State Public Lands Policies: Colorado and Utah’s Divergent Perspectives on Public Land Values

by Xander Martin
Legislative aide, Colorado State Senate

Edward Abbey once said, “there is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount”. He alludes to the American West’s issue with water: there isn’t a lot of it. And over time, residents of the region have learned to become innovative with what little water exists. In the West, people value what they have around them. Water and public lands are the collective centerpiece of Southwest values. The public lands found in the American West are more than just open spaces, they are sacred lands to Native Americans, they are a refuge to uniquely Southwestern ecosystems and organisms, and they are both representative of the Western culture, identity, and economy.

But what happens when these values are threatened by federal overreach fueled by corrupt private sector interests? In order to address this question, an understanding of what is meant by “values” in different Southwest states must be discussed. Colorado culture writ large places intrinsic value on its public lands, subsequently protecting them, declaring them as state treasures. Conversely, it is apparent that Utah culture, broadly construed, values its public lands for the resources found within them, resulting in Utah’s congressional invitation to President Trump to dismantle key federal land protections.

Since July of 2017, Utah’s US Senator Orrin Hatch has repeatedly contributed to his state’s anti-public lands rhetoric by personally asking President Trump to downsize Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments. Senator Hatch’s request was answered by President Trump on December 4th, 2017. Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments have been collectively cut by more than two-million acres.

Across the Utah border in Colorado, people can’t help but wonder, ‘what’s next?’ Which national monument is next on the chopping block? Or perhaps the question should be, ‘which one isn’t?’ If Utah’s Federal request to degrade their public lands was met with exactly what they were asking for, could the opposite request work as well? Can state policies in the Western US  politically deter the federal government from going too far with public lands reductions? Colorado has established itself as one of the strongest voices for public lands in the West, and when this line of thinking is considered, it seems that yes, state policies can make the difference.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper on May 17th, 2016 signed the Colorado Public Lands day bill into law. This bill, sponsored by State Senator Kerry Donovan, sought to recognize how deeply embedded public lands and open spaces are in the collective cultural identity of Colorado. This bill was the first of its kind for any state in the US, and after Colorado’s first Public Lands Day celebration it has become abundantly clear that Colorado residents value their public lands too much to allow the Federal government to open them up to resource extraction and ultimate destruction.

In early 2017 Utah’s governor signed a very different bill into law. Governor Gary Hubert signed a resolution, formally requesting that President Trump nullify the federal protections for Bears Ears National Monument. This move subsequently cost the state its twenty-year relationship with Outdoor Retailer, one of the nation’s largest sporting goods conventions.

Outdoor Retailer took a stand against Utah’s anti-public lands rhetoric by announcing their intention to move to a state that would hold public lands at a higher value. Colorado, having already established itself as the “public lands state”, immediately invited Outdoor Retailer to find Colorado as its new home state. Governor Hickenlooper and Senator Donovan led Colorado in this community-based effort, furthering Colorado’s public lands reputation.

Colorado’s invitation was formally accepted by Outdoor Retailer in July of 2017, a five-year contract was agreed upon. In July of 2018, Outdoor Retailer will hold its first convention in Denver, Colorado, the capitol of the “public lands state”.

As of yet, it may be too early to know what will be required of individual states to address Federal interests with public lands. However, what we do know as of right now is this: Colorado and Utah made invitations to two very different entities in the spirit of their individual values held for the public lands that fall within their state borders. For Colorado, it was Outdoor Retailer. For Utah, it was the Trump Administration. And as it stands right now, one state (Utah) is losing its public lands protections while the other one (Colorado) is holding strong.

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