More than a third of Colorado is made up of public land and controlled by agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management. Decisions about how to use that land can be contentious, as conservationists and private industry vie for their preferred use on those millions of acres.
Ultimately, the rules for public land use are often set by elected officials and the people they appoint to run land management agencies. Throughout the history of the United States, matters involving public land have found overwhelming bipartisan agreement.
“There was never a time that I’ve been able to discover through meticulous research, where an issue about holding on to and protecting public lands, the Republicans lined up on one side and the Democrats lined up on the other,” said John Leshy, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law. “It never happened.”
Leshy, who once served as general counsel for the Department of the Interior, spoke at University of Colorado Law School shortly before the pandemic. The subject of his talk was just how much agreement about public lands has changed.
“I think it’s fair to say the Trump administration’s policies aim at nothing less than a complete upending of many decades of bipartisan policy making concerning public lands,” he said in March.
If this administration is limited to one term, Leshy said deregulation efforts and public lands sales could be reversed by future administrations. A second term, though, could lead to changes that would be hard to overturn. He made the case that America is at a pivotal juncture in public land policy.
Philosophies on how public lands should be used differ. Oil and gas producers argue some land should be protected for conservation and recreation, but some should also be used for extraction.
“Everything is not Yellowstone and Great Sand Dunes National Park,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of Western Energy Alliance, a Denver-based oil and gas trade and lobbying group. “There are lots of lands that are working landscapes that are appropriate for those multiple uses. And those multiple uses sustain rural economies across the West slope and all across the West.”
Sgamma says the nation relies on oil and gas to keep its lights on.
“About 70% of America's energy comes from oil and natural gas. Replacing that with an alternative will take decades,” she said. “And we don't yet have an alternative that does everything that oil and natural gas do.”
Conservationists say there is an urgency to phasing out extraction. Jim Petterson, Colorado director for the Trust for Public Lands, says keeping protection front of mind is the only way to make sure those lands stay valuable.
“We need to be thinking about the long term value that those lands will provide to local communities for things like clean water and outdoor recreation and all the jobs that come from that,” he said. “And balancing that against – are we damaging our future economic opportunities for short term gain?”
Petterson says he understands the role extraction industries have played up to this point, but posits that energy production needs to be sustainable to make sure public lands are protected in the long run.
“If we don't strike the right balance and put the right priority on protecting the natural resource,” Petterson said. “It's not going to be available for future generations to benefit from the way that we are today.”
The word “balance” comes up often in conversations about public land management, on all sides of the issue.
Sgamma says a lot of oil and gas extraction is on land that is designated for multiple uses – and some land shouldn’t be used for extraction at all.
“We don't think we should be able to develop everywhere,” she said. “We don't think we should be able to put wells in national parks or protected areas. We understand that those are set aside. We recreate in them too. We love the outdoors.”
Jim Petterson says even when conservationists push for reduced extraction, they need to support the people who might be left behind by changing land use.
“We all have to be mindful that people need to be able to make a living, he said. “For those where priorities are shifting – we've seen this all over the country in places like coal country and Appalachia – there is a lot of loss of jobs and livelihoods. We've seen it in some of the busts that we've had here in Colorado oil and gas and shale oil. We need to assure that we can help people make a just transition away from some of these harmful practices.”
Both agree that the nation’s direction on public lands will be shaped by politicians in elected office, and if people have strong feelings about how public lands are used, they should take those feelings to the ballot.
“I'd say for the average voter, what's most important is to think about what you value most about our public lands and look for candidates – whether that's at the county, federal or state level – who are going to take care of our public lands in a way that matches your values,” Petterson said.
Pueden encontrar la versión en español aqui.
Spanish translation of this story is made possible by a grant from the Google News Initiative’s Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.