In lieu of tax: What a great deal |

In lieu of tax: What a great deal

Alan Braunholtz

I’ve grown accustomed to Western politicians grumbling about federal control of the public’s lands.

Understandably they play to their vocal audience while quietly overlooking that the public in this case aren’t only the business leaders who cut them campaign funds but all the people in the USA.

The federal government’s difficult job is to look after these lands for every person and future person in the country. There are a lot of people who aren’t going to be writing enraged letters to the editor but whose interests are as valid as anyone else’s.

Public lands like national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, etc., are often demonized as “dead” land financially, that doesn’t contribute to the coffers of local government.

This places a burden on financing local schools, emergency services, etc. I’ve never understood that argument and attribute some of it to sour grapes by local officials not being emperor of all they see.

For a start they get payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) from the Bureau of Land Management.

According to Eagle county’s finance director, this is not far off what the county would get in property taxes from those lands. So local government gets this money while the federal government does all the work looking after these lands. They maintain the roads, manage the grazing, fight the fires, shoot and poison any predator they see (to help the local ranches). Where is the burden?

Rural areas have known for ages that farmland is a big plus to their budget, while new globs of tract housing require costly schools, emergency services and road maintenance. Crops, cows and farmers ask little for the taxes they pay, while suburbs demand more. Property taxes usually go up as an area develops.

Here the burden argument makes no sense at all. Our economy is dependent on the beauty of our surrounding public lands. People come here to ski, hike, shop and live because we are immersed in undeveloped hills, forests and streams. I’ve yet to see much trophy second-home development in Denver’s suburbs.

We’re getting a great deal. The federal government pays and struggles to preserve the public lands, which then give a huge boost to the local economy. This is a common phenomenon. Since the 1970s, communities next to wilderness areas grew twice as fast as other rural areas.

The USA’s public lands are a unique accident of history. No other country has anything like them. I find them amazing. Here in the richest most industrial country in the world there are vast swathes of open wildland owned collectively by the whole country. Our only challenge is not to destroy them.

Industry tends to see public lands as warehouses of resources to be removed and sold, and few recreational users respond well to requests for limits designed to curtail damaging overuse. Being the guardian of these lands is a tough and challenging job for our government. They are a priceless resource for every present and future American.

Another threat to these lands seems to be childish power politics. Local governments long annoyed when their desires haven’t meshed with the federal guardians bigger picture have found an ally with the Bush administration’s Gale Norton. Under her direction the BLM and Department of Interior are happily handing the federal lands to local government.

Norton’s specialty seems to be not defending any challenge to federal interests in court. She knows the political fallout to changing popular environmental laws will be high, but if you roll over to every challenge, the result is the same.

Recently Norton made a deal with the Utah governor and disclaimed all federal interest in old “constructed roads,” the states are claiming under statute 2477. This statute is a remnant of Civil War times and allowed states to claim as roads any cattle trail, path, creek bed regularly used for travel. It was repealed in 1976, but old traditional routes could be grandfathered in.

Since 1976, the government had an orderly process for examining legitimate claims for roads still used. Now it’s open season and any of these long forgotten and abandoned cattle trails could be opened up and bulldozed with few questions asked if the state claims them. Once bulldozed, these areas are permanently “saved” from wilderness designation. And roads pave the way for logging, oil and gas.

Our governor and Colorado Natural Resources Director Gregg Walcher are pressing for claims across national parks, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas. I guess they feel if that they put a road across it, they can control the land.

Strange that in a time of budget shortfalls we want to spend money on bulldozing, then maintaining roads in national parks just to prove we can. They’re also proving they don’t have the maturity to look after anything as valuable as pristine public land. “Look” implies a vision that stretches to the horizons.

Still, why expect our present government to understand what a jewel our public lands are? Only 5 percent of Texas is public land, so it’s a foreign concept.

Communal ownership is ideologically wrong; aesthetic value is anathema to the use-it-or-lose-it oil boys, and “hey! If you want solitude what’s wrong with hanging out on your own private ranch?”

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.

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