WASHINGTON – Democrats in the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee passed a sweeping Colorado wilderness bill this week in a vote along party lines. The bill will head to the House floor, where the majority-Democrat chamber is expected to pass it.
The Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act would protect about 400,000 acres of public land in the state. The CORE Act is a package of four previous bills that includes provisions for expanding wilderness areas in the San Juan Mountains by 52,000 acres and permanently withdrawing 200,000 acres in the Thompson Divide from future oil and gas development. Drilling operations by that region’s current landowners and leaseholders, such as Gunnison Energy, would be allowed to continue if the bill becomes law.
Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., is the CORE Act’s primary sponsor in the House, while Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., sponsors the Senate-version of the bill.
“Public lands in Colorado really define who we are as a state,” Neguse said at Wednesday’s committee hearing. “The bill is a product of years and years of stakeholder work. Over a decade.”
Neguse’s predecessor, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, worked on the bill with Bennet during his time in Congress. They have gained support for the public lands package from a coalition of mayors, county commissioners and community members in the areas affected by the proposed law.
“Today’s passage of the CORE Act out of the House Natural Resources Committee demonstrates real progress for Coloradans across our state who spent years developing this bill,” Bennet said in a news release. “We are now one step closer to safeguarding some of Colorado’s most cherished public lands for future generations.”
Despite widespread local support for the CORE Act, House Republicans pointed out one significant name missing from the bill’s list of backers: Republican Rep. Scott Tipton of Cortez.
“Congressman Tipton does not support the CORE Act in its current form and would not vote for it on the floor,” said Tipton’s press secretary Matt Atwood.
Tipton represents Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, which contains most of the land the CORE Act would protect. He took issue with the Thompson Divide portion of the bill and won’t support it until all impacted counties reach consensus on permanent mineral withdrawal, Atwood said.
In February, Garfield County commissioners wrote a letter to Tipton and Bennet rescinding their previous support for shielding the Thompson Divide from future oil and gas development. Instead, they now favor a mix between recreation and natural resource extraction on those public lands.
While Tipton is not on the Natural Resources Committee, many of his Republican colleagues spoke on behalf of the same issues he is concerned about.
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., proposed an amendment exempting Garfield County from the mineral withdrawal, but Neguse countered that many municipalities in that county, such as Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, do support the bill. Democrats voted down the amendment.
Tipton is also concerned that the proposed wilderness areas around the Colorado National Guard’s High-Altitude Aviation Training Site in Gypsum could hamper military training exercises there. The U.S. Department of Defense does not allow planes to fly lower than 2,000 feet above designated wilderness areas.
The Department of Defense in conjunction with Bennet’s office ensured federal regulations made an exception to this rule for the aviation training center in Gypsum. Colorado Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn said at the hearing he was unsatisfied with the impermanence of the regulation and sought to write it into the CORE Act with an amendment.
“It’s only regulatory. It’s not statutory,” Lamborn said about the regulation. “I do always have a desire not to over-legislate, but when it comes to national defense, I think I’m willing to do this.” The amendment did not pass.
There continues to be disagreement about the U.S. Forest Service’s stance on the CORE Act. In April, a Forest Service official told the committee that parts of the proposed Continental Divide wilderness expansion did not qualify as wilderness and there may be unexploded bombs used for avalanche control in the area.
Neguse, however, said the bill incorporates input from the Forest Service’s regional office in Colorado. The views of the Forest Service’s Washington headquarters are vastly different than those of the Forest Service’s regional staff in Colorado, Neguse said.
Reaching consensusThe bill may well pass the House, but unless it gains Republican support, it is unlikely to pass the Senate.
So far, Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., has taken a hands-off approach to the CORE Act.
“It’s senator Bennet’s bill. We’re not blocking it. We’re not doing anything with it,” Gardner said last week. “The Forest Service has some issues with unexploded bombs around Camp Hale and some other issues. Those are concerns that I hope that Sen. Bennet can work out. It’s his bill.”
With Republicans following Tipton’s lead, his stance on the bill could prove decisive.
Tipton’s office was given a couple of hours of notice before Neguse and Bennet introduced the bills in January. Since then, talks between their offices have not seen Tipton’s ideas incorporated into the bill, Atwood said.
Both parties said they will continue to work together to advance conservation and recreation goals.
“We’re happy to continue to have conversations and always looking to make improvements to the bill provided that any changes are consistent with the underlying spirit of the bill,” Neguse said after the vote, “which is to protect these wild places across our state, these treasured public lands.”
James Marshall is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.