Some debts don’t get forgotten or forgiven, even after nearly a century and a half.
The Bureau of Land Management is proposing to transfer about 17,700 acres of federal lands and minerals and another 6,000 acres of federal mineral estate to the state of Colorado to pay off a federal government debt dating back to the state’s founding in 1876.
The transfer would satisfy the debt to the state for lands it was owed under its Statehood Act. The state never got those lands because they previously had been included in an Indian reservation, a forest reserve or a national forest, or otherwise had been encumbered, the BLM says.
The federal government owes the state about 9,000 acres or their equivalent value. The Colorado State Board of Land Commissioners filed a petition for lands and mineral estate in lieu of the lands the state never received.
Kristin Kemp, a spokesperson for the state land board, said getting the still-owed land from the federal government has been on the board’s to-do list ever since Colorado became a state.
The obligation arises from the federal government’s practice of giving states joining the union after the Revolutionary War a certain number of one-mile sections to be held in trust, mostly to support public schools. Colorado was to receive two sections per 36-square-mile township, but in some cases the federal government wasn’t able to make good on that obligation, particularly due to lands being in Ute territory in western Colorado.
“While we got the vast majority at statehood there are some parcels of land that we never received and that we have been hoping to receive for the last 143 years,” Kemp said.
The state land board owns 2.8 million acres today, funding schools through revenues such as money for leases for oil and gas development, agricultural operations and recreation.
The lands identified by the BLM for possible transfer are near or intermingled with state-owned lands in Bent, Chaffee, Custer, Dolores, Eagle, El Paso, Garfield, Grand, Huerfano, Jackson, Kiowa, Ouray, Park, Pueblo, Routt and Weld counties, the BLM said Tuesday in a news release. All of the lands have been identified in local BLM resource management plans as suitable for transfer from federal ownership.
The BLM is seeking public comments on the proposal.
“The BLM worked closely with the state of Colorado to identify the acreage proposed for transfer to match the estimated value of what the owed 9,000 acres are currently worth,” BLM Colorado State Director Jamie Connell said in the release.
The BLM says the proposal follows the guidelines of an order issued by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. It directs the BLM to adequately weigh public access for outdoor recreation, including hunting and fishing, when considering disposal or exchange of public lands.
The BLM believes the land proposed for exchange wouldn’t impact access to public lands used for recreation purposes.
The acreage transferred will be determined after an environmental analysis is completed and may be less than the proposed amount, the BLM says. The environmental analysis also is expected to consider things such as potential socioeconomic impacts, the effect on counties from reduced federal payments in lieu of taxes, and wildlife impacts.
The proposal comes amid concern in some quarters when it comes to the idea of the federal government selling off public lands, at least on a large scale.
Eric Carlson, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said in an email that “the transfer of federal lands to states has been opposed by many public lands advocacy groups and most elected leaders.”
He said the communities and local governments that helped shape the BLM resource management plans for the areas in the Colorado proposal will see impacts to those approved land uses, public access and recreation, and where mineral development is planned could suffer economic losses and loss of future revenues “that support schools, public safety, transportation and other important services.”
He said he hopes Gov. Jared Polis can speak to “why his administration is seeking to undermine the broad support for federal lands in western Colorado.”
A Federal Register notice indicates the land board filed its petition with the BLM in 2015, during the administration of previous Colorado governor John Hickenlooper.
Under the proposal, existing oil and gas leases would remain in effect on transferred lands under the lease terms and conditions, owners of affected grazing leases and permits would continue grazing under a state authorization, and land conveyances would be subject to rights of way granted by the BLM, the BLM says.
Mark Pearson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, said the parcel transfers he’s familiar with in southwestern Colorado make a lot of sense. These include parcels nearly all within the Lone Mesa State Park in Dolores County, and a 40-acre parcel next to the Lone Cone State Wildlife Area, that it’s logical for the state to manage, he said.
He said some proposed transfers elsewhere in the state also appear to involve isolated, landlocked parcels, and some larger parcels in eastern Colorado appear to be where there are big blocks of state land and management could be consolidated. He’s not seeing big concerns about the BLM proposal at this point.
“I guess it’s sort of some sort of bookkeeping that they’ve needed to complete for decades, apparently, if it dates back to statehood,” he said.
The BLM is asking for comments on the proposal by Dec. 23. More information on the proposal and commenting may be found at https://go.usa.gov/xp8yU.