Celebrate Colorado Public Lands Day
On May 20, 2016, Joey Bunch wrote in the Denver Post, “On this day a year from now, Coloradans will get to celebrate Colorado Public Lands Day, thanks to a bill that squeaked through the gridlocked legislature this year.”
That day has come. On Saturday, May 20, 2017 Coloradans will celebrate Public Lands Day as an official state holiday recognizing the importance of 24 million acres of public land to the state’s way of life and economy. The holiday will occur on the third Saturday in May each year, beginning this month.
Colorado is the first state to declare a holiday to celebrate public lands. Grand Junction will be at the center of the statewide celebrations with a visit from Gov. John Hickenlooper who will speak about Public Lands Day at noon Saturday on the main stage of the Grand Junction Off-Road Bike Race on Main Street.
Vail Democrat Kerry Donovan sponsored the bill that created the nation’s first, and only, Public Lands Day state holiday. Donovan was able to get her bill passed, Colorado Politics reports, “because Republican Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, of Sterling let it out of the committee, but then voted against it on the floor.”
Sen. Donovan introduced the bill to create Public Lands Day as a holiday on the first day of the 2016 legislative term. It awaited action for the entire four months of the session before being passed by a bipartisan majority on the final day of the term. In the Senate it passed 28-7, and in the House by 39-26.
As the Durango Herald’s Peter Marcus explained on an NPR interview, “The bill was introduced on the very first day of the legislative session, and didn’t make its way out until the very end of the legislative session. And the reason why is because there’s a lot of controversy that is swirling around just the issue of public lands. And so that controversy kind of spilled over into the Legislature, where what was a seemingly non-controversial bill to create a public lands day was bogged down in all of this discussion on whether or not the federal government is truly the best to regulate our public lands.”
As Marcus explains, as the bill evolved through various committees, it changed from a simple proposal to name a Public Lands Day, to a vehicle for amendments based on grievances against the federal government and resentment of the regulations it imposes on public land.
In opposition, conservation groups, environmental organizations, sportsmen, outdoor enthusiasts and others objected to transferring “millions of acres of federal lands to the state’s authority,” Marcus said. “The state doesn’t have the money to manage it. The state won’t have any resources really to deal with this.” Their fear is that those lands would close to the public because of the state’s inability to manage them.
These extraneous considerations were minimized when Sonnenberg dropped them from the bill and returned it to its original issue of simply naming the third Saturday in May as Public Lands Day. It passed in that form.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, meantime, has been visiting national monuments greater than 100,000 acres established since 1996 with orders from Donald Trump to recommend which monuments should be retained and which should be modified or eliminated. In Colorado, the Canyon of the Ancients could be threatened by Zinke’s review.
“The national politics have changed, certainly since the election in November,” Pete Maysmith of Conservation Colorado told Colorado Politics. “When we see things like national monuments, the Canyon of the Ancients and others here in Colorado and nationally, that are at risk of being rolled back or undone, that doesn’t make any sense at all.”
As inhabitants of the first state in the nation to establish its own public lands day, Coloradans should celebrate the occasion on May 20 by participating in one of the planned activities or special events at state parks, or just make it a point to get outside on a favorite trail to enjoy the special places we celebrate on Public Lands Day.
Meantime, we should prepare to resist efforts by the Trump administration to reduce protections on the public lands that make Colorado a special place to live, work and play.