A day after he lit up the national airwaves with a fiery blasting of the government shutdown, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet on Friday unveiled the most ambitious public lands protection legislation for Colorado in more than 25 years.
“I think the time has come for us to think big and follow through with our commitment to the public lands of Colorado and the people who live around them and in them,” the Colorado Democrat said Friday on a call from Washington, D.C., announcing the Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy Act, or CORE Act.
Bennet joined U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Boulder, in announcing the CORE legislation, which corrals four previously introduced bills, some that have languished more than a decade: the Continental Divide Recreation, Wilderness and Camp Hale Legacy Act; the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act’ the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act; and the Curecanti National Recreation Area Boundary Establishment Act.
The act would protect 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado, with 73,000 acres of new wilderness areas and about 80,000 acres of new recreation and conservation management areas that preserve existing recreational use. It faces an uphill battle toward passage with Republicans controlling the Senate and President Donald Trump in the White House.
The legislation creates three new wilderness areas totaling more than 21,000 acres in the Tenmile Range near Breckenridge, Hoosier Ridge near Leadville and the Williams Fork Mountains above the Blue River. It also adds about 21,000 acres to the Eagles Nest, Ptarmigan Peak and Holy Cross wilderness areas in Summit and Eagle counties. The San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act — which Bennet first proposed as a freshman senator in 2009 — protects 61,000 acres across fourteeners Mount Sneffels and Wilson Peak and includes wildlife management areas and prohibits mining on more than 6,500 acres in Naturita Canyon.
The San Juans bill “took a lot of time,” said San Miguel County Commissioner Hilary Cooper.
“All sides compromised again and again and then again and the result is the designation and boundaries of the San Juan Wilderness bill we have today,” she said Friday during the announcement of the CORE Act legislation. “The areas designated are important for visitors and scientists around the world to appreciate and learn from, and most important for me, they are important for generations to come.”
Bennet’s Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act similarly pulls about 200,000 acres above the Crystal River near Carbondale and Glenwood Springs from oil and gas development. Following requests from Gunnison and Delta counties, the legislation includes a program to lease and generate energy from excess methane in existing and dormant coal mines in the North Fork Valley.
“What is on top of this land is much more valuable to us than any petroleum that might be below it,” said Bill Fales, a lifelong Crystal River Valley rancher who grazes cattle along the Thompson Divide. “We need a diverse economy, and we can’t have all our eggs in one basket.”
Bennet’s Camp Hale National Historic Landscape legislation, which he proposed in 2016 as the nation’s first national historic landscape to honor 10th Mountain Division World War II veterans, would protect more than 28,000 acres.
The bill creates two new wildlife conservation areas totaling more than 11,000 acres, including the Porcupine Gulch Wildlife Conservation Area wildlife corridor over Interstate 70 at the Eisenhower and Johnson Tunnel.
The Curecanti National Recreation Area was created above Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison in 1965, but definitive boundaries were never set. Bennet and Neguse’s legislation would formally establish that boundary to create better management coordination between land management agencies and the Bureau of Reclamation, an effort Bennet has spearheaded since 2011.
“These public lands are the backbone of our community, our economy and our livelihoods,” Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck said. “These protections and designations are long past due.”
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The legislation also creates a recreation management area covering 17,000 acres in the Tenmile Range. It also tweaks a variety of management issues along the Continental Divide, including allowing special use of a water gate in the Holy Cross Wilderness Area so the town of Minturn can use its water rights to fill Bolt Lake, and funds the Forest Service acquisition of “the Wedge,” a collection of parcels in Grand County near Rocky Mountain National Park.
Everyone on Friday’s call was handpicked by Bennet, so it wasn’t surprising to hear overwhelming support for the land protection proposal. Bennet and his former congressional colleague Gov. Jared Polis have spent the past decade traversing the state talking with local leaders and residents about better protections for public lands. Every year for that decade, the pair have proposed some form of wilderness and protection plan that never reached fruition.
“I don’t bring forward bills that don’t have broad support at the local level,” Bennet said.
But local sentiment rarely transfers to Washington, D.C.
“I don’t need to tell you how broken this place is,” Bennet said, when asked about the chances for resurrecting the 54-year-old Land and Water Conservation Fund that funnels billions of dollars from offshore oil and gas leasing into land conservation in more than 40,000 parks and monuments. Congress failed to reauthorize the fund last fall. “But there is broad partisan support for extending the LWCF and, frankly, if we were a functional Congress, we could find a way to fully fund the LWCF.”
The Trump Administration has hardly shown itself as a champion of public lands, particularly considering the president’s reduction of the size of Utah’s Bear Ears National Monument in his first year in office.
“One thing we know about President Trump is that he is completely unpredictable and in the meantime, we need to do our work,” Bennet said.
Bennet praised the efforts of county commissioners Cooper and Houck in assembling broad support for the lands package.
“If we held our elected officials here accountable to the same standard that we hold our county commissioners, we would never shut the government down, and we have got to find a way to transfer the ethic you represent to here,” he said.
Bennet is considering a 2020 presidential bid. On Thursday, he drew the national spotlight with an impassioned — if not dramatic — speech on the Senate floor about the federal government’s partial shutdown. He said it is increasingly evident that Trump does not have the votes even in the Republican-controlled Senate for a border wall.
“I can tell you this, I can’t find anybody — behind closed doors anyway — that believes this government should be shut down right now,” he said. “Even people who support the wall believe, by and large, that the government should not be shut down. We expect people to have their differences, but you should not take the government hostage.”