State lands: money isn't everything
Pockets of land exist all over
Colorado where locals hunt, hike, farm and ranch. They look like
public land. But these 3 million acres of trust lands, established
by the federal government in 1876, usually have one purpose - to
make money for public schools. And increasingly, in these boom
times, the state land board has found that selling land to
subdivision developers brings in the most cash.
After growing complaints from local communities affected by sales
of these lands, Colorado Gov. Roy Romer came up with a solution:
Amend the state constitution to require the state land board to
consider long-term stewardship in its management plans. When the
Legislature wouldn't, Romer drafted a ballot initiative that would
do just that as well as set aside 300,000 acres for open space and
habitat protection. The group conducting the petition drive,
Citizens to Save Colorado's Public Trust Lands, says the mandate to
maximize revenue is no longer needed: Colorado schools currently
receive less than 1 percent of their budget from the trust.
The drive to secure the 80,000 signatures
needed by Aug. 5 has gained support of educators around the state.
Dee Wisor, president of the Cherry Creek School District, thinks
selling land to developers could actually burden the schools. "We
may generate this money from the sale, but over time it will cost
this same amount to educate students that will live there."
Farmers are balking at the possibility that
open space protection could bounce some farmers or ranchers off the
land. "I do not call them public trust lands. I think they are
private trust lands. My God, we've got 35 percent of the state made
up of public lands. If somebody wants open space they don't have to
drive very far from Denver," says Buford Rice of the Farm Bureau.
Initiative supporters counter that the real
threat to ranchers and farmers is not preservation but development.
Reeves Brown of the Colorado Cattlemen's
Association agrees. Although the Cattlemen may decide to oppose the
initiative, Brown says "the biggest issue is an intangible concern
about change," not anything in the initiative.
Other Western states are also rethinking the management of their
state trust lands. In Idaho and Oregon, environmentalists are
attempting to take over some state trust lands by outbidding
ranchers for grazing allotments; in the state of Washington, more
than a dozen school districts just lost a lawsuit that would have
forced the state to harvest trees at a faster rate on state trust
lands; and in Wyoming, citizens have petitioned the state land
board to renew a two-year moratorium on land trust sales that
expired April 1. The moratorium was a result of the same concerns
that led to the Colorado