FRISCO, Colo. — Democrats in Congress looking to hold the line against a Republican attack on public land conservation got some help from newly elected Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, who joined them to vote against efforts to weaken presidential authority under the Antiquities Act.
Gardner also voted against a GOP measure that would have withdrawn millions of acres of public land from the protective Wilderness Study Area category, potentially opening up the lands to oil and gas drilling, as well as other extractive uses.
But in the same flurry of Senate activity, Gardner voted against a five-year extension of the federal production tax credit for wind energy. On Facebook, Gardner said he’s a strong supporter of Colorado wind energy, but said the proposed extension was not acceptable, but he seemed to leave the door open for a different version.
“Wind energy has no stronger supporter in Colorado than me. But an amendment proposed in the Senate today had no vision for wind energy’s future, and no plans to pay for its tax credit. That’s why I voted no,” posted Gardner, who campaigned as a renewable energy backer.
In past years, uncertainties about the wind power tax credit have rippled through the wind energy industry, resulting in some lost orders and reduced production for turbine and blade builders.
Not content to vote against wind power yesterday, Cory Gardner (R-Koch) today voted against a renewable energy standard. #copolitics
— David Willett (@davidwillett) January 29, 2015
Gardner also voted to reverse federal endangered species designation for the lesser prairie chicken, which he characterized as “an assault on Colorado agriculture and energy.” The Daily Kos posted a concise list of votes linked to the Keystone pipeline bill.
The Antiquities Act enables presidents to create protected national monuments without an act of Congress. Currently, President Obama is considering designating Browns Canyon, along the Arkansas River in Chaffee County, as a national monument.
The GOP measure, offered as an amendment to a Keystone XL pipeline bill, would have required gubernatorial and legislative approval for such designations. Gardner was one of only three Republicans to vote no. The others were Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH).
— Bob Berwyn (@bberwyn) January 29, 2015
In Chaffee County, two Republican county commissioners support the Browns Canyon designation, while the third is opposed, according to the Conservation Alliance, an outdoor industry lobbying and policy analysis group that expects Gardner to oppose the designation.
The second amendment, proposed by Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, would have changed the status of millions of acres of land administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
Tracts currently designated as wilderness study areas by the agency are generally not open to intensive development. Gardner joined three other Republicans in voting against Murkowski’s amendment: Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Susan Collins (R-ME).
In Colorado there are 54 wilderness study areas, most larger than 5,000 acres. They include popular recreation areas like Handies Peak in the San Juans that have been protected for decades, according to Brian O’Donnell, director of the Conservation Lands Foundation.
“I certainly called his office and I know a lot of other Coloradans did as well,” O’Donnell said, explaining that Gardner knows there is strong public support for public lands conservation and protection in Colorado. Gardner’s votes are encouraging and reflect Colorado values, O’Donnell said, adding that 90 percent of the lands managed by the BLM are available to oil and gas drillers.
Both measures Gardner voted against were offered as amendments to a controversial pipeline bill that the Senate has been wrangling over since the new Congress opened this month. Republicans are determined to try and force approval of the KeystoneXL pipeline, which would carry crude oil from Canada’s tar sands to refineries in the United States. President Obama has indicated he is likely to veto such a bill.
In the bigger picture, Republicans want to use their new majority in Congress to chip away at what they see as overly protective land-use restrictions in the West to enable more drilling and mining. In some cases, they claim, the wilderness study area designation has needlessly locked away federal land that could be used to drive economic growth.
Conservation advocates say the majority of public lands are already open to various forms of development, and that wilderness preserves ecosystem invaluable ecosystem services.
“The American people support a balanced approach to caring for our public lands, not an assault that tries to roll back decades of public land protections and put up roadblocks to protecting America’s heritage,” O’Donnell said.
Protected public lands provide clean water, provide critical fish and wildlife habitat and offer some of the best hunting and fishing in the country. They also provide people with the opportunity to explore the outdoors, supporting the outdoor recreation industry, which contributes $646 billion annually to the nation’s economy.
[ Photo by Ken Lund.]