Rebellion dies: Bid for state takeover of federal land fails

DENVER – The Sagebrush Rebellion was repressed Monday in the House Education Committee.

Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, wanted to force the federal government to turn over its 23 million acres of public lands to the state government.

“I think we in Colorado do a much better job of managing the forests, because our forests are different than what they’re used to in the East, and one size doesn’t fit all,” Sonnenberg said.

But witnesses who opposed his House Bill 1322 pointed out that many federal land managers are longtime residents of communities near the lands they oversee.

Republicans in other Western states have written similar bills. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed one into law last month, and Arizona’s Senate approved another bill that is awaiting action in the House.

Sonnenberg’s bill would have exempted national parks, military bases and Native American reservations. But he wanted lands like San Juan National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management’s tracts in the Four Corners to be turned over to the state government.

It’s not clear that the state has the legal authority to demand the federal government give up its land.

Critics of the bills have called them part of a new Sagebrush Rebellion – the anti-federal lands movement that peaked around 1980.

Studies show the public overwhelmingly supports federal public lands, said Scott Braden, director of youth education for the Colorado Mountain Club.

“This bill would, it would seem, disregard the will of the vast majority of Colorado’s voters in order to pick an ideological fight with the federal government,” Braden said.

Sonnenberg originally wrote the bill to require the federal government to sell to private buyers any lands suitable for agriculture, or else start paying taxes on them, by the end of 2014. He amended it to tell the feds to turn their land over to the state. But even that change could not save his bill.

The bill failed 5-8 at House Education Committee on Monday. Two Republicans joined six Democrats in opposing the bill.

Rep. Robert Ramirez, R-Arvada, said he did not believe opponents’ predictions that the bill would radically change land protections. But he did think it would expand the state workforce, and he predicted it was doomed in the Democratic-controlled Senate anyway.

“This is a bill I believe that will simply get through the House and be another futile effort,” Ramirez said. “So I believe it’s a fight we can take on another day.”

Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, told Sonnenberg his bill would require a huge expansion of state government in order to take care of all the new land.

Sonnenberg said he wasn’t sure how much the state would need to spend to manage the lands, but he didn’t think it would be impossible to afford.

“It’s difficult to guess. It’s a new adventure,” Sonnenberg said.

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