September 2015

Our public(?) lands

By Dexter Gill

There’s lots of controversy these days over the Public Lands burning up, being sold and traded away, losing one’s access to them. The chant has gone out, “Keep our public lands public — we want to keep them open!” The real meaning of that is, “I want the government to provide me with free recreation that suits me.”

There are two major problems with that. First, it is not the role and responsibility of the government, any level of government, to provide any of us with recreation and pleasure. Second, there just is not any public land to be kept as public!

What? What about the 24 million acres of National Forests & Grasslands, BLM holdings, National Parks, National Wildlife Areas, National Monuments,, and Wilderness Areas here in Colorado? This may startle you, but they are not public lands. There has not been any public land here since Colorado became a state. In the States Enabling Act, down in Sect. 4 it stated— “The people inhabiting said territory do agree and declare they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States.” The unappropriated lands were therefore removed from the public domain and were to be sold by the federal government, in their entirety on behalf of the state.

The federal government had to have a clear and unencumbered title for a legal transaction of sale. For example, the Homestead Act was one effort to sell the lands. Then the government just decided to violate the Constitution and to not follow through on their compact with the new state. Therein began the conflict over lands in Colorado since 1897. The deliberate violation of compact! The end result is, there are only private land holdings, state land holdings and federally held lands. There are no longer any public lands.

If there were, what are public lands? Referring to good old Webster again, “public” is defined as “Belonging to the people as a whole” and “for the use or benefit of all”. Two key words in that definition, “whole” and “all”! Just who is the “all”? The hiker, the biker, the logger, the rancher, the fisherman, the miner, the hunter, the motor biker, the jeeper, the firewood cutter, mountain biker, the mushroom gatherer, the sightseer, snow machiner, etc.

When the territory was in place, the public lands were just that, open to all the people to use and lay claim to. We just saw that after statehood, those public lands were turned over to the federal government to sell into private ownership on behalf of the state, thus making all the lands of the state in private or state ownership, which is the foundation of both the U.S. and State Constitutions.

So do you still think the National Forest, BLM holdings, Parks and Monuments are your public lands? If these lands are in the public domain, then they are open to use by all! When was the last time you went deer hunting on the 50,000 acres of back country in Mesa Verde Park? When did you last cut firewood from the deadfall in the Lizard Head Wilderness? Do you have a mountain bike trip planned to go to Navajo Lake in the Lizard Head Wilderness? When was the last time you drove your jeep or ATV along the old Lost Canyon Stock Drive or the Old Wagon Road to view the changing aspen colors and picnic like you have done for 70 years prior to their closing out the public?

Obviously there is not equal access and use of the 24 million acres of the states’ land being held by the federal government, 10.2 million are in wilderness, roadless areas, and parks where only a very small segment of the public are able to access and have very limited use of those acres. If you are not a hiker or equestrian you are out of luck. It is reported that only 2 percent of the population will ever visit a wilderness once in their entire lifetime. That is hardly all of the public! Of the 13.8 million acres left that is supposed to be more accessible and useable by the public, it is heavily regulated to deliberately eliminate access and use by much of the public. Historical access roads are being closed and banned for use by the public. Not surprisingly, even mountain bikes are now being banned on some old trails. Are these users not a significant part of public?

Some segments of society want to keep the land status as it is, since they have been able to lobby the federal government to provide what they want at the expense of the much larger society. As a result, the states and the public as a whole are losing access and use, critical resources, economic opportunity, and recreational opportunity, all of which has negative impacts on the social structure in the entire local community.

If you care about the resources and economic welfare of the state, county and its residents, then it is past time to wake up and get out of our selfish utopian dreamboat or Good Ship Lollipop and pick up the oars in the war boat and regain control of our own destiny by resecuring the states’ lands and resources to be managed and used for the benefit of all the public of the state. To do so, requires willingness to work, sweat (not just glow) and accepting responsibility for our own actions and future!

Dexter Gill is a retired forest manager who worked for private industry, three Western state forestry agencies, and the Navajo Nation forestry department. He writes from Lewis, Colo.