How Western States Stack Up As Public Lands Defenders

A new report card ranks the Mountain West based on access, recreation, and responsible energy development

Last month, the Center for Western Priorities, a Denver, Colorado–based nonprofit, published a comprehensive report that compared state public lands policy across the Mountain West. Eight states—Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico—were scored. The results were also discussed on the organization’s podcast, Go West, Young Podcast.

The Trump administration’s hostility to public lands was part of the impetus for the report, the authors told Outside. Wary of focusing its mission solely on federal accountability, Western Priorities also wanted to examine what states could do on their own. But understanding state policy when it comes public lands is challenging; unlike federal law, tracking state-level regulation gets messy.

“We try to be a data-driven organization,” says Aaron Weiss, media director at Western Priorities, “and that tends to be fairly easy on the national level, because, at least up until now, DOI and Forest Service were good about collecting and disseminating data.” If you couldn’t figure something out, “you could usually call up someone at the Park Service or at BLM and figure out how to get that data. It’s much harder to do at the state level.”

That’s because the way states regulate their local public lands varies widely. “What counts as a spill in one state doesn’t count in another,” Weiss says. In that light, Western Priorities set out to research and compare state policies “apples to apples.” The project, led by Western Priorities’ Sara Rose Tannenbaum, took about eight months to research and involved somewhere between 80 and 100 interviews with policymakers and related experts. Western Priorities chose to score states in three categories: lands and access, outdoor recreation, and responsible energy use. Montana and Colorado received the highest overall grades, but there was still a good deal of divergence within each category.

The results look at what states are doing well when it comes to public lands protections, as well as how they can improve and adopt best practices from one another. (Charted above are the states’ total scores from all three categories, with the highest possible score being 33.)

“This can be a useful tool to people as they’re trying to aid their state in improving, or branching out, or being innovative,” Tannenbaum says. “States really have a lot to learn from one another. It’s important to celebrate what’s worth celebrating in your state and also identify moments for improvement.”

We broke down how the states did in each category and why.

Lands and Access

Highest Possible Score: 10

Western Priorities looked at hiking, hunting, fishing, and camping access on state public lands using a few different parameters. States can do a variety of things with their land trusts—sell, lease, or neither—and access often changes based on those designations. Additionally, local public lands can’t always be accessed in some states if they’re surrounded by private property, and the commitment to funding for public lands can be inconsistent.

Stream access is highly variable as well. Montana and Idaho, for example, allow people to float, wade, and walk along streams up to the high-water level, even when rivers cross private lands. Montana has enshrined public access to rivers in its constitution, an issue that has caused trouble even for Greg Gianforte, the state’s recently elected congressman. But other states, like Colorado, are more restrictive, and enforcement and culture varies. In Utah and New Mexico, the report notes, there have been “issues of private land owners erecting barbed-wire fences through streams and putting up ‘no trespassing’ signs.”

Weiss is careful to add that states weren’t given negative points, which can obscure regressive trends. “On lands and access, the big takeaway is that this is still a very active fight in a lot of states,” Weiss says, mentioning the Wilks brothers threatening ranchers’ water rights in Montana and alarming initiatives led by Utah officials to sell off public lands for resource extraction.

Outdoor Recreation

Highest Possible Score: 9

Colorado ran away in this category, while states like Arizona and Wyoming struggled. Infrastructure for public access was a key part of the equation, as was having dedicated offices in state governments devoted to the cause. (Colorado was the only state to receive top marks on both fronts.) Western Priorities also believes there’s plenty of room for improvement when it comes to promoting outdoor and environmental education, a category in which no state received top two scores. But most important, commitment to public lands and recreation is most clearly reflected by one thing: consistent, dedicated money.

“It’s really wonderful that a lot of states have passed a Public Lands Day,” Tannenbaum says, “And we’re really supportive of that—Colorado’s Public Lands Day was a hit this year. But that really has to be backed by concrete action.” Groups like Great Outdoors Colorado do a great job of addressing all sorts of outdoor recreational priorities, she told me, but not all states put real money behind such agencies.

Responsible Energy Development

Highest Possible Score: 14

“This topic, you could write an entire report on it,” Tannenbaum says. “So we focused on concrete protections for air, water, and wildlife as opposed to alternate uses.” One of those uses they had to leave out, they say, was the potential for development of renewables on public lands.

Instead they examined, among other issues, how far back oil wells could be set from houses, transparency surrounding chemicals used in fracking and spills, mine bonding, and methane emissions. One crucial aspect was the return on investment taxpayers receive from taxing energy industries that exploit public lands. That came down to looking at the kinds of taxes and royalty rates states require the extractive industry to pay, which can be used to maintain and protect public lands. Colorado once again did especially well, with royalty rates above the federal rate, while also requiring public reporting and disclosure of fracking chemicals 48 hours prior to use (Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, and Utah all use FracFocus to do this). Arizona scored poorly on both these fronts.

Weiss and Tannenbaum emphasize that public engagement is critical in keeping outdoor recreation and access to state trust lands a vibrant part of the West. “Number one is to know who your state legislators are and keep them on speed dial,” Weiss says. “Go to their coffees, go to their town halls before the [legislative] session starts, so they know what’s important to you, both in terms of good bills and what a bad bill would look like.”

Join our editors for a Q&A with Weiss and Tannenbaum on Monday, November 13, at 2pm M.T. in the Outside Public Lands Forum on Facebook.

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