land-conservation efforts in Mesa County.
McInnis’s questioning of this easement — and conservation easements in general — jibes with his more right-wing constituents who suspect that this land-preservation method is a nefarious part of a United Nations’ sustainability initiative called Agenda 21. The belief among the Anti-Agenda 21 crowd is that conservation easements are “Trojan horses” — a sneaky way for the federal government to snatch private lands.
The Agenda 21 theory, widely promulgated by Glenn Beck and the far-right think tank American Policy Center, is what many suspect lies behind creeping community opposition to conservation easements. Amanda Barker, executive director of the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts, said she is beginning to hear related concerns from the Western Slope and conservative areas like Weld County, where oil and gas activity is high. Keeping lands open for energy development may have as much to do with opposition as fear of the United Nations.
“There are more individuals wary of land trusts,” Barker said.
McInnis said he’s aware of Agenda 21, but that it isn’t fueling his conservation-easement concerns. He said easements have been approved with little, if any, county review for a long time, and it is time that someone questions them because they encumber land in perpetuity and hamstring future generations that might have a different idea about land use.
His views have rattled cages in an area where preserving land through conservation easements long has been viewed, and celebrated, as a popular accomplishment. Mesa County growers have used dozens of easements to save individual farms and large swaths of farmlands that otherwise might have been chopped up by development. Conservation easements have also preserved vacant lands for recreational trails.
McInnis’s critics call his opposition to the easements hypocritical. That’s because a 123,400-acre expanse of conserved land in Mesa County bears his name: The federal land in the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area abutting the Colorado National Monument was preserved with support from McInnis and other influential politicians. It was named after McInnis in 2005. The rugged and rocky desert lands in the conservation area have the same perpetual protection from development that’s afforded to smaller private easements.
McInnis said there is no inconsistency.
“That is not applicable here. McInnis (Canyons) was government land. There was no acquisition involved,” he told The Independent.
He also pointed out that McInnis Canyons is preserved for public recreational use, while the easements on private lands are generally off-limits to the public.
Still, there’s another factor that’s drawing criticism to McInnis’s questioning of what he calls the “holy grail” of the land conservation movement in general. McInnis had been on the board of Colorado Open Lands — the statewide grandaddy of land trusts — from 2008 until he recently resigned.
From his years on that board, he knows that major funding for the approximately 1.2 million conservation easement acres across the state has come from lottery money handed out by Great Outdoors Colorado. No lottery money is granted by that entity without county commissions or other local government agencies signing off on funding requests, or without easements being legally set “in perpetuity.”
McInnis said he thinks 30 years of protected status would be better than perpetual deed restrictions. He likes the term “dynamic easement,” meaning that an easement can be changed and won’t be totally binding on future generations.
Rob Bleiberg, executive director of the Mesa Land Trust, said he was blindsided by McInnis’s opposition to the latest planned easement in Mesa County. The Land Trust has been partnering with Mesa County for 17 years and, in that time, preserved 66,000 acres from development.
The latest proposed easement was going to be part of the Land Trust initiative known as Fruitlands Forever. That project’s goal is protecting 1,000 acres of prime fruit-growing land. That goal goes back to the Mesa Land Trust’s early years in the 1980s, when a small group of farmers, seeing the possibility of oil-shale development steam-rolling their orchards and way of life, formed a land trust. It was one of the nation’s first.
Bleiberg said he is hopeful the county’s sudden balking at an easement will be resolved. Land trust leaders and county officials are planning to sit down together in May for what McInnis calls a “symposium” to talk about easements and how they will be handled in Mesa County in the years ahead.
McInnis said he doesn’t want to be viewed as an opponent of easements just because he put the skids on one project and plans to question all others.
“I just want to make sure we look very carefully at these,” he said. “This rubber-stamp syndrome – that’s not my nature.”
Correction: The original version of this post referred to “Greater Outdoors Colorado.” The post now refers to “Great Outdoors Colorado,” which is the group’s name.[Palisades Photo by the Colorado Distillers Festival.]