by Greg Walcher, E&E Legal Senior Policy Fellow
As appearing in the Daily Sentinel

I did a double take when I saw the headline, “Meeker County to call on Congress to pay up for federal lands.” I thought it must be a typo because Meeker is a town not a county (it’s in Rio Blanco County). The subtitle repeated it: “Analysis of public lands in Meeker County found that federal revenues fall short of what property taxes would generate.”

I wondered what reporter made such an error, but then noticed it was from the West Central Minnesota Tribune, an area where there is in fact a “Meeker County,” an entirely different place named for an entirely different historical figure. But the headline certainly makes clear that the two communities have something in common. South central Minnesota and western Colorado are both largely rural, have federal lands, and generally do not get their fair share of Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT).

PILT is a perennial issue in Meeker County because federal agencies own 10,000 of the 400,000 acres there, and federal land cannot be taxed by counties. By contrast, Rio Blanco County, Colorado, is more than two-thirds federal land, including Flat Tops Wilderness, White River National Forest and more BLM land than the combined size of Meeker and two neighboring counties in Minnesota. In fact, the federal government owns more than half of the entire Western Slope of Colorado, including over 95% in counties like Hinsdale and San Juan.

Yet despite vast differences in acreages, many states west of the Mississippi have the same issue. Federal land ownership takes property off the tax rolls, on which local governments depend for their annual revenue, including school districts. That shifts the burden onto other taxpayers and leaves local governments in the West at a disadvantage in providing essential services. This is the issue that made Jim Evans one of the great unsung heroes of the West.

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