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Who’s in charge of our land?

Column by Hal Walter

Land Use – January 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

If there’s anything beautiful about our government, it’s how slowly it does or doesn’t work. Our founding fathers — hoping to save us from ourselves — designed it that way. It keeps our elected clowns from doing wrong things too quickly. That’s why it took years and years to establish a wilderness area in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range.

I like sluggish government, but I hope it won’t take too long for the government to tell one local group — the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Council — to take a hike with its plan for the mountains. In an October mailing the group proposes “a pilot project in joint public-private management of the Sangres.” In English, that means the group would like to see something other than the present United States Forest Service administer these mountain lands.

The mountain council propaganda is riddled with terms like “biodiversity,” “ecosystem” and, my favorite combo, “sustainable economic development.”

Over the years I’ve attended some mountain council functions, including a town meeting, a trail-cleanup project and something called “Sangre Fun Day.”

At the town meeting a couple of years ago, the group tested its idea of taking over management of the Sangres.

The premise was that the Forest Service would gladly turn over this territory to somebody else because it is a financial drain on the agency; the Forest Service has limited management funds for this particular pile of rocks, which brings in very little cash from recreation, timber, or mining. The mountain council proposed some sort of agency that would better manage the forest lands in terms of local economies and forest ecosystems. This new entity would fund itself chiefly by charging a “user fee.” I laughed all the way home.

On the trail project I worked with a group that packed hand tools by horses and burros to the South Brush Trail, about a half-day’s march from the nearest public access, only to find that other trail muckers had snuck in through private access with chain saws and already cleared the trail. Afterwards I was treated to cold and mostly scorched barbecue food and charged money for the truly unique dining experience. I cursed all the way home.

At “Sangre Fun Day” I was enlightened by an official forest circus representative about the dangers of giardia and how to take a dump in the woods. Of course, I have so many different strains of giardia that they’ve all killed each other. But I wondered all the way home how many people on the mountain council’s mailing list had actually ever taken a drink or a dump in the woods. Perhaps the mountain council was just getting poised to dump on the mountains in a more profound way?

Then last fall I received in the mail the newsletter indicating the mountain council was still suffering from delusions of grandeur and talking about wresting control of the mountains from the powers that be. At least that’s how I understand it — under “Goals and Objectives” in this newsletter it says “we would combine administration of public lands under a single federal (or private/non-profit) agency.”

It’s interesting to note that the mountain council is quick to differentiate itself from groups such as those in Nye County, Nevada, and Catron County, New Mexico, where locals have laid highly publicized claim to our public lands. It says in the mountain council newsletter, in bold-face type: “This is not a proposal to privatize public lands! We are not trying to demolish the federal government!”

So just what does the mountain council want to do? And why? I’m not really sure. But keep this in mind: The land this group is talking about does not belong to the Forest Service. It belongs to you. And me. And each member of the mountain council, for that matter.

It’s public land, and we the people created the United States Forest Service way back when — in order to administer our property. True, the Forest Service has generally done a below-average job in managing these lands, but I seriously doubt any “private/non-profit agency” could do any better. Are we ready to turn our property over to some group just because its members use eloquent ecospeech and say they can manage the forest better? The Forest Service has nearly 70 years more experience than this group does.

More importantly, is the mountain council more, or less, vulnerable than the Forest Service to special interests such as loggers, outfitters, miners, ranchers and real-estate developers? I think more.

Why even mess with these folks? Instead, why not just put me in charge? Then I could put in place some sensible new regulations and policies to protect the “biodiversity” of the “ecosystem.” First things first:

No God damned cellular phones allowed. Please excuse the expletive, but I’m sure God feels this way.

No search and rescue operations allowed. Let us promote true “biodiversity” — the ravens need to eat, too. Also, this promotes “sustainable economic development” — certainly some crafty local will make a decent living by salvaging and selling expensive mountaineering swag.

Grizzly bears and wolves will be reintroduced to the Sangres. True wilderness is where something can eat you.

No mountain biking, or men with shaved legs, allowed.

Limited logging of selected trees, provided loggers use non-motorized cross-cut saws and draft horses to extract the timber. Free dead firewood and Christmas tree permits to everybody who lives full time in a county touching the forest.

Mineral extraction only by means of pick, pan, shovel, and burro, and of course with the proper and very expensive permit.

Three-month subsistence hunting seasons for area residents. No big-game seasons for outsiders, except that, with the proper licenses — and after signing a waiver — they may hunt bears and mountain lions, but not my precious wolves. Hunters will be restricted to sabers measuring less than 31 inches in length.

No Gore-Tex or neon-colored clothing or equipment allowed. This should cut down on the number of backpackers and climbers by eliminating those who are only in it for the experience of using their expensive gear. It will ease overuse problems at the high lakes and peaks and cut down on the number of toilet-paper streamers seen trailing from under rocks.

Nobody from Boulder or Santa Fé allowed. Californians and Texans likewise. Real-estate developers will be admitted only after they’ve spent a full 24-hour day atop any peak of at least 13,000 feet, contemplating the platted, subdivided, criss-crossed, yard-lighted scene below.

Grazing will be provided to area ranchers in selected areas on a yearly rotational and tightly monitored schedule. Prices will be set at 20 percent below private-land pasture rates. Ranchers will donate a side of beef to each family household that has maintained residence in a Sangre-touching county for 10 years or more.

Closure to all motorized vehicles of the Rainbow Trail and all roads within the forest boundaries, including, Medano Pass, Music Pass, South Colony, Hermit Pass, North Taylor, Ballman Reservoir, and Hayden Pass roads.

After closing these roads, we’ll turn them into bridle paths and designate the drainages as “Outfitter Areas.”

In all areas other than the outfitter drainages, equine and camelid owners will be required to pack out their animals’ droppings.

Free admittance for area residents; $100 yearly pass available to outsiders. Twenty-percent discount given to Colorado Central subscribers.

Let’s see. I’ve now outraged pretty much everybody involved here: ranchers, miners, tree-huggers, tree-cutters, backpackers, outfitters, cyclists, search-and-rescue teams, developers, mountain council members, my editors (they’ll have to field the calls), motorheads, media cretins, equestrians, llamaroos, Forest Service mucky-mucks, ecofacists, sport hunters, and the residents of two cities and two states.

Hell, I’ve even pissed off my own self — I don’t want to pack out donkey dung. But hey, the mountain council seeks coöperation between all these folks. Somebody needs to be realistic here.

Free-lance writer Hal Walter lives in the Central Colorado show home for Bull-e-Tex, a bullet-proof house siding that looks just like fir paneling made from real forest products.