Public involvement needed for all major land-use decisions

Sen. Mark Udall is determined to “do wilderness the right way.”

“The right way” means before any public-lands bill is drafted, “it’s important to me to hear from as many Coloradans as possible about how the land is used today and their vision for the future of these special places.”

The dedicated people who worked for years to get The Central Mountains Outdoor Heritage Act and The Arkansas River Canyon National Monument and Browns Canyon Wilderness Act are fortunate to have two senators — Sen. Michael Bennet supports Udall’s position — who believe local people should be direct participants in public-lands decisions that affect them economically, socially and culturally.

“By hearing your comments from the outset,” Udall announced Monday, “I hope to develop a plan that a majority of the community agrees will support their interests ... If we do it in the right way — with a bottom-up rather than top-down approach — protecting public lands will support jobs, our economy, and the quality of life that makes Colorado the envy of the world.”

Udall plays a particularly important role as a member of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and as chairman of the Subcommittee on National Parks. He also sits on the subcommittee on public lands and forests.

Udall’s inclusive approach could be a model for all communities facing important public lands decisions. People do have a voice in federal agency decisions, but when public-lands bills originate in Congress, it is the politicians who speak. Or is it the lobbyists who speak and the politicians who listen?

People in Delta, Gunnison and Montrose counties would like the opportunity to testify before Congress on the Koch Land Swap proposed for the Ragged Mountains area, but they’ve had little opportunity.

In a swap involving several parcels of land managed by different federal agencies, energy billionaire William Koch wants to consolidate his 4,500-acre ranch by acquiring a piece of public land that allows access to important elk hunting and recreational areas.

Paonia activist Ed Marston characterized the swap as “a very bad deal for the public and a very good deal for Mr. Koch.” If the swap goes through,” he said, “we give up three square miles of high-elevation and well-watered land ... We will also lose physical access to a fine elk herd. And we will lose the best existing road access to 40 square miles in the Ragged Mountain Basin.”

In return, Koch would donate some sagebrush lands already protected by conservation easements to Curecanti National Recreation Area. He would also transfer ownership of 80 acres in Dinosaur National Park to the Park Service. The National Park Service does not support the swap.

It requires little cynicism to suggest that this complicated land swap was designed to silence local opposition. Marston draws that conclusion when he says, Koch “structured this deal so that it had to happen in Washington, D.C., in the U.S. Congress, where Mr. Koch has registered lobbyists and we have none.”

A bill to allow the land swap was introduced in the previous Congress by former 3rd District Congressman John Salazar, but it died without having a public hearing. No bill has as yet been introduced in the current Congress.

A coalition of community groups formed in opposition to the the swap asked the Colorado congressional delegation “to not submit a bill on behalf of the proposed Bear Ranch Land Exchange until some key problems are cleared up.”

The questions raised about the swap include the effect loss of access would have on local communities.

But more than just access, this conflict is about “how the land is used today” and the “vision for the future” local communities have for these special places.

Suggestions for a letter to the congressional delegations state: “Because we in the upper part of Delta County intend to develop a vision of this area, they should honor us and not submit a bill to implement this exchange. This exchange would badly handicap our ability to shape our future.”

Not only should Sen. Udall withhold any legislation on behalf of William Koch, he should immediately schedule hearings to implement the “bottom up” strategy he favors for other public land decisions.

Bill Grant lives in Grand Junction. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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