WASHINGTON — U.S. House Democrats approved legislation Wednesday that would place permanent wilderness protections on more than 660,000 acres of land in Colorado.
The bill would be the largest wilderness designation in Colorado in a generation, according to its champion, Rep. Diana DeGette (D). The House voted 231-183 to approve the “Protecting America’s Wilderness Act,” which combines the Colorado wilderness designations with five other bills covering lands in California and Washington.
Altogether, the legislation would add 1.3 million acres of wilderness across the West and more than 1,000 river miles into the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. In Colorado, the designated area covers 36 unique locations that combined are more than twice the size of Rocky Mountain National Park. They include land in the Handies Peak, Dolores River Canyon and Little Book Cliffs.
The approval in the House is a significant milestone for the Denver Democrat, who has been working for more than 20 years to protect these wild places in Colorado. This is the first time the House has voted on the issue.
“I am so gratified we finally did it,” DeGette said in a call with reporters after the vote. “I feel like each one of these areas is like one of my little children, and they will be permanently protected from future development.”
But the vote also demonstrated the partisan divide on the issue, in Colorado and in Congress more broadly. Colorado’s four Democrats voted for the bill; the state’s three Republican House members all voted against it.
Rep. Doug Lamborn (R) called it a “package of divisive and partisan bills” in remarks on the House floor Wednesday. Rep. Scott Tipton (R) put forward an amendment that would have blocked the wilderness designations in his district, home to much of the wilderness areas proposed in the bill. His amendment failed by a vote of 183-234.
Across the board, the vote was largely split on party lines. Six Republicans from other states joined Democrats to vote in favor of the legislation.
Trump veto threat
The bill has little chance of advancement with Republicans controlling the Senate and White House.
The White Office of Management and Budget released a veto threat this week against the bill, writing that it would put “unnecessary and harmful restrictions” on land and would need changes to get President Donald Trump’s signature.
“Regardless of what the House does, this bill is not going to be signed into law,” Idaho Republican Rep. Russ Fulcher said on the House floor. “The federal government is in over its head and can’t afford to manage what its got, and this adds to the problem,” Fulcher added.
Despite the opposition from some Republicans, DeGette said after the vote that she is hopeful the bill might make progress in the Senate. She said leadership from the House Natural Resources Committee is working with the Senate to try to come up with a comprehensive lands package that could gain approval and make it into law.
Colorado’s senators have not indicated they will take up the mantle for this legislation. Sen. Michael Bennet (D) has put his weight behind a separate bill, the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act (CORE Act).
Bennet’s spokeswoman, Courtney Gidner, said this week that Bennet is focused on passing the CORE Act through the Senate this year. He has requested a hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner has been quiet on both of the wilderness proposals. His office did not return requests for comment on the proposal that passed the House this week.
The House approved the massive CORE Act last fall. Rep. Joe Neguse (D) championed the bill on the House side.
The CORE Act would give federal protections to 400,000 acres, but it is not just focused on wilderness designations. It would create the first-ever National Historic Landscape around Camp Hale, a former winter warfare training ground. It would also set a formal boundary for the Curecanti National Recreation Area, put permanent protections in the White River National Forest, and block future oil and gas development on approximately 200,000 acres in the Thompson Divide.
Neguse said Wednesday that he is working with Bennet to try to advance the CORE act in the Senate, but is also supportive of DeGette’s proposal.
“I applaud her work on this legislation, and am proud to support the bill in the House today and hope to continue to partner with my Colorado colleagues to preserve and protect the lands we love,” Neguse said in an email.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D) also hailed DeGette’s work on the issue. “In Colorado, protecting and preserving wilderness areas and public lands for the benefit of our environment, their natural ecosystems, and the enjoyment of future generations is one of our core values and a part of our way of life,” he wrote in an email.
‘We’ve seen what can happen’
Advocates for DeGette’s wilderness designations say the vote marks a significant breakthrough for the public lands proposals that they have been pushing for years.
“Wilderness bills often take a very long time to go from start to finish,” said Jessica Goad, deputy director for Conservation Colorado.
“Even if they don’t pass in the Senate, the House passing these bills remains meaningful. There is still life in these efforts and campaigns. And this shows that the U.S. House is the chamber of government that is upholding Colorado’s values,” Goad said.
DeGette started work on the bill in the 1990s, after some conservation advocates first made the request. Since then she says she has visited most of the areas proposed in the legislation, whether on foot, horseback or by raft.
Colorado already has more than 3.5 million acres of federally protected wilderness, and the push for more wilderness comes as Colorado faces booming population growth and more demands for tourism, recreation and development.
The designations focus on low or mid-elevation lands, unlike the mountain peaks that have attracted past wilderness efforts.
The Bureau of Land Management oversees most of the land included in the bill, and two-thirds of it is already in “wilderness study areas” that are effectively managed as wilderness. The designations would make those wilderness protections permanent.
Designated wilderness areas get some of the highest levels of protection from the federal government. The land is managed for recreation, wildlife and soil and water quality, but closed to mining and development.
Advocates say the wilderness designations would not change how the remote areas in DeGette’s bill are currently used. But it would provide long-term protection that feels more urgent as the Trump administration pushes to open more public lands to mining and oil and gas leases.
“We have seen what can happen under administrations like this one, when there are not laws in place to prevent significant vast changes in management priorities,” said Mark Pearson of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.
Pearson, an outdoor enthusiast who also wrote a visitor’s guide to Colorado’s wilderness areas, came to Washington this week to meet with lawmakers on the bill and watch the floor debate over protections he has been pushing for years.
“Getting Congress to pass a law that can’t be overturned at the whim of the administration is what is crucial for permanent, lasting protection for these wild areas.”