Let’s not be willing to transfer 
management of public lands

Editor’s Note: Tamera Minnick will be an occasional contributor on issues involving natural resources. This is her introductory column.

It was a relief to learn that Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, has withdrawn a bill he sponsored calling for the disposal of more than 3.3 million acres of public land in 10 western states.

However, there are still a small band of legislators, and also two of our Mesa County commissioners, who have supported transferring lands to the states. According to the website, Mesa County is a member of the American Lands Council (at a cost of $1,000 annually) whose primary policy statement demands the “transfer of federal public lands to willing states.”

Let’s not be willing.

Wyoming citizens are not. The state legislature has killed a proposed constitutional amendment that would have transferred federal public lands to the state. However, this was followed quickly by introduction of new legislation to accomplish the same thing.

Recently, Patagonia and other companies announced the Outdoor Retailer trade show is leaving Utah over its stance toward public lands.

I believe in public lands.

In October 2002, just after I arrived in Grand Junction, I went skiing on the Grand Mesa one Saturday morning and kayaking on the Colorado River that afternoon. I emailed friends in Nebraska extolling the virtues of living in Colorado surrounded by public lands.

I have rafted the Grand Canyon, hiked to Broken Bow Arch in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, learned to ski when I was 10 years old at Keystone and Copper Mountain in the White River National Forest, and canoed the Wild and Scenic Niobrara River in Nebraska. I have hiked to see arches, petrified wood, Native American storage granaries, and dinosaur tracks on BLM national monuments in Utah.

I have seen some of the oldest living organisms —  4,000-year-old bristlecone pines, gnarled and bent with only a branch or two still alive — in Great Basin National Park. I have summitted a 14er, Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. I have heard elk bugle, stood aghast to see bison stampeding, and just last year, I saw my first bobcat in Santa Fe National Forest.

It is not like this in states east of the Rocky Mountains. In Lincoln, Nebraska, we took our dog to run every weekend to the same two square miles of tallgrass prairie, since that is all there was.

But it is not just recreation that I have gotten out of public lands. My drinking water and irrigation for my handful of peach trees is from Grand Mesa Uncompahgre Gunnison National Forests. This water requires less treatment because these well-managed public lands are protected from fire and other disturbances.

I bought a quarter cow that was summer-grazed on Forest Service land. I have had a flagstone collecting permit and one for firewood. I’ve collected mushrooms on public lands.

I have had friends who have taken Taxol, a cancer-fighting drug derived from Pacific Yew Trees, that was first collected from Gifford Pinchot National Forest in 1962.

I live in a log house. I drive on roads that have a base that was probably mined on public lands. I heat my house with natural gas that may have been drilled on public lands.

I have published scientific studies using data collected on natural gas well pads on BLM-managed land in the Piceance Basin and another on transplanting shrubs conducted at Colorado National Monument. While at Colorado State University, I conducted studies at a National Wildlife Refuge, Piñon Canyon Military Maneuver site, and two Agricultural Research Service sites.

I worked for a small biotech company in Lincoln. One technique that we used for genetic engineering of bacteria to produce human proteins, called PCR, requires enzymes that were first isolated from thermophillic bacteria in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park.

I’ve learned about the natural world from reading Edward Abbey’s description of a lightning storm experienced from a fire lookout tower, or John Muir writing about the time he climbed the tallest tree he could find during a thunderstorm in the Sierras, or Annie Dillard relating the dark of a total solar eclipse racing across the landscape toward her in Washington.

We here in the western U.S. can identify many examples of the way we use public lands.

There are questions about whether states would care for public lands like the federal government does. What happens in a drought year when the revenue needed for fighting fires explodes? Will a state government sell some to pay for the management?

I’m unwilling to accept that risk. Let’s continue to keep public lands public so that we can, as Gifford Pinchot wrote, enjoy them for “the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time; thus recognizing that this nation of ours must be made to endure as the best possible home for all its people.”

Tamera Minnick, PhD, is a professor in environmental science and technology at Colorado Mesa University. She is on the advisory council for the Bureau of Land Management’s Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area.


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