Scott Braden, a public-lands advocate for Conservation Colorado, stands at Windy Saddle Park on Lookout Mountain Road on May 13. Golden Gate Canyon State
Scott Braden, a public-lands advocate for Conservation Colorado, stands at Windy Saddle Park on Lookout Mountain Road on May 13. Golden Gate Canyon State Park and the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest provide the backdrop. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)

On this day a year from now, Coloradans will get to celebrate Colorado Public Lands Day, thanks to a bill that squeaked through the gridlocked legislature this year.

But in terms of better protecting Colorado's public lands, that hat-tip is about all that got accomplished this legislative session.

Think of it as more of an aspen leaf than a battle plan.

And like most discussions of the increasingly politicized issue of public lands in the West, the commemorative day turned into a mountain-sized argument. Kerry Donovan, a Democratic state senator from Vail, introduced Senate Bill 21 during the first week of the four-month session in January, and it passed during the session's last week in May.

At left, a supporter of the group occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge walks his horse near Burns, Ore., in January.
At left, a supporter of the group occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge walks his horse near Burns, Ore., in January. (Associated Press file)

Amendments in the legislature larded up the bill with partisanship and acrimony. Finally, Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a strong conservative from Sterling, brokered a solution in a committee tasked to find a compromise.

The committee stripped out all the added amendments and preserved just the day and its name.

Efforts have come and gone in Colorado politics the past two years, since Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez made state control of federal land part of his failed effort to unseat Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Last year, an unsuccessful bill would have created a study of how the state could help manage federal public lands.

House Democrats killed another Republican bill this year that would have given local and state law enforcement more authority over federally managed lands.

And while policymakers from D.C. to Denver continue to dawdle, the mountain pine beetle has chewed up 3.4 million acres of Colorado forestland, according to the state forest service.

In a West Vail diner this week, cradled by the high, green shoulders of the White River National Forest, Donovan reflected on the work that led to Hickenlooper's signing her bill into law, making the third Saturday in May each year Colorado Public Lands Day.

Outdoor enthusiasts Nancy Nixon and Chris Madson protest on the west steps of the state Capitol just before a rally in February 2015 against the transfer
Outdoor enthusiasts Nancy Nixon and Chris Madson protest on the west steps of the state Capitol just before a rally in February 2015 against the transfer and sale of public lands. (Denver Post file)

Over eggs benedict and coffee, Donovan pulled out a letter her grandfather, Bill Mounsey, wrote to Gov. Dick Lamm in 1976. He compared the growing public push to preserve public lands to the American Revolution. Mounsey helped chart the boundaries for the Eagle's Nest, the Flat Tops and the Weminuche wilderness areas for The Wilderness Society.

Her parents successfully sued the U.S. Forest Service in the early 1970s to prevent a timber sale in what would become the Eagle's Nest Wilderness Area, protections that were pending before Congress.

To Donovan and countless Coloradans, public lands are a lot more than trees and dirt — they're a fight worth having.

"They're one of the most beautiful examples of democracy, right?" she said. "It doesn't matter what your station in life is or how much money you make or what your background is or anything. We all have the same ability to go to a trailhead, walk out and have the experience of enjoying those lands."

Sonnenberg is in the camp that public-lands advocates such as Donovan and Scott Braden of Conservation Colorado fear most. He supports more state control over federal lands to allow more use of the economic resources and more access for the public. Sonnenberg thinks the federal government does a horrible job of it at Coloradans' expense, citing wildfire prevention, pest control and over-regulation.

Workers tend to a well head at an Encana Oil & Gas hydraulic fracturing operation in 2013 outside Rifle.
Workers tend to a well head at an Encana Oil & Gas hydraulic fracturing operation in 2013 outside Rifle. (Associated Press file)

The cost for Colorado to control federal lands could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars each year, but Sonnenberg said the state could swing it by allowing more use with responsible management, the way it manages state lands.

"I'm afraid the issue has become too polarized on both sides," he said this week. "We need to find something in the middle and cut all the rhetoric on both sides, to get down to what the issues are. Public Lands Day came together at the end, because people were willing to do that."

A long-time struggle

Republican lawmakers in Utah have pushed even harder than their Colorado counterparts, including suing the federal government over more state control.

That fight spilled to the east this week when the Colorado-based Center for Western Priorities put up billboards at 20th and Welton streets in Denver and Interstate 70 and U.S. 6 in Golden as part of its "U-turn Utah" advertising campaign to discourage the state land acquisition.

Sonnenberg said the public-lands fights have gone on a long time in Colorado, but acknowledged the issue has ramped up across the West the past few years. He avoided saying the name of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his family, who led protests against the federal government in Nevada and the occupation Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon over federal public lands. He called them "those we need not name."

In a small way, the Bundy controversy has been good for public lands, because it has given moderate Republicans pause, Braden said.

"I think it created, in a way, a crack in the door so that something like a Colorado Public Lands Day bill could advance, where everybody could come together and say, 'Look, we might have differences on how public lands should be managed, but at the end of the day we all realize we should be at the table talking about those differences,' rather than heading in more extremist directions," he said.

Separately, the center has tagged Sonnenberg as a "Bundy Buddy."

Measure what's at risk

The compromise between far-left preservation and far-right resource development is a matter of recognizing what's at stake, according to a report this week called "The Disappearing West" by two left-leaning groups, the Center for American Progress and the nonprofit Conservation Science Partners.

The report found that every two and a half minutes between 2001 and 2011, the 11 Western states developed an average equal to one football field from public and private natural areas.

"I don't think there's ever been a time in the West when public lands weren't a source of controversy and debate," said Colorado native Matt Lee-Ashley, director of public lands for the Center for American Progress. "I think what's different now is the debate has become so divorced from the problems on the ground."

The report offers a map of where the losses are occurring to give policymakers and the public a sense that natural areas are fading away.

"It's easy to go inflammatory on this," Donovan said. "Will the Maroon Bells be sold off? No. We're not going to sell off these incredible vistas and the most valuable assets. But would public lands across the state start getting chunked off without a lot of people being able to keep track of it? Absolutely. And who's going to be the highest bidder? Not some land-conservation nonprofit."

But for Sonnenberg and others who see problems that need addressing and a lack of political will to address them, Public Lands Day is an opportunity for them, too.

"Maybe if people come out and see it with their own eyes, it will advance the conversation," he said.

Joey Bunch: 303-954-1174, jbunch@denverpost.com or @joeybunch