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What A Deb Haaland-led Interior Might Mean For Colorado’s Public Lands

Colorado Public Radio
Sec. Deb Haaland talks with a small group of supporters, who waited in the rain, to welcome her on her second day as Secretary of the Interior, March 18, 2021.

In Colorado, where almost a third of the land is federally owned, the Department of the Interior can have an outsized influence.
On Interior Secretary Deb Haaland's second day on the job, a small group of supporters parked a video screen outside the department's headquarters in Washington, D.C., to flash messages of encouragement and thanks. Under a light rain, Haaland - the first Native American secretary of the Interior - came out for a look.

"I'm so humbled by the opportunity that President Biden has given me," she said.

There are a lot of expectations riding on Haaland's shoulders. In Colorado, where almost a third of the land is federally owned, the Department of the Interior can have an outsized influence.

It is required to consider multiple uses for the lands it owns - juggling fossil fuel development, recreation, conservation, ranching and much more. But different administrations often have different priorities, which changes up how multiple uses are balanced. During former President Donald Trump's term, a goal of 'energy dominance' drove a push to open more public lands to production. So far, the Biden administration has signaled it's ready to move in a very different direction.

Haaland touched on this tension in management priorities at a virtual forum on the future of oil and gas development on public lands.

"Now is the time for all of us to have a frank conversation about the future of our shared resources," she said. "I will not pretend that this moment of reflection will be easy, or that we have all the right answers. But I can promise you that I will listen to you, and I will be honest and transparent."

So, what does this mean for Colorado? Many are expecting some major policy shifts.

Advocates in the conservation and environmental world in Colorado are excited about the administration's change in focus to include climate change and environmental justice. And they strongly support Biden's 30 by 30 plan - conserving 30 percent of U.S. land by 2030.

Scott Braden, director of the Colorado Wildlands Project, calls it "a new day and a chance to really rebalance."

He wants to see legislative initiatives like the Colorado public lands bill, the CORE Act, move through Congress. A compendium of public lands bills passed the U.S. House earlier this year but has not made much progress so far in the Senate.

"Is Deb Haaland going to be good for Colorado and our public lands and environmental and climate issues? I think absolutely and I think she'll be keyed into the issues that folks in our state care about," said Will Roush, executive director of the Wilderness Workshop, a public lands watchdog organization based out of Carbondale.

Roush said the discussion about possible reform of the oil and natural gas leasing system on public lands is long overdue.

"We're not pretending there won't be folks who object to it. At the same time, I think it's great to see the administration - you know they ran on these issues and now they're acting on them. And that seems to be the right move."

The most concrete - and controversial - move President Joe Biden has made so far with public lands is his executive order temporarily halting oil and gas leasing, signed as part of a slate of orders addressing climate change.

The Western Energy Alliance has sued to undo it, as have a number of states. Colorado has not joined that lawsuit.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, said she's glad to hear Haaland say "the right things" about oil and gas remaining part of the U.S. energy mix. Sgamma said royalties from oil and natural gas on federal lands help pay for conservation efforts through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and more importantly, the law requires land managers to sell leases for appropriate areas.

But because of the lack of a timeline for the pause, Sgamma fears Biden's temporary leasing halt is anything but.

"When you start to look at the impacts of those policies in the west," she said, "it looks like it's a sacrifice of Western jobs and economic opportunity to satisfy the environmental left."

Sgamma points to an industry-funded study that shows Colorado could lose $586 million a year if the leasing moratorium stretches out for all of Biden's first term. The state might also lose thousands of jobs - most of that felt in the Western Slope.

Haaland's support for the Green New Deal during her time in Congress has made her a target of some Republicans, including Colorado Rep. Doug Lamborn who said via a tweet that Haaland is "an extremist." But Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet is confident that Haaland will strike a balance similar to the approach Colorado has taken in recent years.

"I think if we're going to continue oil and gas development on our public lands, then we need to do it the right way," Bennet explained, "with high standards and low emissions and with individuals and local governments having a say in the process. I believe that's what Colorado wants and I think that's what Secretary Haaland will deliver."

Like many previous Interior secretaries, including Coloradans David Bernhardt and Ken Salazar, Haaland is a Westerner. But unlike her predecessors, she also brings a tribal perspective to the table as a member of the Laguna Pueblo.

Bennet said he's heard from leaders of the Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain Ute that they are excited about a future Haaland visit to listen to their concerns and priorities. Last week, Haaland traveled to Utah to meet with tribal leaders and others about the future of two contested National Monuments.

Ernest House Jr. is also looking forward to having different voices heard when it comes to public lands.

House wears many hats: senior policy director for the Keystone Policy Center, a board member of Conservation Colorado and a member of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe.

"The consultation is really the big effort and opportunity, to intently listen, to bridge the gaps and meet with all the stakeholders at the table and ensure that the right voices are around the table. And I think that's what she'll bring to the position," House said.

After the Trump administration, House also wants benchmarks for the Biden administration to be set high.

"We have taken so many steps back, in my opinion," he explained, "So I think there's so much we need to get back on track. We have lost time and we're trying to make up for that time."

But calls for action by some groups inevitably bring up concerns for others. For example, any new or expanded wilderness designations could come at the expense of grazing permit holders.

Still, if Coloradans hope Haaland keeps an open mind, many of them are keeping an open mind about a Haaland-led Interior.

Mark Roeber is a fourth-generation rancher whose family has been grazing cows and calves on public lands in west-central Colorado since before they were public lands. He's also vice president of the Public Lands Council, an advocacy group for grazing leaseholders.

"We'll just have to see how it goes. I'm not going to put out a verdict yet. but we are hopeful," he said.

Roeber said he's a strong advocate for multiple uses on public lands and he wants that to continue. He said ranchers see themselves as part of the solution, not the problem when it comes to issues like climate change or 30-by-30, but it means having conversations and keeping an open mind about possible solutions.

He wants the Interior Department, regardless of who leads it or what administration is in the White House, to work in partnership with different stakeholders.

Democratic Sen. Bennet agrees, adding a balanced approach is all Coloradans are looking for. He's hopeful that will be reflected in discussions about keeping BLM headquarters in Grand Junction or the future of the controversial Trump-era Uncompahgre Resource Management Plan, which Colorado and other groups are suing to invalidate.

"Our public lands are a national treasure," Bennet said. "And we've got to take care of them because, I think, we've got a moral responsibility to pass [them] on to the next generation of Coloradans and Americans, just like our parents and grandparents passed them on to us.

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Mark Duggan provided online production of this story for KSUT.

This story was written in partnership with Colorado Public Radio, through a collaboration powered by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative — a nonprofit formed to strengthen local public-service journalism in Colorado. KSUT joined this historic collaboration with more than 40 news organizations to share in-depth local reporting to better serve Coloradans.

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