September 17, 2020

Sweeping Federal Protections Inch Closer For 400,000 Acres Of Western Colorado Public Lands

Four long-standing efforts to protect tracts of public lands in western Colorado are closer to becoming law after Democrats in the state's congressional delegation bundled them and attached the package to a must-pass defense authorization bill.

The public lands measure, called the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy, or CORE, Act, extends varying levels of federal protection to 400,000 acres near the Continental Divide, the San Juan Mountains, the Thompson Divide and Curecanti National Recreation Area. Local officials and activists have pushed for such action in separate bills in Congress for decades in some cases.

Sen. Michael Bennet, the Colorado Democrat who sponsored the public lands package in the Senate, was involved in combining the bills and building support for the massive deal from among the individual communities.

The bill's inclusion in the House version of the defense authorization bill could prove to be a turning point. Lawmakers often try to attach their priorities to major legislation that has a high likelihood of passage, with the annual defense authorization among the most common vehicles.

"There are officials and citizens and outdoorsmen, conservationists who have literally been fighting to make that withdrawal a reality for two decades," Rep. Joe Neguse, the House sponsor said, referring to the part of the bill that would prohibit oil and gas drilling on roughly 200,000 acres near the Thompson Divide.

Supporters hoped combining four distinct bills into a single package gives each the best opportunity for passage. Instead of repeating the process for each measure, Congress can move all of them through at once. It also cuts off the possibility that bills could compete for limited attention in Washington.

"Everyone's a priority now," a Bennet aide said. "Everyone's in the package and nobody's second or third priority."

Wrapped into defense bill

The public lands package passed the House on its own last year, and again as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual measure that authorizes all defense programs and has passed every year since 1961.

The House and Senate have passed their respective versions of the fiscal 2021 defense authorization bill. The House version included the public lands bill. The Senate's did not. That difference, and others, will be worked out by members of both chambers in a conference committee.

A vote on the final bill likely wouldn't occur until after the November elections, House Armed Services Committee ranking Republican Mac Thornberry of Texas said at a Defense News event last week.

The White House threatened to veto the public lands package last year. Some local leaders worried that land restrictions would hurt local economies, and their views were not sufficiently incorporated into the bill, the White House said in a statement of administration policy.

The administration has also threatened to veto the larger defense authorization bill over its renaming bases named for Confederate generals, and other provisions.

Five House Republicans voted with all but one Democrat to approve the public lands measure last year, though none of Colorado's Republicans voted for it.

Rep. Scott Tipton, a Republican who represents most of western Colorado and is leaving Congress next year after losing the June 30 primary, voted against the bill and said in a July statement the wilderness designations would hurt national security by restricting access to rare metals.

The House approved two amendments he'd introduced, which added protections for grazing rights in the Thompson Divide area and codified water rights in the Curecanti area.

Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican in a tight re-election race this fall, has not taken a position on the bill.

Neither Tipton nor Gardner returned requests for comment.

Gardner told the Colorado Sun he is not responsible for blocking the bill, but supporters say he should take more leadership.

"We've lobbied him for years over it and have this sort of passive-aggressive response of he's not blocking it," said Mark Pearson, the executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a group that has advocated for public lands designations in the San Juan Mountains for nearly 20 years. "But he's in the majority party in the Senate, so yes, he is blocking it."

Industry opposition

Only 73,000 of the 400,000 acres covered by the bill would be designated wilderness, the most severe category of federal land protection that restricts virtually all development. But all of the affected lands would have new prohibitions that would apply to the oil and gas industry, which opposes the measure.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a Denver-based group representing about 300 energy companies, said in a statement the bill represents a false choice between conservation and production.

"The fact that the development coexisted with stunning landscapes that are considered pristine enough for wilderness designation is further proof that closing areas to oil and natural gas development is not necessary," Sgamma said. "Senator Bennet buys into a false choice from the environmental lobby between developing the energy that all Americans own or protecting the land. The reality is that we can do both."

The bill polls well in the areas it would affect. A survey last year sponsored by the San Juan Citizens Alliance showed about two-thirds of southern and western Colorado residents approve of the bill's main concepts. In the same poll, 84% of respondents said public lands help the local economy.

Outdoor recreation is a key part of Colorado's economy, generating $37 billion in annual revenue, according to the state's Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

By:  Jacob Fischler
Source: Colorado Newsline