Vail Daily column: Celebrate Colorado Public Lands Day | VailDaily.com

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Vail Daily column: Celebrate Colorado Public Lands Day

Jill Ryan, Kathy Chandler-Henry, Jeanne McQueeney

Today, our state will celebrate the first Colorado Public Lands Day. State Sen. Kerry Donovan introduced this bill in 2016 and it quickly garnered bipartisan support. Like Donovan, Coloradans understand the value of our backyard playground — our public lands. This special day is intended to remind us of the tremendous resource our public lands are to our health, our well-being and our economy.

An estimated 90 percent of Coloradans use the 24 million acres of public lands in our state. Here in Eagle County, 80 percent of our lands are public. The White River National Forest in Eagle, Pitkin, Summit and Garfield counties is the most visited forest in the country, with more than 9 million visitors each year. These visitors spend their money at local businesses. People come here to hike, camp, ski, kayak, raft, hunt, fish, bike, ride horses and ATVs and snowmobile. This economic driver for our communities would not be possible without our public lands.

Statewide, outdoor recreation is critical to Colorado's overall economy. It generates $13.2 billion in consumer spending and is responsible for 125,000 jobs that pay $4.2 billion in salaries and wages.

Colorado's public lands also provide the magnificent beauty, solace and sanctuary that drew many of us here and why we love this place we call home. We can access places where it feels like we are the first to step foot; places that revive the spirit, rejuvenate the mind and support physical health. As the pace of our world increases, such places are in ever-greater demand.

A crystalline waterfall, the quiet step of a deer in the forest, snow piling flake by delicate flake on the boughs of a blue spruce, the call of a meadowlark — these are all worth celebrating on Saturday and every day.

Our county is part of a key wildlife corridor, providing migration routes for big game prized by hunters. Sportsmen love to come here and hunt in the backcountry and fish the lakes and rivers of Eagle County. Our public lands are the headwaters for our rivers and streams, providing water for agriculture, recreation and drinking.

Every resident plays a part in protecting public lands, and as your elected leaders, so do we. It's our responsibility to balance human presence with protecting ecologically critical wildlife habitat for the wild denizens who are also under our stewardship, including bear, elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, moose, lynx, wild turkey and the rare wolverine.

As more and more people move to our county, these lands feel the pressures of human activity. We are committed to working closely with land managers to implement strategies that balance development on private lands with proper stewardship of wildlife habitat and migration corridors. We value and protect our clean air and water, our outdoor recreation economy and way of life.

A recent study conducted by Conservation Science Partners found that the West loses a football field-sized chunk of natural area every 2.5 minutes. In Colorado, we lost 525 square miles, or 254,259 football fields to human development between 2001 and 2011.

In Eagle County, we have seen a similar trend of losing natural lands. That's why our open space program is so important, along with the efforts of private nonprofit organizations such as the Eagle Valley Land Trust and the Eagle River Watershed Council. We urge you to support these organizations that work tirelessly to preserve and protect our natural resources and assets. Volunteer, donate and most of all, get out and enjoy the wild public lands that make our home so unique.

Happy Public Lands Day!

Jill Ryan, Kathy Chandler-Henry and Jeanne McQueeney are Eagle County commissioners.