WASHINGTON – A congressional bill to protect property owners’ rights during federal land acquisitions has won first round approval but drew only cautious support from a major Colorado environmental group.
The bill was introduced by Colorado U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, who is a member of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on federal lands. The House Natural Resources Committee approved the bill Thursday for a vote on the House floor.
The bill, called the Protection and Transparency for Adjacent Landowners Act, is intended to ensure landowners have time to protect their rights when the federal government invokes authority to acquire, reclassify or resurvey land next to their property.
It requires the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service to give written notice to each landowner of the government’s planned action.
“We appreciate Representative Tipton’s effort to ensure appropriate notice is provided adjoining landowners, though we do share a number of technical concerns that have been raised about a number provisions in the bill,” Jim Ramey, Colorado state director for the Wilderness Society, told Colorado Politics.
Among the group’s concerns is that “Representative Tipton has supported a number of legislative efforts to curtail the public’s right to notice and comment under the National Environmental Policy Act,” Ramey said.
He added that the Wilderness Society was willing to cooperate with Tipton to resolve their concerns.
Tipton testified during the hearing Thursday that the legislation is important for landowners throughout the West, where the federal government owns huge swaths of land.
He mentioned the 2014 testimony of a New Mexico rancher during a different hearing. That rancher had said a Bureau of Land Management acquisition near his family’s ranch devalued his property.
“It is critical that the federal government provide private landowners with the opportunity to take action to protect their livelihoods when their land is at risk of being devalued,” Tipton said. “In order to take action, private landowners must be notified when the federal government is in the process of acquiring land that is adjacent to theirs.”
Tipton also discussed the need to protect landowners from mistakes by the federal government on historic land surveys.
One example he mentioned is in Mesa County, where a Bureau of Land Management re-survey resulted in the reclassification of land as federal property.
Before the re-survey, the land was believed to be owned by a private landowner. After the re-survey, the resident was then banned from what he thought was his own property.
“The BLM charged the individual with trespassing and illegal removal of sand and gravel, which resulted in a fine of over $250,000,” Tipton said. “Western landowners should not be punished for mistakes originally made by the federal government.”
Other provisions of the bill, H.R. 6682, require that if a federal agency determines property should be reclassified as government land, the persons who reasonably believed they owned it must be given a first right to purchase it at a fair market price.
Otherwise, they must be reimbursed for the fair market value of any significant improvements they made to the land.
In addition, the presumed private landowners could not be charged with trespassing unless they use the property after they knew it is was owned by the federal government.
The Tipton bill is one of several legislative or regulatory actions concerning Western state land in the past two years since President Donald Trump took office. Trump has been rolling back many environmental regulations and federal land set-asides to make way for industrial development.
In December the Bureau of Land Management is scheduled to lease 236,009 acres in Colorado, mostly to oil and gas companies that plan to drill on the property. The land includes protected habitat for the greater sage grouse and big game.
Until the Bureau of Land Management eliminated the rule in July, the companies would have been required to provide alternative but equally viable habitat for the endangered wildlife.
Among critics of the rule change is Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who wrote a letter of protest to the Bureau of Land Management last month.
Hickenlooper, a Democrat, wrote that the rule change “jeopardizes BLM’s ability to implement or enforce critical components” of an Obama-era plan to protect greater sage grouse in Colorado.