As Democrats Push Public-Lands Compromise, New Bill Shows GOP Isn’t Interested

As Democrats Push Public-Lands Compromise, New Bill Shows GOP Isn’t Interested
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When congressional Democrats and a coalition of conservation groups unveiled the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act earlier this year, Senator Michael Bennet voiced his hope that the bill, a proposal to establish protections for approximately 400,000 acres of public lands across the state, might be immune to the “partisan disease” afflicting American politics.

The CORE Act, which is narrower in scope than other Colorado public-lands bills introduced in Congress in recent years, had “required compromise,” Bennet told supporters at a Denver ski-industry conference in February. He hoped that Colorado Republicans like Senator Cory Gardner and Representative Scott Tipton — who represents the West Slope’s 3rd Congressional District, where much of the CORE Act land is located — would sign on as co-sponsors, and urged conservationists to lobby Gardner and Tipton to make a “bipartisan lands package” a reality.

Six months later, Colorado Republicans have made a counterproposal, and their offer is this: nothing. Or at least very close to it, conservation groups say.

The Colorado Recreation Enhancement and Conservation (REC) Act, introduced by Tipton on Wednesday, July 24, includes some overlap with the CORE Act, including the formal establishment of the Curecanti National Recreation Area near Gunnison, and it would designate about 70,000 acres across the state as protected wilderness. But it would also eliminate about 40,000 acres currently designated as “Wilderness Study Areas,” often considered the first step to permanent wilderness protections.

“The Colorado REC Act is intended to balance the unique needs and desires of various stakeholders that I have met with in recent years,” Tipton said in a press release announcing the bill. “I hope to be able to build broad consensus around this bill as it moves through the legislative process.”

But conservation advocates are critical of Tipton’s legislation, which lacks many key elements of the CORE Act that they say were the product of years of negotiations between local interest groups on the West Slope and elsewhere.

“Representative Tipton’s proposal is a deliberate attempt to muddy the waters when it comes to our public lands,” Sarah McCarthy, West Slope field manager for Conservation Colorado, says in a statement. “In a state of public-lands lovers, this ‘Wilderness Lite’ bill is an unworthy substitute for the CORE Act.”

Among the major components of the CORE Act is a measure to protect about 200,000 acres of the Thompson Divide south of Glenwood Springs from future oil and gas development. In return, the bill creates a system of credits through which current leaseholders can be compensated for relinquishing their claims, and establishes a program through which natural-gas producers can lease methane emitted by active and abandoned coal mines in the North Fork Valley.

With its 73,000 acres of new wilderness protections — the most restrictive federal public-lands designation, prohibiting nearly all industrial uses and motorized recreation — the CORE Act is a far less sweeping proposal than the Colorado Wilderness Act, long championed by Representative Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Denver. DeGette’s bill would establish over 740,000 acres of new wilderness areas across the state, adding significantly to the state’s current total of 3.5 million acres.

But despite the CORE Act’s diminished scope and its proponents’ hopes for bipartisan support, Republicans don’t appear to be biting. Along with Tipton, Gardner has remained largely silent on the bill, and the Colorado Sun reported this week that he is “expected to soon introduce a companion version” of Tipton’s REC Act in the Senate.

Democrats on Thursday slammed Gardner, widely viewed as the 2020 election’s single most vulnerable Republican senator, for his refusal to support the CORE Act and other conservation priorities.

“This is a disappointing but typical move by Senator Gardner to ignore a plan Coloradans have worked on for years in favor of his own political self-interest,” Alyssa Roberts, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Party, said in a statement on Thursday. “Small-business owners, county commissioners, veterans and outdoor recreation advocates have all called on Gardner to support the CORE Act — and they deserve to know why Gardner is making it harder to pass a public-lands bill Coloradans support.”

A spokesperson for Gardner did not respond to questions regarding his stance on the CORE Act or his plans to introduce a companion version of Tipton’s bill.

The House version of the CORE Act, sponsored by Democratic Representative Joe Neguse of Boulder, passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee in June, but Bennet's bill has not yet been scheduled for a hearing. DeGette’s Colorado Wilderness Act received its first hearing in the House earlier this month and is awaiting further action by the Natural Resources Committee.
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Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff