Colorado: State Trust Land is NOT Public Land

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I spent a little over a year as a Colorado resident and continue to hunt there most every fall. My first elk hunt took place in the Weminuche Wilderness.

Colorado is a special place to me, but the “colorful” state has a dark pseudo-secret. I say pseudo-secret because it isn’t really a secret at all. This info is public domain but many have no idea. Despite being a utopian mecca for hunters, anglers, mountain bikers, skiers and hikers, its state trust land public access is among the very worst in the West. Historically, state trust land was largely off limits to public access, but as population boomed and access elsewhere declined, citizenry demand for multiple use management and access on state trust land grew. Brought to the table largely by efforts of hunters and anglers, in 1992 the State Land Board struck a deal, agreeing to provide public access to, and manage for multiple use, 50% of Colorado’s state trust lands (~1.5 million acres). However, private interest driven opposition has stuck the truck the mud, and they’re in 2-wheel drive, gunning it.

Twenty-four years later, a bit less than 20 percent (~485,000 acres) of Colorado’s state trust lands are open to the general public, via a lease funded by hunter and angler license fees. Outfitters, clubs and individuals control recreational access on 5% of the remaining 80%. Agricultural interests lease the majority of the remaining 75%.

Fun fact: These for-profit leases are not exclusive to for-profit business endeavors. These entities control recreation on these lands as well! Hundreds of thousands of acres of state owned, prime hunting and fishing habitat under the lock and key of private business interests. Coloradans can drive by these “closed to recreation” leased lands and watch the key holders, or the people they sold access to, hunting, fishing and biking!

Another fun fact: Many of the “closed” lands are not clearly marked as such, so well meaning folks can very easily be misled to believe that these are open to the public – an understandable assumption considering state lands are open to the public in every other Western state. If someone were to make this mistake, and he is found on these lands, he may be ticketed for “trespassing on private land” and face thousands of dollars in fines and loss of hunting and fishing privileges.

On March 9th at 9 a.m. the Colorado State Land Board held an open meeting to discuss its various lease programs, including the future of “Public Access Program.” What a dumpster fire. Board Vice Chairman Buck Blessing called for a reduction in leased lands, calling them “impaired,” further advocating for “exclusive” use, by – you guessed it – agricultural interests. Fellow board member Robert Bledsoe is a rancher and farmer. Profiles of the full board can be found here. No one on the board lists “hunter” or “angler” in their bio.

I’m pro rancher and pro small business. I’m a small business owner and buy all of my cow, pig and chicken from a local ranch. I understand the local economic benefit. I also understand the economic benefit the state of Colorado enjoys from outdoor recreation, but it doesn’t appear that we, or any of the non-hunting users, have someone who is part of the good ol’ boys club.

Want to give yourself nightmares? Imagine that millions of acres of our public land are given to the state of Colorado to manage. When land is controlled by the state of Colorado the public loses. We lose access. We lose our voice in habitat and wildlife management. We lose our public land heritage. We lose our identity.

Pro-land transfer = No Vote.


High Time for Outdoor Recreation Industry & Non-Hunting Public Land Users to Step Up

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Opportunity #1 for the outdoor industry to step up is a self-imposed excise tax modeled after Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson. Mountain bikes, camping gear, ski equipment – tax it all at the same Pittman-Robertson mandated 11% and redistribute to the states in a similar manner.  Imagine the conservation resources this would create.

Opportunity #2 is for outdoor industry businesses to engage on the issue of public lands transfer. Outdoor industry businesses have been conspicuously absent from the public land transfer conversation and have done very little to apply meaningful pressure to state and national politicians to walk back pro-land transfer rhetoric or proposed transfer legislation.

State based conservation is funded almost entirely by hunters and anglers, and we are the only group paying excise tax on equipment.  Those are facts. Pittman-Robertson is a self-imposed excise tax on firearms, ammunition and archery equipment. The funds are collected federally and redistributed to the states based on a hunter participation driven formula. Dingell-Johnson is the fishing equivalent. I realize that today not all Pittman-Robertson funds are generated by hunters, but back in 1937, in the shadow of the great depression, hunters had the foresight and backbone to step up and bring the legislation to fruition. Hunters and anglers buy licenses and bird stamps as well and have traditionally funded roughly 90% of state fish and wildlife agency budgets through their license spending.  We all pay federal taxes and pennies on the dollar are used to fund federal agency efforts, but what I’m talking about here is incremental, use specific taxation and for-profit industry contribution. This kind of self-imposed taxation does not exist for any other outdoor recreational categories.

Many “non-consumptive” users – mountain bikers, hikers, bird watchers, et al. – marginalize and dismiss us as beer guzzling, billhillies.  They enjoy the fruits of our labor while looking down their noses at us. In fairness, many non-hunting, not-for-profit organizations are doing great habitat work, and a few of them have been meaningfully active on public lands transfer issues. Likewise, many non-hunting users of public land contribute significant time and money to these organizations. But the current effort being put forth isn’t going to cut it.  As a community of hunters and anglers, we’ve also not done enough to educate the general public, and that’s on us.

Last fall, while gearing up at the trailhead for a multi-day bomb back into the Colorado backcountry to chase elk, I was confronted by a father and his young son. The son says bluntly, “You can’t hunt here”. The father, to my surprise, conferred. Politely, but plainly, I explained to them that hunters and anglers fund a majority of conservation work, including the trail maintenance and habitat efforts in the area we were all preparing to access. I told them that they should thank hunters and fisherman for helping underwrite their public land recreation. I went on loading my pack. The father questioned my logic. I pressed a bit further by asking him how much his family hike into the wilderness was costing him?  I also asked him if he donated time or money to conservation. Gas and food was his investment.  I think my point soaked in when I rattled off the costs, and benefits to the local economy and conservation efforts, of my trip, and elaborated a bit on the amount of time and money I dedicate to conservation outside of my annual gun, ammo and gear purchases.

This is one frustrating interaction, but also a microcosm of the larger problem we face with our “non-consumptive” brethren.

During the previous month three bills were introduced in the House. A succinct breakdown of the proposed legislation can be found here: Bundy Copycat Bills.   Several similar bills have been proposed during recent state legislative sessions throughout the country and I urge you to research what is going on in your state.  A number of presidential candidates have made land transfer part of their official platform.  The Malheur Refuge occupation was well covered and doesn’t bear another dredging here. Please see previous blog posts for detailed overviews of the land grab movement and the Oregon occupation.  The gist is that the land grab movement is a well-funded, organized effort to fleece the American public of our public lands, and one not to be taken lightly. And, it’s not going away.

Hunting and fishing non-profits, like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, have stepped up their game and are confronting the land grab movement head on. Hunting and fishing industry companies have stepped up as well, both through corporate partnership spending with non-profits engaging on public lands issues, and in-house programs.  First Lite, premium hunting clothing and gear manufacturer, is one company taking the bull by the horns.  Their Round up for Conservation program is raising thousands of dollars for conservation work by allowing customers to round up their purchase and choose a recipient organization. First Lite has been recognized for their efforts with the 2016 ‘Open Country’ award by Outdoor Life Magazine and the 2015 ‘Larry Fischer Award’ by Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Prominent voices in the hunting community are providing needed leadership as well, with guys like Steve Rinella and Randy Newberg out in front.  Their shows, podcasts, forums, and willingness to call a spade a spade, have helped bring the land grab movement to the front of hunters’ collective consciousness.  Meanwhile, for-profit outdoor recreation companies, with their considerable clout as job producing, tax paying members of communities, stand in large part idle on the sidelines. Likewise with their industry alliances and visible spokespeople.  This is unacceptable. Groups like Outdoor Alliance have engaged on public lands transfer issues but it’s time for the outdoor recreation industry as a whole to double down.

This year the Outdoor Retailer, title sponsored in the past by the Outdoor Industry Association, will again host their major events in Salt Lake City, UT, the epicenter of the land grab movement. Right now in Utah, there are no less than five active pro-transfer bills in various stages of the legislative process. The American’s Land Council calls Utah home. A few weeks back the Utah Supreme Court closed public access to 2,700 miles of rivers and streams. Yet OR and their sponsors choose to stay in Utah, sending a clear message, and through their indifference, enabling pro-transfer politicians.

It’s high time for the outdoor recreation industry and non-hunting public land users to step up.

Pay your own way. The moniker “non-consumptive user” is inaccurate. Bikers, hikers, boaters – their land and water uses require significant public investment and state game and fish resources. They also derive enjoyment and benefit from their public lands and it’s time for them to volunteer to pay a self-imposed excise tax.  Hire some lawyers, draw up legislation and get it done.

Put on some gloves and get in the ring with us on public lands. Your businesses and lifestyles require public ownership of public lands to be generationally sustainable. No land = no one buying equipment.  A few social media posts aren’t going to cut it.  This is your fight, too.