Romney presidency would threaten public lands in Western states

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney poses a real threat to the public lands that are essential to the economy and quality of life in the West.

When asked by the Reno Gazette-Journal editorial board last January if he would sell public lands back to the state, Romney answered, “I don’t know the reason that the government owns such a large share of Nevada ... Unless there’s a valid, and legitimate, and compelling governmental purpose, I don’t know why the government owns so much of this land.

“So I don’t want to say, ‘Oh, I’m about to hand it over.’ But where government ownership of land is ... keeping a population from developing their ... resources for the benefit of the state, I would find that unacceptable.”

New York Times blogger Timothy Egan wrote Romney doesn’t know “what the purpose is of the great American public land legacy — a domain that includes 190 million acres of national forests, 52 million acres of national parks, and more than 500 million acres of open range, wildlife refuges and other turf under management of the Interior Department.”

Though a little fuzzy on which agencies manage Western public lands, Egan’s essential point is spot on.

If elected, Romney would take office at a time when public lands are under full assault from Western conservatives. The American Legislative Exchange Council is drafting legislation and coordinating efforts to advance legislation that would “reclaim” millions of acres of publicly owned federal lands for the states.

ALEC is a secretive corporate association that works to insert their conservative agenda into state and federal legislatures. It is funded by large corporations, including Koch Industries, BP, Exxon Mobile and Shell.

Utah Republican Gov. Gary R. Herbert signed a bill in March demanding the federal government return 30 million acres of land to the state by 2015. The Utah law has served as a template for legislation passed, introduced or pending in several other states, including Colorado.

Arizona passed similar legislation in April, demanding the “return” of approximately 48,000 square miles of public land. The New York Times reports, “Bills patterned after Utah’s are being prepared for filing next year in Colorado, Idaho, Montana and New Mexico,” according to lawmakers involved in the effort.

Colorado Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, introduced House Bill 1322 this year to require all 23 million acres of federal land in the state suitable for agriculture be ceded to the State Land Board. In its original form, the bill would have required the state to dispose of the lands by the end of 2014, but that provision was dropped.

As the Colorado Wildlife Federation wrote, “This bill was an attempt to take away public lands that are essential to Colorado’s state’s economy and quality of life.”

Not unexpectedly, Sonnenberg’s bill was killed by a bipartisan vote in the Education Committee.

This small victory, however, is no reason for Coloradans to take lightly the threat to Western public lands. Utah’s congressional delegation plans to take the issue to Congress. Other plans call for court cases, hoping to lead to a Supreme Court decision to validate state claims to federal public land.

Even though Utah’s own Office of Legislative and General Counsel advised there was “a high probability of (the bill) being declared unconstitutional,” the state plans to pursue the issue in court. Insisting the law is on their side, supporters of bill are determined to proceed with their case.

Anticipating the costly court battle, the Utah Legislature has allocated $3 million to the attorney general to fund the legal battle.

ALEC has been preparing for this action since at least 1995, when it supported the Sagebrush Rebellion Act to “establish a mechanism for the transfer of ownership of unappropriated lands from the federal government to the states.”

Colorado voters of both parties should be deeply concerned about the effect a Romney presidency would have on this latest effort to seize control of public lands.

As for Romney, he needs to study “what the purpose is of the (public) land” in the West. If he cannot give an acceptable answer to that question next time he comes to Colorado, he should have no support from any voter who values our priceless public lands.

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


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