October 25, 2019 Media

Colorado Independent: U.S. House to vote on Colorado public lands preservation

WASHINGTON —The full U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on legislation next week that could shape the future of public lands in Colorado, preserving vast areas for wilderness and recreation in the state. 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has said he plans to bring up the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act, a bill that aims to preserve about 400,000 acres of public lands in the state. The House is scheduled to vote on that and two other public lands bills dealing with the Grand Canyon and Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico.

The milestone vote marks the first time lawmakers will debate a Colorado-specific piece of legislation on the U.S. House floor this year. And it marks a significant breakthrough for the public lands proposals that advocates have been pushing for years. The bill generally calls for the permanent protection and preservation of “iconic” landscapes, wildlife habitat, land for recreation, access to hunting and fishing, and the safeguarding of watersheds.

The bill grew out of local proposals and has support from a wide array of local groups, including environmental groups, outdoor business owners, ski resorts, Colorado Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, mayors, and county commissioners.

“The folks in Gunnison County have been working on this for a long time,” Jonathan Houck, Gunnison County Commissioner, told the Colorado Independent this week. “We’re ready, this proposal is long overdue.”

Just over half of the proposed acreage in the bill is in Gunnison County, including the Curecanti National Recreation Area and the mineral withdrawal for the Thompson Divide. 

The bill also has the backing of leaders from Eagle, Summit, San Juan, Ouray, San Miguel, and Pitkin counties and the towns of Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, Ridgway, Crested Butte, Ophir, Telluride and Basalt. 

‘A very important step for Colorado’

The sweeping proposal brings together a number of smaller bills that the freshman congressman’s predecessors had worked on for years, including Gov. Jared Polis (D), during his time in Congress. Sen. Michael Bennet (D) has also met with local stakeholders and been a major proponent for the legislation.

Neguse took it on as a top priority in his first months in office and has been able to advance the legislation to a full House vote in part due to his position on House leadership. The proposals within the bill have been introduced in various forms over the years, but this is the first time they will get a vote in the full House.  

“To me, it is a very important step for Colorado and a testament to the hard work of so many citizen activists who have been pushing for action at the federal level to protect these lands we all love,” Neguse told the Colorado Independent in an interview this week. 

Neguse says he also has a personal interest in protecting Colorado’s wild places. He has happy childhood memories hiking on Colorado’s public lands and wants the same for his young daughter.

“I want to protect those lands for future generations. My daughter is one year old, and as I think about the world she will inherit, I want to make sure she has access to the same opportunities,” Neguse said. “I decided early on in my tenure to work to protect these lands at a federal level.”

In total, the CORE Act would establish 73,000 acres of new wilderness areas and 80,000 new acres in recreation and conservation management areas.

If enacted, CORE legislation would represent the most acreage slated for protections in the state since 1993, when Congress passed the Colorado Wilderness Act, according to Neguse’s office. 

“People have been waiting a long time, from Gunnison to Carbondale, people have been waiting over 10 years for these designations to be made at the federal level,” Neguse said. “I think they have waited long enough. I am excited to be able to move this bill to the floor of the House.”

 Will GOP lawmakers get on board? 

The House Natural Resources Committee passed the sweeping legislation in June, in a partisan 23-15 vote.

Democratic support alone could shoulder the legislation through the House, but the proposal is unlikely to make it into law unless it has some Republican backing. 

Colorado’s three other Democratic U.S. House members are co-sponsors of the bill; none of the Colorado’s GOP lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-1st) has also introduced separate Colorado wilderness legislation that Neguse is co-sponsoring. 

Rep. Scott Tipton (R-3rd), whose district includes some of the areas affected under the CORE Act, put forward a draft alternative over the summer that would narrow protections to a smaller area, just 70,000 acres. His proposal did not include the drilling ban for the Thompson Divide.

Tipton “continues to look at ways he can improve the CORE Act,” his spokesman Matthew Atwood said this week. In particular, Tipton wants to be sure boundaries provide adequate access in case of forest fires and that longstanding water and grazing rights do not change. Tipton may propose amendments to the bill next week, Atwood said.

Houck, the Gunnison County commissioner, said the mineral withdrawal for the Thompson Divide — missing from Tipton’s proposal — is a key protection. 

“It provides a huge amount of positive impacts for wildlife, water, agriculture and recreation … the biggest thing we can do is protect all the other assets that are there,” Houck said.

He said the CORE act has already been “well-vetted” by local constituents and the land would still be available for recreational use and grazing. 

On the Senate side, Bennet has pushed companion legislation, but the bill has run up against a wall — with no action at the committee level yet. Bennet sent a letter last month to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to request a hearing. He has not heard back, a spokeswoman said this week, but hopes the House vote can help add some momentum to the bill. 

“Colorado has waited too long for Congress to act, but movement on the CORE Act in the House presents a new opportunity to make real progress for our state,” Bennet said in an email.

“The CORE Act enjoys the full support of seven affected counties, many cities and towns, local leaders, and a wide range of stakeholders — from mountain bikers to ranchers, and hikers to hunters. Coloradans shouldn’t have to wait any longer for the Senate to consider this legislation.”

Sen. Cory Gardner (R) has potential influence with his post on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but he has not been involved in the issue. Gardner’s office did not respond to requests  for comment on the legislation this week. His staff previously told the Vail Daily he has some issues with the bill but would not block it.

“This has all been a decade or more in the making,” said Jim Ramey, Colorado state director for the Wilderness Society, one of the conservation groups supporting the bill. “This is important because these are some of the most spectacular public lands you can find in the state of Colorado, and we need to enact protections and keep them around for future generations.”

The legislation from Rep. Joe Neguse (D-2nd) includes four public lands proposals.

The CORE Act would establish permanent protections in the White River National Forest, along Colorado’s Continental Divide, and in the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado. It would block future oil and gas development on approximately 200,000 acres in the Thompson Divide. It also sets a formal boundary for the Curecanti National Recreation Area and unifies management under the National Park Service. 

The CORE Act would also designate the first-ever National Historic Landscape around Camp Hale, a former winter warfare training ground for the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain division. The ski troopers fought in Italy during World War II and returned to establish the Colorado ski industry.