April 16, 2012

(Denver) – Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling) today failed to gain traction on his bill to force the federal government to cede cherished and treasured acreage in Colorado.

As amended, House Bill 12-1322 would have had the State of Colorado direct the United States Government to cede all “agricultural public lands” in Colorado to the Colorado Land Board (CLB) for maintenance or sale, a whopping 23 million acres that make up a full 35 percent of the state’s total landmass.  Given the vague definition of agricultural land, the bill could have endangered countless historic places such as the Dinosaur National Monument, Pawnee Grasslands, and the Maroon Bells.   The bill failed on an 8-5 vote in the House Education Committee.

Everyone who testified on the bill opposed the legislation, citing economic, ecological, and quality of life reasons.

Colorado ranchers who graze their herds on public lands could have seen grazing fees substantially increase overnight if these lands were taken by the state or sold to private interests.  The CLB is required to charge market rates for all activities on its land, resulting in a giant fee hike for all Colorado ranchers, as well as Coloradans and visitors who wish to recreate on these lands.

“Outdoor recreation contributes $10 billion per year to Colorado’s economy, supporting 107,000 Colorado jobs,” said Rep. Millie Hamner (D-Dillon).  “This bill could have drained much of that money out of our mountain and rural communities, possibly killing thousands of jobs on the western slope.  I have no idea why anyone would try to do violence to tourism, recreation and our economy when we are finally recovering from the Great Recession.  On behalf of Colorado’s mountain communities, I’m glad this bill died today.”

The bill would have required an additional 328 new employees to maintain trails, provide policing services, and collect fees for the newly enlarged CLB.  Offseason, most of Colorado’s ski runs are grass and under the definition in this bill grass is agricultural land.  If the CLB charges market rates for using public lands, Colorado’s ski industry could be crushed.

“One of my fondest memories as a girl was riding horses through the Weminuche wilderness area,” said Rep. Judy Solano (D-Brighton).  “I want all Coloradans and tourists to have the opportunity to have Colorado experiences like this, and this bill would have made it more difficult for Colorado and out-of-state families, harming our tourism industry and our western way of life.”

Rep. Sonnenberg provided no answer to what would happen to designated wilderness areas.  According to a recent survey conducted by Colorado College, 93 percent of Coloradans surveyed thought that public lands were essential to the state’s economy, and 97 percent agreed that Colorado’s public lands are “essential to Colorado’s quality of life.”

According to the Colorado Mountain Club, Colorado does not have the jurisdictional authority to force the federal government to sell land.  McCulloch v. Maryland of 1819, one of the longest-standing Supreme Court cases found that state action may not impede valid constitutional exercises of power by the federal government.

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