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Fact Check: Is Conservation Colorado’s statement connecting Laura Woods and Cliven Bundy misleading?

Colorado Sen. Laura Woods

Colorado Sen. Laura Woods

Cay Leytham-Powell, CU News Corps

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Editor’s note: This story first ran in The Denver Post on Oct. 20, 2016. 

A statement made by Conservation Colorado connects Sen. Laura Woods (R-Arvada) to Cliven Bundy when it discusses control over federal public lands and what that would mean for Coloradans. Woods, however, hasn’t supported Cliven Bundy-style efforts, but rather follows the current GOP platform.

In a press release, Conservation Colorado stated: “[Laura Woods] is trying to convince voters that she supports protecting our public lands. But the reality is that she has repeatedly thrown her weight behind Cliven Bundy-style efforts to turn our lands over to private interests, which could make it easier for them to be split up and sold off to out-of-state oil companies.”

Woods was elected to represent State Senate District 19 (which covers Arvada and parts of other Jefferson County municipalities) in 2014 and is up for re-election in 2016. Conservation Colorado, the state’s largest environmental group, made the statement as part of a campaign to defeat Woods. The effort includes physical and digital advertisements — including video and radio ads — and canvassers.

“But the reality is that she has repeatedly thrown her weight behind Cliven Bundy- style efforts to turn our lands over to private interests…”

While there is some truth to the statement — Bundy has fought to turn over federal lands to local control — overall it is misleading because it implies support of illegal methods.

The main problem with the statement is the idea of “Cliven Bundy-style efforts,” which is unclear in a political context.

Cliven Bundy led a group of men in a “massive armed assault” on officials from the Bureau of Land Management in 2014. Dubbed a continuation of the “Sagebrush Rebellion” — which began from anti-environment sentiment in 1979 — the action was an attempt to seize control of the public lands from the federal government, giving it to local control.

This initial effort gave rise to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation in January 2016, led by Cliven’s son Ammon Bundy and his followers.

These efforts, dubbed by some as domestic terrorism, reignited the national debate about who should control public lands and for what purpose. A wave of attempted legislation followed, sponsored largely by the GOP.

In Colorado, five bills of this nature were introduced by the Colorado House and Senate in the 2015 and 2016 legislative cycles: SB-15-039, SB-15-232, HB-15-1225, SB-16-160 and SB-16-021. Of those, two (HB-15-1225 and SB-16-021) were signed into law.

Woods voted in favor of SB-15-039 and SB-16-160, which both sought to have both state and federal control of Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service land under the stated purpose of fighting wildfires, and HB-15-1225, which was a bipartisan bill that improves federal and state coordination on the land management decision-making processes. Woods voted against SB-16-021, which recognizes the third Sunday of May as Public Lands Day in Colorado.

These votes do not equate to voting for so-called “domestic terrorism,” as could be read from Conservation Colorado’s statement. What they do show is that Woods aligns with the current GOP platform regarding the issue of public land management.

The GOP’s efforts would give states the right to choose whether or not to open public land to exploration and production, which could then open it to private industry.

“… which could make it easier for them to be split up and sold off to out-of-state oil companies”

This statement has some truth but lacks important context.

This statement is true in that — in the hypothetical situation — if public lands are sold to the states, it would make it easier for the states to take financial control, limit public access, divide up the land, and use the available natural resources.

What this statement fails to mention, however, is that it is against federal law to transfer federal lands. The U.S Constitution’s property clause states that “Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States.”

This means that while Western states keep pushing legislation to transfer ownership of federal lands to state control — à la Cliven Bundy — and officials in at least one state, Utah, are considering suing over the issue, as it stands only Congress can initiate sale or transfer of federal public lands.

A second-year master’s student in Media and Public Engagement at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Cay Leytham-Powell’s emphasis is in science and environmental journalism. She works extensively with the Center for Environmental Journalism at CU. Currently, she is the editorial assistant for the Journal of Clinical Orthodontics and an assistant art editor for SAPIENS, an anthropology publication. She graduated with a degree in biology from Grand View University.

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Explanatory Multimedia Reporting from CU Boulder Journalism Students
Fact Check: Is Conservation Colorado’s statement connecting Laura Woods and Cliven Bundy misleading?