Public land in Summit County could have private owner under federal bill
February 1, 2017
Update: After seeing the uproar from citizens following his introduction of House Bill 621, Rep. Chaffetz announced on Instagram Wednesday night that he would be withdrawing the proposed legislation to sell these public lands. The partner bill, H.R. 622, which would eliminate U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) law enforcement capabilities over public lands, however, will continue forward.
A federal bill proposing the sale of nearly 3.5 million acres of public land spanning 10 of the nation's western states was recently introduced in Washington, D.C., and could auction off a consequential tract of Summit County property to the highest bidder.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, from Utah's 3rd Congressional District, launched the massive sell-off effort last week to rid the federal government of Bureau of Land Management assets in his home state, as well as Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Wyoming. The "Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act of 2017" landed with the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee on Jan. 24, of which the Tea Party Republican Chaffetz is a member, but immediately came under fire from a number of stakeholder groups across the country.
Environmentalists and sportsmen have suddenly locked arms in opposition of House Bill 621 to try and prevent the fire sale of this major chunk of publicly accessible land to non-federal organizations. BLM land has many functions, including leases for logging timber and obtaining fossil fuels, but is also a favorite summer resource of campers, cyclists and outdoor enthusiasts, as well as hunters. From an environmental standpoint, much of it also plays an important role as winter-grazing areas for elk and big-horned sheep, in addition to critical corridors for wildlife like bears and gray wolves.
"These lands have been deemed to serve no purpose for taxpayers," Chaffetz states of the plan on his congressional website.
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Those uniting against what amounts to a federal yard sale beg to differ.
"There is no reason for this bill except to begin stripping away American lands from American hands," said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit with the mission of protecting the health of the American West. "For Coloradans, it's especially worrisome as public lands are truly the region's breadbasket."
The bill uses a U.S. Department of the Interior land survey, produced two decades ago during the Clinton Administration under the watch of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, as its framework. At the time, the federal agency was tasked with identifying landholdings that could be unloaded or exchanged to help raise funds for the restoration of the Florida Everglades. That enterprise, however, was never brought to fruition.
But Colorado has 94,000 acres of land across 29 counties named in the document for sale, including swathes managed by the Bureau's Kremmling Field Office in Grand, Jackson, Larimer and Summit counties. Today, the small sliver of Summit property could prove particularly valuable.
Assuming it's the same 160-acre, rectangular parcel also singled out in a prior internal BLM resource management plan more than a decade earlier, the plot sits just north of Green Mountain Reservoir on the border of Grand County along the White River National Forest. It also has a segment of the gold medal-designated Blue River running right down its middle.
Noting the land's obstacles to sale, including possible mine contamination, historic and cultural restrictions and hindrances to access because it abuts U.S. Forest Service property, the 20-year-old appraisal document values it at less than $1,500 an acre for a grand total of approximately $230,000. By 2017 numbers, local officials acknowledge it could be quite a steal. That is, if it can even become available.
At some point in the Department of Interior's review and today, the land in Summit was dealt to the U.S. Forest Service. But, if House Bill 621 passed through Congress and was signed into law, the land could still be reassigned as BLM and sold. Were that all to happen during the legislative session — BLM personnel are unable to formally comment on active federal legislation — it would leave the momentous property exposed to the prospect of private ownership, and the county's open space & trails department would almost certainly look to quickly snap it up, to maintain existing public access.
Chaffetz argues the law would direct the sale of a little more than 1 percent of the whole of BLM territories, and less and a ½ percent of all federal lands. Coupled with partner legislation introduced to eliminate BLM and Forest Service law enforcement functions on these properties, instead placing those duties with local agencies, he hopes to reframe the way the country thinks about shared public spaces.
"By restoring local control in law enforcement, we enable federal agencies and county sheriffs to each focus on their respective core missions," Chaffetz declared on his congressional website. "The long overdue disposal of excess federal lands will free up resources for the federal government while providing much-needed opportunities for economic development in struggling rural communities."
Details on the two bills are scant for the time being as each first works its way through committee. Even if opponents like WildEarth Guardians grant that the potential passage is still a ways from reality, they aren't putting anything to chance and are already out mobilizing support.
"This is not hypothetical, and I'm not being alarmist," said Nichols. "This is a firm proposal. It's good for people to understand that people in Congress are trying to do away with the concept of public land. This is so haphazard and not thought through. We'll see where it all goes."