Donovan: State of the land |

Donovan: State of the land

Kerry Donovan
Valley Voices
Kerry Donovan

Colorado was the first state in the nation to designate a Public Lands Day in 2016. This holiday on May 20 was designated partly in response to a resurgence of the Sagebrush Rebellion, a political effort to remove federal protections for lands and transfer ownership of them to states.

This effort to transfer ownership of lands to states is more sinister than it seems: it’s driven largely by a desire to sell off our public lands to the highest bidding special interests for development and privatization. Colorado responded to this effort by creating Public Lands Day, a bipartisan effort to affirm that our outdoor spaces are the foundation of Colorado’s way of life, an important economic driver across much of rural Colorado, and that public lands must remain public. 

Since Colorado created Public Lands Day, the federal government has unfortunately failed to meet the moment with action. Despite Herculean efforts from Colorado’s conservation-minded elected leaders, zero bills have passed to protect land in Colorado for conservation. With each passing Public Lands Day, we should ask ourselves: What have we accomplished?

Coloradans of all backgrounds stand up for our public lands because of the special opportunities they offer us. Whether you’re punching through a roaring rapid, hiking a trail along timberline, tracking an elk through fall foliage, or being reminded of those who first called Colorado home by glimpsing pictographs high on a canyon wall, our public lands are what makes our state, and country, such a special place to live.

There is significant pressure being put on our outdoors by increased recreation and a growing population. In the past few years, we have seen timed entries for popular hikes, decreases in herd populations because of human interactions, volunteers cleaning up trash bags of human waste at popular trailheads, and careless interactions with wild animals that are cringy and dangerous enough to make the evening news. 

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Getting outside is getting more complicated for everyday Coloradans, and there are continued looming threats of development and privatization of public lands by polluters and the politicians they fund. That’s why we can no longer wait on Congress to act, or for anti-conservation county commissioners to have a change of heart. President Biden must boldly use the Antiquities Act, one of the most powerful conservation tools a president has, to protect these special places.

Recent efforts to protect our public lands have had mixed results despite overwhelming public support for new conservation designations. The state succeeded in establishing a new park, but another got derailed by anti-conservation county commissioners. In Garfield County, for example, Commissioner Tom Jankovsky and Lauren Boebert have joined hands in publicly opposing land protections. Legislation to protect the stunning land around Camp Hale, the original training ground for the 10th Mountain Division, was stuck in the gridlocked and hyper-partisan Congress due to anti-conservation politicians at the local level fighting against protections. In the southwest, a bill to protect land across multiple counties got slashed down to just 10 percent of its original goal after anti-conservation politicians walked away from negotiations. 

The good news is, on this Public Lands Day, where there is a will, there is a way.

Presidents throughout our history, starting with President Theodore Roosevelt, have used the Antiquities Act to protect public lands, much to the frustration of polluters. Without the Antiquities Act, the Grand Canyon would be a neon-filled resort at best and an industrial mine site at worst. A new national monument was established at Camp Hale to overwhelming praise by Coloradans, but only because of the power of the Antiquities Act. In consultation with tribal nations, the Antiquities Act is a powerful tool to preserve the rich culture and history of indigenous people.

While use of the act doesn’t come easy, it has been used courageously to protect the outdoor places and historical and cultural resources that reflect our American spirit. Out-of-step politicians cashing checks from polluters shouldn’t get veto power over the protection of our public lands, and we shouldn’t count on Congress to act any time soon.

So, this Public Lands Day, let’s think of what is possible. Which places still need our help to survive for generations yet to be imagined? Is it right for the politics of a few to stand in the way of the protection desired by the many, and should we use every tool at our disposal to protect the outdoors? The state of public land is tenuous, and we don’t have decades to wait for Congress. Let’s act. But, for today, get outside. It is, after all, a holiday. 

Kerry Donovan is the former president pro tempore of the Colorado State Senate. Donovan wrote and passed the bill establishing Colorado Public Lands Day. She grew up in Eagle County and now runs the family ranch in Edwards. 

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