Kerry Donovan: It did. It was like the bill with nine lives. When I originally came up with the idea of how to have a proactive message on public lands – because the session before we had to be defensive – there were bills that came forward that talked about the transfer of federal lands to state control, which ultimately probably ends up with the land being privatized or sold, because of the financial implications of the state taking over a huge amount of lands, with wildfires, PILT payments and staff…everything from BLM to National Parks. In my first session these bills came forward, and I thought that these were outside of the realm of the serious ideas that would be debated on the floor of the senate, and we debated it often.
So how can we send a message that these land transfer conversations are not welcome in the state? Because poll after poll, and conversation after conversation, people love our public lands and they want them to stay public. It’s what our economy is based on; it’s what our quality of life is based on. So this Colorado Public Lands Day seemed like a way to send that message…
It was the first bill I introduced, and it was the last bill I dealt day. So it took 120 days, to get this bill passed. That’s because people are passionate about our public lands.
The substance of the bill was never impacted – it’s a date on the calendar on which we observe public lands – but the declarative language is what got so much attention and was the hold up. The final solution was to get rid of all of the declarative language.
If different elected officials are going to take the declarative language and try to make their political statement, I said ‘we’re not going to do that.’
The original declarative language I thought was broad and addressed the concerns of my Republican colleagues. We have problems on our public lands that we need to address. We know this. The federal government has understaffed them. I tried to address that. I tried to encompass all the uses of our public lands, which includes extraction, and grazing, as well as viewing wild flowers and rafting, etc…
But it became a battle over language, in which all sides wanted to get their 2 cents in, which threatened to kill the whole idea. So we just eliminated that, which took a lot of work. But finally we got the bill passed.
AMRDI: That’s interesting. I was going to get to land transfers later, but I didn’t realize just how directly, in some ways, your bill takes that sentiment – which has been sweeping the West in some sense – on. So I am curious: In your district, you’re right, there is an opposition to transfer according to polls. But in Utah, for instance, there is huge support for this movement. So what do you think keeps that movement at bay here in Colorado, or in your district at least? And separately, are there corners where you did receive pushback?
KD: I never got feedback that said ‘you shouldn’t do this.’ Because even the people I chatted with said, ‘I’m going to use this day to protest, and express our frustrations with public lands.’ I said ‘fantastic!’ Once the day is out there, it’s up to the citizens of the state as to how they want to utilize it. If they want to utilize it as an opportunity to focus on mismanagement or how public lands are used locally, so be it.
I think by large majority the opposite will be true. That locals will use this day to celebrate and volunteer, and say ‘this is how public lands are important to us and our communities.’ ‘They are so important that we are going to build water builds, or pick up trash at a trailhead, etc.’ I have enormous faith in the creativity of Colorado folks to figure out what to do with this day now.
It’s interesting. If there are frustrations around public lands, they tend to be very localized – a favorite trail gets shut down, for instance, which happened to me… That’s the conversation I hear in Colorado. This larger ‘transfer federal lands’ conversation we see in Utah…Utah seems to have this 30,000 foot momentum in conversation. Although what is fascinating, in Utah they passed a bill to study what it would cost to transfer lands and the costs were astronomical. It was basically, ‘you can’t afford to do this.’ But yet Utah continues to have a vocal minority that continues to push this even though the very bill they sponsored showed that this is not a plausible solution, unless you end up selling off a bunch of land, to fund the land that you decide to keep as public state lands! As for grazing, the fees on state lands are about 10 times as expensive as federal fees.
As people put these numbers together, the concept of transferring federal lands to state control becomes economically unfeasible. And then we have this very loud majority in Colorado that says, ‘No, that’s not what we’re interested in and we like public lands the way they are.’
AMRDI: Did the ski areas weigh in at all?
KD: They did, which I was really appreciative of…Vail Resorts stepped forward and told the story of how good their partnership with the Forest Service is. The White River National Forest, which Vail is on, is the most heavily used forest in the country… So for them to weigh in and say that, ‘this works – this is a private-public partnership that is working.’ They didn’t say this, but I interpreted that this would be a different scenario if the WRNF was state run, and you wouldn’t have the stability needed. For a company that needs long-term planning and strategies, the Forest Service is a better fit than the Colorado state legislature.
There are some key words that need to be acknowledged in all of this too: It’s the White River National Forest, these are National Parks, it’s the Bureau of Land Management. These are lands (and someone from the American Lands Council would push back here) that belong to the entire country. They belong as much to someone in Maine or New York as they do to someone in Longmont or Vail. So this transfer movement, where they point to some limited language out of context to say that this land belongs to the state is one of the least democratic things that someone can promote.
Public lands represent one of the truest democratic ideals in that anyone can access these lands. They don’t belong to the rich. They belong to everyone. Different people can access them in different ways and that’s the beauty of them…
AMRDI: A quick sidenote: Since you raised the American Lands Council, have you seen their presence or influence either over legislators, or in the introduction of legislation, at the state level here Colorado?
KD: We see language used from them, and we also see language used from ALEC. Which is not an uncommon practice. When you’re trying to construct law for your own state you look to other resources on how it’s done and how it’s been utilized elsewhere.
AMRDI: It’s a very partisan organization though.
KD: Yes, you would much rather see them look towards language offered by another state assembly, perhaps, than by a special interest group. But all parties do this, all legislators do this. You use the resources you can find. But yes, we definitely see their influence. They were not really in the building that I saw. The group Club 20, which represents the western slope counties, did host a debate (over land transfer) and the American Lands Council was invited to be one side of the debate … which was the most direct influence I’ve seen.
Hopefully this bill – it was meant to celebrate our public lands. The secondary aspect was trying to send a message about where Colorado is on this issue, and to give a proactive pushback to the transfer momentum.
Because the big, serious ideas make it to the Senate floor for debate…Once something makes it to the floor, and you’re debating it as a body, you really are debating something about the future of our state. This (land transfers) didn’t seem like something that SD5 embraced, nor largely the state as a whole, or thought that this was the direction we should go.
AMRDI: Moving on to a different topic, but still contentious, and unfortunately with an outsized presence in SD5, is the (for lack of a better term) demise of coal, and related layoffs. Coal’s ability to be the cornerstone of a rural economy looks to be in jeopardy. AMRDI doesn’t have a position on coal per se, but our concern is the viability and sustainability of rural economies and rural communities. One complaint is that the safety net for laid off coal workers has been insufficient. You’ve introduced legislation that addresses this. Can you comment on the state of that? Why it hasn’t passed yet perhaps? Or, on the situation going forward for that matter?
KD: Job loss anywhere is a sad story to tell, but when we start to look at job loss in rural communities, the impact becomes almost exponential. When you lose a job in Somerset, it’s not like you can go to the neighboring city and find an equivalent job or a different job track. If you lose a job in Somerset, you and your family are likely moving in order to find that replacement career.
So the bill that I introduced in my freshman session and my sophomore session was trying to address that exact problem. In that in small, rural communities, job loss results in maybe the dentist moving because he lost customers, the school having problems because it loses students within their school population, Main Street gets impacted. One study showed that there is a 7-fold impact. It has far-reaching consequences.
The bill said ‘let’s react to these as soon as we know that these job losses are going to happen.’ Because often companies can say ‘hey guys, bad news is coming in a month, or three months. We see the decline and we’re gonna have to do some layoffs…’ So let’s get in there with some really flexible grant money. It could pay for job retraining, them doing an economic development study, it could even pay for covering the cost of child care while parents explored other opportunities or got that training.
It was really broad in what the dollars could be used for, which made some people uncomfortable, which I understand, but, I think we need to let the communities tell us how what they need the money for, not us sitting in the capital predicting what they need the money for…
The other part of the bill was saying, the state has all these resources – we have an office of economic development, Department of Local Affairs, Department of labor – all these resources that can help communities figure out how to transition, or just how to survive the immediate impact. But the community that’s experiencing this impact often doesn’t have the staff resources, or the time or the money to research where all these things in the state are. So saying, ‘hey state, once this community gets a grant, you guys are all now embedded in that community. You’re going to go there, you’re going to figure out how to help them and you’re going to bring your resources to them.’… Let’s make sure that all these resources that the state has to help are being brought to the community instead of the community having to seek them out in a time of crisis.
The bill did not get made into law either session. It got caught up in partisan politics, which was disappointing to say the least, because I was hopeful that people would be able to look beyond party and see that this was an idea that could help. But two years in a row it got voted down on strict party lines. Strict party lines.
AMRDI: The opposition arguing what exactly?
KD: I don’t think it was a vote based on the substance of the bills. It was a vote based on partisan lines. That’s unfortunate. It happens. But, some bills it makes sense why there is a party line, because we are foundationally different, and we have some ideas we don’t agree on. That’s why we have two different parties.
But this wasn’t a party idea. It was just a way to react to a crisis situation. It didn’t take a position on pro- or anti-coal. It was just kind of like, ‘can we acknowledge this is happening and try to help these really hard working communities that are experiencing this transition?’ But I wasn’t able to build…I wasn’t able to find anyone willing to cross party lines to support. I just needed a vote, right? That’s all it would have taken. But I couldn’t find it.
AMRDI: Being more optimistic maybe, what is the way forward then? What opportunities might exist, for Somerset, or Delta County and coal country more broadly?
KD: The one thing the bill did do was allow us to have a conversation about these communities. So the bill did have some success there. I spent more time talking about Delta County than most of my other counties, because it really is the one right now experiencing the hardest time, not only recovering from the recession, but also being hit by these coal closures and figuring out their pathway forward.
They just got three grants from the Office of Economic Development, to help them look at what they can do about branding the whole county, as kind of a destination/gateway to the incredible public lands that they have, and their organic farming – it has the highest concentration of organic farms in the state. They got a grant to study other economic development opportunities.
Did that happen because of the bill? I’m not sure. Did the bill help bring attention to that community? For sure. We got a lot of press. A lot of coverage. It was a conversation in the building (Ed: state capital building). So I think the bill helps with that. So I think that the executive branch, and certainly the House and the Senate are aware of what’s going on in Delta County and other small communities…
The Denver Post headline will say that we have one of the best economies in the country, our unemployment is low, real estate is skyrocketing. That’s the headline. But at least these bills bring discussion that all these other communities – you know a dairy closed in Southeast Colorado and that was a huge impact on that community. Coal mines are closing. A hospital. It could be a supermarket. Those 15 jobs lost instantly impact the community. It does not take a closure, unfortunately like Delta has seen, of 300 jobs. It can take a closure of 15 to start to have a real challenge about how to go forward.
I don’t think that conversation was as prevalent in the capital before we starting talking about this bill as it is now. There seems to be a lot of effort now, that out entire state recovers, not just the I-25 corridor.
AMRDI: Moving to one of the brightest, most prosperous industries in the state – the ski area industry. We’ve seen the ski area boom here in Colorado. But we’ve seen some reports of the unintended consequences of a booming ski industry – whether high housing prices, low wages, and even elevated suicide rates in ski towns. Have you encountered those issues? Have those issues come across your desk, so to speak?
KD: You know they don’t come across my desk as a state senator. Being just two years removed from the Vail Town Council, however, ski resorts are interesting towns. They have big, transient populations, and many are just out of college…It’s a life of extremes. The haves and have-nots are well represented. Skiing is not a cheap sport to participate in. But it’s also a lot of people moving here for a quality of life and lifestyle.
Aspen has identified suicides as something to work on, and they are…They are really coming together with that. Vail is constantly talking about housing. Their last (housing) project had a communal area, since lots of employees are disconnected from family. Leadville is having that conversation now, as a bedroom community to two ski communities. Looking for what that means.
That was an interesting part of a bill last year – a bill about requiring good snow tires on cars on the I-70 corridor. When that bill started, across party lines, it was about getting the tourist to the ski resort. And I had to work hard to say that, ‘it is about that, but it’s also about getting the shift worker to her job.’ It was about getting the wealthy Texan to the wealthy ski resort. No, it’s also about getting the shift worker from Leadville to his or her job in Vail. Because if they miss a shift, you lost a day’s pay. This is about a lot of hardworking people that need to get to their job too. The fact that that image was totally absent from the conversation, and really needed to be hammered in, and to remind people that, people see the post card but we forget about all the service jobs that make that post card.
Ski resorts are extremely intense use of the land too.
AMRDI: Frequently expanding…
KD: Frequently expanding. I think that if it’s done well it’s fine to have those intense, concentrated uses. Eagle’s Nest, bungy jumps, alpine coasters. That might be the only way that people experience the “outdoors”…They’re staring into the Holy Cross Wilderness, and if they get a positive experience from that, then it does shape their impressions of the ‘great outdoors,’ and reasons to protect it…Hopefully that makes nature a value to them.
Ski resorts have endless number of benefits, and wonderful experiences, and are an economic driver of the state. But they still have a list of things that we all need to work on. But I haven’t talked to too many leaders from the industry that don’t acknowledge that. I don’t think anyone is pulling the wool over their own eyes.
But yeah, ski patrol pay is in a perpetual existence that I just don’t understand. My brother was a ski patroller, and the pay for that type of important work is still just one of those that, something on the to-do list that, I’m shocked that isn’t resolved yet…
There's work to do!