WASHINGTON — Sweeping legislation that would preserve vast swaths of wilderness and recreation areas in Colorado advanced in the U.S. House on Wednesday.
The House Natural Resources Committee approved the bill from Rep. Joe Neguse (D-2nd), despite GOP opposition. The legislation — titled the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act — aims to preserve about 400,000 acres of public lands in the state. The bill cleared the committee by a vote of 23-15 along party lines.
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) is backing the Senate companion version of the bill, which has the support of all five Democratic members of Colorado’s congressional delegation. None of the delegation’s four GOP lawmakers are co-sponsoring the bill, which could complicate prospects for passage in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The bill 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 withdraw approximately 200,000 acres in the Thompson Divide from future oil and gas development and set a formal boundary for the Curecanti National Recreation Area.
The legislation also would designate the first-ever National Historic Landscape around Camp Hale, a winter warfare training ground used by the U.S. Army during World War II.
Neguse and his Democratic colleagues say the measure will help protect the state’s iconic public lands and boost its prized outdoor industry.
“Over 70 percent of Coloradans participate in outdoor recreation each year, which drives $28 billion in consumer spending annually in my state,” he said Wednesday ahead of the committee vote. “Our public lands in Colorado really define who we are.”
Colorado’s Rep. Diana DeGette, who also sits on the Natural Resources Committee, called CORE an important step in balancing both promotion and preservation of the state’s natural splendor. Colorado always has been a state “where everybody loves our outdoors,” she said, adding, “but in many ways, we’re loving it to death.” The U.S. Forest Service says the White River National Forest, with its 11 ski resorts, eight wilderness areas, 10 Fourteeners, and 2,500 miles of trails, is the country’s most-visited national forest.
DeGette has tried for many years to pass a Colorado wilderness protection act and has introduced a separate wilderness bill. Combined, her bill and Neguse’s bill would protect more than 1 million acres in Colorado, her spokesman, Ryan Brown, said.
If enacted, CORE legislation alone 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.
Co-sponsors of the bill have pointed to an array of supporters, including environmental groups, ranchers, hunters, outdoor enthusiasts and others.
But House Republicans from Colorado and other states objected to the bill, arguing that there are outstanding concerns from some state lawmakers and residents.
“I think we need to work harder for more consensus,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-5th) ahead of the committee vote.
Lamborn said some people would like the wilderness designations, because they fit their own recreational objectives. “But there are people who want access to these areas who would not have it — motorized trail users, for instance, bicyclists. There are people that would not have access and they would be shut out.”
Rep. Scott Tipton (R-3rd) opposes the bill too, although he doesn’t sit on the Natural Resources Committee and wasn’t present for the vote Wednesday. The Thompson Divide portion of the bill would impact Tipton’s district.
“Congressman Tipton cannot support the Thompson Divide portion of the bill until there is consensus among all impacted Counties on permanent mineral withdrawal, and he continues to be concerned about the impact that wilderness expansions will have on military readiness,” his spokesman Matthew Atwood said in a statement. Tipton is concerned about the potential impact on the Colorado Army National Guard High-altitude ARNG Aviation Training Site in Gypsum.
Tipton does, however, see the Curecanti National Recreation Area and San Juan Mountains Wilderness sections of the bill as areas where he would like to work with Neguse and Bennet, Atwood added.
Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah) said a lack of consensus on the bill is a “fatal flaw.” He added, “Without that consensus, the probability of this thing getting through the Senate and into law, signed by the president is near zero.”
Rep. Ken Buck (R-4th) has not yet taken a position on the bill, according to his spokeswoman Brittany Yanick.
Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the bill, but he has previously mentioned potential stumbling blocks in the legislation.
“The Department of Defense has issues with the Camp Hale piece of the bill,” his spokesman Jerrod Dobkin told the Vail Daily in March. “Sen. Gardner has never blocked the bill from moving forward and Sen. Gardner does not determine what bills come before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee for a hearing.”
Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry told the Vail Daily that she and others met with Gardner and his staff in March, where they discussed the CORE Act. The senator pointed to concerns about the Thompson Divide portion, questions from the Department of Defense on Camp Hale and grazing issues raised by the Farm Bureau, Chandler-Henry said.
“We pointed out that the many stakeholder groups in all the affected counties support the bill,” Chandler-Henry told the paper.