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Colorado state lands offer conservation options

Here in Southwest Colorado, we’re blessed by an abundance of public lands administered by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Another land holder is the state of Colorado, with 3 million acres under its jurisdiction.

Unlike more familiar national forests or BLM public lands, Colorado’s state lands are managed primarily to make money. The state lands were granted by Congress to Colorado at statehood in 1876 for the express purpose of generating revenue to support public schools. But some options exist to pursue conservation outcomes for management of some of those state lands.

The majority of the state’s land holdings are located on the Eastern Plains, but a number of sections are scattered about our neck of the woods. Notably, where Lime Creek crosses U.S. Highway 550 at the big horseshoe bend between Coalbank and Molas is a 640-acre Colorado state section. So is the summit of Sultan Peak immediately north of Molas Pass.

A key difference between state lands and federal public lands is that state lands are not generally open to public recreation. Colorado Parks and Wildlife leases public access to some state lands from the Colorado State Land Board, and the Lime Creek parcel is within that leased public access program.

It might make better sense for the San Juan National Forest to assume ownership and management of an isolated state parcel like Lime Creek. The state generates hardly any money at all from the CPW recreation lease, so it’s falling short of its mandate to maximize revenue. And the state is also not equipped, nor particularly interested, to manage for recreation, roadless area protection, threatened and endangered species habitat, native trout streams and the myriad other resources that does the Forest Service.

The Colorado State Land Board has recognized similar shortcomings in meeting its mission on a much larger scale, at a 45,000-acre tract of state land around La Jara Reservoir in the San Luis Valley. Over there, the state realized the possibility of a win-win solution by selling this large contiguous tract of land to the Rio Grande National Forest and the BLM.

The 45,000-acre La Jara tract had an value estimated at $27 million by the state, but generated under $200,000 in annual revenue. The land board determined it could significantly increase its revenue stream by flipping that property to federal land managers and reinvest the proceeds into a more productive revenue generator.

The La Jara tract for generations has been used by San Luis Valley residents largely as if it were public lands more typical of our federal lands. Funding for the deal to simply sell the La Jara property directly to the Forest Service and BLM comes from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a fund permanently reauthorized with dedicated funding in 2020’s Great America Outdoors Act. The transaction will occur in phases, but already about $20 million of the necessary funding has been included in the last two federal fiscal year budgets.

The La Jara tract is a more grandiose version of what might be replicated for parcels like those on Lime Creek and Sultan Peak. The scattered state land board tracts, which were generally the Sections numbered 16 and 36 in each township, include some other notable local landscapes. Several state land board parcels lies adjacent to the boundary of Mesa Verde National Park. Others overlap the range of the Spring Creek Basin wild horse herd in Disappointment Valley.

Fingers crossed, the state land board and Forest Service-BLM partnership at La Jara will come off without major hitches, and open the way for additional deals in our backyard.

Mark Pearson is Executive Director at San Juan Citizens Alliance. Reach him at mark@sanjuancitizens.org.