Colorado’s fight over land and water rights hits the Statehouse

Kerry Donovan is pushing through legislation to recognize public lands in Colorado.

Millions of Coloradans and tourists agree they love public lands, which take up more than a third of the state. Thousands of residents depend on national parks, forests, monuments and grasslands for their livelihood.

Underpinning any discussion of public lands, no matter how innocuous, is a squabble over who manages them: federal or state agencies.

In the past several years, those clashes have led to armed standoffs in Nevada and Oregon, including the recent months-long occupation at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.

Fights over land management have provoked legislation from conservative Colorado lawmakers seeking to put federal lands under state control. Most of the state’s environmentalists prefer federal management, arguing it protects public lands from rampant development, including oil and gas drilling and mining.

But Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat, would like Coloradans to step back from the debate over who manages the land and celebrate what that land means to Coloradans.

She’s the sponsor of a bill that would dub the third Saturday in May Colorado “Public Lands Day,” to celebrate the contributions Colorado’s national lands have made to the state’s economy and quality of life.

Public Lands Day would not be a state holiday, according to the bill. Schools would be expected to recognize it, even though it’s on a Saturday. Donovan told The Colorado Independent that she hoped schools would set up field trips or volunteer days when students would help repair trails, for example.

Colorado’s public lands “are the defining feature of our state,” Donovan told the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee during the bill’s hearing last month.

But the measure also skirts the federal-versus-state control controversy over public lands, by design.

Last year, Colorado lawmakers enamored of state control over public lands attempted a bill that would begin the process of taking control away from the federal government. The bill, co-sponsored by Sterling Republican Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, would have commissioned a study on how to do that. The measure died when one Republican, Sen. Larry Crowder of Alamosa, voted it down with Senate Democrats.

Crowder is the Senate’s most moderate Republican, and comes from a swing district in southern Colorado where he is up for re-election in the fall.

Donovan’s success in putting together a public lands bill without getting into the public lands controversy helped earn her a rare unanimous vote from the Senate state affairs committee Monday. The measure now awaits further action from the Senate.

There’s at least one more public lands issue on the horizon at the state House: a bill that would remind federal agencies that Colorado controls the water rights tied to public lands.

In 2012, the U.S. Forest Service demanded that ski areas, in exchange for renewing their leases on public lands, turn over water rights to the federal government. The ski areas sued and the Forest Service lost on procedural grounds. The Court ordered the agency to go back to the drawing board, although in the end the Forest Service came up with the exact same rule.

The agency claimed it wanted the water rights in order to protect them from being sold as a valuable asset when ski areas went bankrupt, although that’s never happened in Colorado.

Lawmakers quickly jumped to action three years ago, attempting a succession of bills that would say “hands off!” to the Forest Service and to the Bureau of Land Management, which witnesses said was trying to do the same with water rights on public lands leased for grazing cattle.

Those efforts have failed, despite bipartisan support from rural lawmakers in both parties.

In December, the U.S. Forest Service finally backed off on the requirement that ski areas turn over their water rights.

But Colorado lawmakers still want a bill that would ensure no further water-rights grabs from either the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management. This year, such a measure has a better than average chance of passing.

Rep. Jon Becker, a Fort Morgan Republican, has teamed up with Democratic Rep. KC Becker, whose district includes Boulder and rural mountain counties such as Grand, Gilpin and Jackson. The bill Becker and Becker are proposing asserts to the two federal agencies that Colorado water is a property right and as such is governed by Colorado water law, even on lands owned by the federal government.

The measure also sets up a requirement that the federal government go through the same state process to acquire water rights like anyone else in Colorado, in effect putting the federal government on the same footing as any municipal water provider, farmer or rancher who wants to acquire water rights.

And given Colorado’s prior appropriation doctrine that says water rights belong to those who first lay claim to them, the feds would be at the end of a long line of water users.

The House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee will hear the bill on March 7.

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.