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Know the West

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 initiative.