Most county commissioner candidates eschew public land transfers
Among the candidates at a public lands forum Thursday were few voices supporting transfers of federal public lands to the states and private entities.
At the Third Street Center in Carbondale, candidates for county commissioner in Garfield, Pitkin and Eagle counties fielded questions about public lands policies, along with candidates for the state Legislature and Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District.
Out of these 14 candidates, either present or represented, the vast majority spoke against the idea of transferring federal public lands at the forum put on by Colorado Wild Public Lands, the Roaring Fork Conservancy and Wilderness Workshop.
Garfield County Commissioner John Martin said federal policies presuming federal lands will eventually be disposed of to the states or private ownership are a fact of life.
“Ladies and gentlemen, have you read the inclusionary provision for the state of Colorado?” Martin, a Republican, asked the crowd of about 120. “It states that there will be a transfer of public lands to the state, for the education of (its) people as well as the basic needs for government.”
Public lands transfers and exchanges will be done in the proper manner, need to be done, and can help conservation easements and wilderness areas, he said.
Transfers are already happening in the other direction as individuals obtain conservation easements and sell them to the federal government, increasing the amount of federal public lands in the state, Martin later said.
Pressed for a “yes” or “no” response, Martin said, “I support the policies that are in place unless you change the federal rules and regulations that are governed by the (Federal Public Lands Management Act, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture).”
Michael Dunahay, a Republican running for Eagle County commissioner, also said public lands transfer could be beneficial in some circumstances, especially for affordable housing projects. Michael Cacioppo, a Republican running for Colorado State House District 26 also supported some transfers of federal public lands to the states, advocating in a written statement for local control over public lands decisions.
The remainder of the candidates at the forum were mostly unified against such transfers.
Democrat Gail Schwartz, running for Congress in the sprawling Third District against incumbent Scott Tipton, contended that the Republican has been supportive of large land transfers that she said would be devastating to the state’s economy. Tipton did not attend, but had a statement read on his behalf attesting to his support for public access to these lands.
Many candidates were skeptical of the state’s ability, or budget, to manage a large amount of land transferred from the federal government. And they worried that land could be sold to energy developers and other private interests.
“Hunters, anglers, outdoorsmen, recreational users, ranchers, those who use our public lands — pay attention because this is you inheritance we’re talking about,” said Greg Poschman, a Democrat who’s running for Pitkin County commissioner.
Scott Writer, an independent running for Pitkin County commissioner against Poschman in District 2, said the suggestion of a transfer is mostly about fossil fuel extraction. “No matter how clean fossil fuel burning gets, we’re going to run out someday, and it’s always dirty at some level.”
State Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, citing TABOR restrictions, was concerned about where the revenue would come from for the state to manage these lands.
Outdoor recreation contributes about $34.5 billion to Colorado’s economy, and “we can’t see that sector of our economy disappear,” said Emily Tracey, a Democrat running for Colorado Senate District 8. Her opponent, incumbent Sen. Randy Baumgardner, did not attend or provide a statement to be read on his behalf.
Jill Ryan, an Eagle County Democratic commissioner running for re-election against Dunahay, was one of several candidates who questioned how the state would pay for catastrophic forest fires and fire mitigation if this land were transferred.
Kathy Chandler-Henry, also an Eagle County Democratic commissioner, emphasized that this effort is about the “wholesale transfer of forests and (Bureau of Land Management) lands.”
Rick Beveridge, a Republican running for Eagle County commissioner against Chandler-Henry, was also generally opposed to transfers, except for small tracts of land to be used for affordable housing.
Candidates were also asked about their approaches to the White River National Forest’s nearly 50-percent budget cut over the last seven years, and how public lands management should adapt to the effects of climate change. These topics drew far less differentiation between many of the candidates, as they were largely unified in calling for more money for the forest and preparation for the effects of climate change.
Martin was a notable exception on the climate change issue, asserting that such a global climate shift is 99 percent outside of human control and that personal electronics are a primary driver. His Democratic opponent, John Acha, was a lone voice asserting that the White River National Forest could be operated at its current budget level, saying money allocated to fight spruce beetle effects was misspent.
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