In Colorado, Most State Trust Land is Closed to Public Hunting. What Gives?

A new effort by outdoorsmen and the governor could open 100,000 acres to hunting and recreation

colorado state trust lands
A snap shot of state trust land in the northeast corner of Colorado.Colorado State Land Board

Colorado is a robust hunting state with the largest elk herd in the nation, but hunters there are still scrambling to level the playing field when it comes to accessing nearly 3 million acres of state-owned trust land.

The good news is Colorado hunters seem to have an ally in Gov. Jared Polis when it comes to opening more lands to recreation.

"Coloradans truly understood that a vote for me was a vote for public land, was a vote for fun, was a vote for our heritage, and was a vote for the jobs that the outdoor industry sustains across our state," he said at an Outdoor Retailer conference.

States like Idaho, Wyoming and Montana all have large state holdings of trust lands – and have policies that generally allow the public to hunt on most of those lands. In Montana, for example, two-thirds of the state’s 4.76 million acres of trust land are open to public hunting, according to the Denver Post. Colorado, however, does things its own way. A way that has historically left hunters short.

First, a bit of history about "state trust lands." When western states were created back in the late 1800s, Congress typically granted those fledgling states land scattered in a grid pattern within their new border (see a map of current state trust lands here). The idea was that the new, sparsely populated states could use those lands to raise money for schools, roads, and the like. As in other western states, Colorado trust lands are managed under a Land Board.

In Colorado, the Land Board controls about 2.8 million acres scattered around the state, a total area larger than Yellowstone National Park. About 95 percent of that acreage is leased for livestock grazing or crops. About 80 percent of that total is closed to public access for recreation.

While school trust lands are owned by the people of the state, they are managed very differently from national public lands, such as national forests and Bureau of Land Management ground. For one, national forests tend to be wide open for hunting, fishing, camping and recreation.

State trust lands, on the other hand, are managed specifically to generate revenue to the state. If hunters want to guarantee access, they often have to lease rights to that land.

In states like Montana, the state wildlife agencies and the state land boards have negotiated agreements so hunters pay a bit more on their licenses to open up state lands. Colorado’s system is more piecemeal.

In Colorado, the Division of Parks and Wildlife has its Public Access Program which pays the Colorado State Lands Board to lease lands for hunting access. In recent years, CPW has paid $900,000 a year to lease 485,000 acres for 10 years. Unlike other western states, those lands leased in the Public Access Program are leased only seasonally, not year-round.

Right now, under direction of Gov. Polis, the wildlife agency and the land board are exploring ways to bump that up to 585,000 acres. Polis campaigned as a champion of public access and is now under pressure to deliver.

State policy director for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Tim Brass, of Longmont, applauds efforts to expand access on Colorado trust lands, but also encourages managers to think bigger.

Colorado land board policy is to combine recreational leases with leases for farming or grazing. So in theory, access and other uses should go hand in hand. In the real world, however, things gets more complicated.

Unlike other western states, Colorado allows outfitters and private hunt clubs to lease state lands, effectively locking out hunters who can’t afford their fees or want to hunt on their own, Brass said. Right now, about 300,000 acres are leased for exclusive, private recreational access. That is often the most prime habitat that brings in the most dollars. More of those private leases are increasing, Brass said, often at a low price and generally without public oversight.

While much of the focus in Colorado tends to be directed toward elk and mule deer habitat in the western part of the state, Brass points out there are opportunities to open state lands for upland birds, small game, pronghorn and other game in the flatter, eastern prairies. This could benefit both hunters and diversify the economy of those rural areas, he said.

Brass also points out that in some places, opening up state trust lands could have additional benefits for the public by increasing or opening access to adjacent national forest or Bureau of Land Management parcels.

Colorado is growing fast and much of that growth is fueled by the state’s reputation for outdoor recreation. That growth puts pressure on both wildlife habitat and public hunting areas. If our wildlife and outdoor heritage is to continue, it will be because hunters and anglers keep the pressure on elected officials to make it happen.