ASPEN - A proposal to sell off public lands reared its head again when the House Republican budget proposal was introduced March 12 by Rep. Paul Ryan.
The Wisconsin lawmaker proposed selling off "unneeded federal assets," including public land, as a way to raise money and reduce the deficit. While he hasn't offered specifics, the West is the region of the country that would be affected the most by the proposed policy. Most federal land is located in the Western states - a lot of it leased for oil and gas extraction.
Ryan's budget proposes providing land-management agencies with less funding as a way to spur sales of assets.
"Such sales could also potentially be encouraged by reducing appropriations to various agencies," the budget proposal says. "If done correctly, taxpayers could recoup billions of dollars from selling unused government property."
But the concept doesn't sit well with westerners of any political persuasion, according to a recent survey by Colorado College of Colorado Springs. The vast majority of voters in Colorado, Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming don't want public lands in their states sold off, Colorado College reported this year in its annual State of the Rockies Report. The college hired pollsters from each of the two major political parties to undertake its survey last winter and make sure it was nonpartisan. Equal numbers of Democrats, Republicans and independents were surveyed. Voters in the six states were asked a variety of questions about conservation of public lands. The results were released last month.
"Positive attitudes toward public lands - and a strong desire to see them safeguarded - are consistent and widespread among the Western electorate," the report says. "Voters demonstrate a personal connection to these places."
Overall, two of every three westerners polled said they opposed selling off public lands. Opposition was greatest in Colorado, where 74 percent were opposed and only 21 percent supported selling public lands. The concept had the greatest support in Utah, but still it was 57 percent opposed to selling public lands and 37 percent in support.
The survey found that 91 percent of westerners are also convinced that public lands are an "essential part" of their state's economy. In Colorado, 98 percent of respondents agreed that the economy benefited from public lands.
In a separate question, 74 percent of the 2,400 survey respondents said they believe national parks, forests, monuments and wildlife areas help attract high quality employers and good jobs to their state.
State of the Rockies faculty director Walt Hecox was on spring break and unavailable for comment Friday.
In the Roaring Fork Valley, opponents of gas drilling in Thompson Divide are using the economic value of public lands as a central theme in their fight. Thompson Divide includes 221,000 acres of public lands from Ski Sunlight outside of Glenwood Springs to McClure Pass. The issue there isn't the sale of lands, but the lease of lands for natural gas extraction and the drilling on lands already leased.
Thompson Divide Coalition contends that gas drilling is "incompatible" with other uses that already provide a tremendous boost to the local economy.
Zane Kessler, executive director of the coalition, said a long-awaited study of the Thompson Divide's economic value is scheduled to be released sometime the week of March 25. Preliminary data indicates recreational activities at Thompson Divide, excluding hunting and fishing, supports 135 jobs and generates $12.6 million in annual economic impact, Kessler said. Those figures come from a report by BBC Research that was commissioned by Thompson Divide Coalition. The final report will have economic values for hunting, fishing and grazing as well.