Public Lands Day in Colorado Saturday is a chance for both sides of the debate to give it some thought

Author: Joey Bunch - May 15, 2017 - Updated: July 31, 2017

From the time she entered the legislature in 2015, state Sen. Kerry Donovan saw the discussion of public lands creeping out to the extreme. And appreciating the peace, beauty and economic necessity is anything but an extreme Colorado view, said the lawmaker for the heart of the state’s central mountains.

“Public Lands Day was an attempt to bring a positive message to that — to play offense rather than defense,” Donovan told Colorado Politics in the dome of the state Capitol last week

Last year the Democrat and rancher passed what at first looked like a long-shot bill: to create the country’s first statewide Public Lands Day. That happens at more than 100 locations across the state next Saturday, with the help of Conservation Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper, U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, the folk fusion band Elephant Revival, 18 brew pubs and a host of sponsors.

Colorado Politics told you about many of the events last week, but you can find out the latest on Conservation Colorado’s website for the day.

Just as you can see Long’s Peak from vantages hundreds of miles apart, Coloradans see public lands the same way.

Donovan was able to pass the measure because Republican Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling let it out of the committee he chaired, but then voted against it on the floor.

The measure passed the Senate 28-7 and the House 39-26 to hold the observance on the third Saturday in May each year.

Sonnenberg’s reason wasn’t to encourage to go hug trees but to go see what a bad job the federal government does at managing forests and other public property. He and other leading statehouse Republicans would like to see more management authority returned to the states, and especially to local communities.

But to folks like Pete Maysmith, the chief of Conservation Colorado, that sounds like making public lands private to engage in more drilling and development.

Since Public Lands Day passed last year, Colorado’s conservation and outdoor recreation community has watched Utah fight over public lands.

A major outdoor retail show is leaving Salt Lake City because of Utah Republicans’ push to move the federal government out of its public lands issues.

Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz introduced a bill to sell off 3 million acres of federal lands, including tracts in Colorado, in January, before yanking the legislation in the backlash.

The GOP pushback amped up after President Obama set aside 1.35 million acres in southeast Utah the Bears Ears National Monument in December. President Trump has ordered a review of all monuments designated over the last 21 years that are more than 100,000 acres.

In Colorado, that puts the Canyons of the Ancients near Cortez in jeopardy.

“The national politics have changed, certainly since the election in November,” Maysmith said. “When we see things like national monuments, the Canyons of the Ancients and others here in Colorado and nationally, that are potentially at risk of being rolled back or undone that doesn’t make any sense at all.”

Republicans, however, say Democrats are overstating the case, that no one is going to harm the most treasured public lands. But by being over-protective against the responsible use of federal lands — much as it goes on now with mineral leases and private ski resorts in national forests — the left blocks revenue that could help better care for public lands. They also block jobs and taxes for local communities.

They point to the massive pine beetle infestation in Colorado, to which the federal government didn’t respond quickly or adequately enough. State and local control, with adequate resources from economic activity, would be a better way to manage them.

President Trump has ordered deep budget cuts for those very agencies.

Public Lands Day is an opportunity for both sides to have that discussion, or reflect on the issues, while enjoying Colorado’s great outdoors.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.