by Lisa Cyriacks

Republican-backed Amendment 838, an amendment to sell off portions of national forest, passed 51-49 on March 25 in the U.S. Senate. Essentially, it aims to slash U.S. Forest Service budget demands by giving states control of federal lands, which can then be overtaken by private companies and mined for resources: i.e. timber, grazing rights, and minerals, along with the very lifeblood of the west—water.

The vote was purely symbolic—budget amendments carry no weight of law. Although this amendment is not law, it signifies growing support for the privatization of public land.

Three Republican U.S. Senators, Corey Gardner of Colorado, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, did not vote for the amendment. Democrats staunchly opposed it.

On March 26 U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) introduced an alternate amendment to the Senate’s budget resolution that would protect America’s parks and public lands, including national forests, wildlife refuges, and conservation lands, from being sold off as a deficit reduction tactic. The amendment was co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) and Jon Tester (D-Montana). This amendment failed to pass.

It is feared that SA 838 would pass the U.S. Forest Service debt onto those who can not afford to pay for it: state taxpayers. Then, big business can swoop in with a bigger checkbook and foot the bill. And, lock out hunters and hikers.

Colorado legislation

Introduced in the Colorado Senate in January, SB 15-039 seeks to establish “concurrent jurisdiction” over Colorado land held by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The bill has been characterized as an attack on public lands.

As written, the legislation would allow the state to prosecute crimes committed on federal land, “retain jurisdiction over civil and criminal processes with respect to such lands; to tax persons and corporations and their property and transactions on such lands so acquired; and to exercise such additional powers and legislative authority as will further protect the life, health, and safety of the residents of the state in accordance with the state’s police power subject to any limitations arising from federal law.”

Republican State Representative Jim Wilson (Chaffee County) acknowledges the bill has raised concerns about eroding public lands.

“Managing the vast swaths of land currently handled by the federal government would be hugely expensive for Colorado. Transfer of federal lands to the state would not only cost money, it could affect PILT funding,” Wilson said. “Transferring ownership to the state could result in public lands being sold off to private bidders due to sheer economic necessity.”

This legislation could lead to restricted access to public lands—areas like Maroon Bells, Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Indian Peaks, Flat Tops, and San Juan Mountains. The bill possibly violates the U.S. Constitution, and unnecessarily pits Colorado against the federal government over public lands. It affects 24 million acres of national public lands in Colorado.

The amendment also changes wildfire response without input from state, local, or federal governments, nor firefighters.  It would cause legal ambiguity and wildfire response ambiguity with the “Colorado Statewide Wildland Fire Management Annual Operating Plan” and local community fire protection plans.

Colorado State Senator Jessie Ulibarri (D-Westminster): “Public lands belong to all U.S. citizens.  Here in Colorado we are fortunate to have acres and acres of public lands that enrich our culture and feed our economy.  The system we have is working—the federal government provides the resources to manage these lands, and we enjoy the benefits of having them in our home state.  Once we seize these lands, we will be responsible for them, and we don’t have the means to manage them.  We would be wiped out after just one fire season.”

Republicans on the Senate State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee approved the amendment on a 3-2 vote, and approved the bill on another 3-2 party line vote.  SB 15-039 now moves to the entire Senate for a second reading hearing.