At odds

New public lands’ legislation passes the House, dividing Colorado’s Congressional members along party lines

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Curecanti National Recreation Area
NPS

The day before debating the most impactful public lands bill in recent Colorado history, Rep. Joe Neguse received a call with special news from his wife, Andrea, who holds down the family fort in Lafayette while he’s at work in the nation’s capitol: their one-year-old daughter, Natalie, had taken her first steps. 

The following day, as Neguse introduced the bill — known as the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Economy (CORE) Act, which increases levels of protection for approximately 400,000 acres of Colorado’s public land — he relayed the happy news to his colleagues in the House of Representatives, saying: “I cannot wait to go back to Colorado and to be able to hike with my daughter in the iconic public lands that are protected under this bill.”

A few hours later, when the House passed the CORE Act with a 227-182 vote, it was the first time in more than 10 years that a piece of Colorado-specific public lands legislation had been approved. It has received much applause, and much scorn.

Neguse introduced the CORE Act in January 2019 at the same time Sen. Michael Bennet introduced it to the Senate. The concepts in the bill have passed through the hands of many diverse groups over the last 10 years. They’ve been debated by business, political, agricultural, mineral rights and conservation stakeholders across the state. The bill’s current form combines parts of four previously introduced bills, which all provide some form of additional protections for public lands in and around Summit County, the San Juan Mountains, and the Western Slope’s Thompson Divide and Curecanti National Recreation Area. 

Altogether, the CORE Act reclassifies about 73,000 acres of public land as wilderness and nearly 80,000 acres as recreation and conservation management areas. It also keeps approximately 200,000 acres free from future oil and gas development on the Thompson Divide, and establishes the first-ever formal boundary around Curecanti National Recreation Area along the Gunnison River.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, the state’s outdoor recreation economy already generates $28 billion in consumer spending and $9.7 billion in wages and salaries, which adds up to roughly 229,000 jobs and $2 billion in state and local tax revenue. Adding more protection to public lands, they argue, only deepens Colorado’s long-term economic outlook.

But not all Coloradans celebrated the CORE Act’s passage. All three of Colorado’s Republican representatives voted against the bill, including Rep. Scott Tipton, whose congressional district contains both the Thompson Divide and Curecanti National Recreation Area. In Tipton’s Oct. 31 House speech, he stated that he and a number of his constituents had been omitted from important conversations. “More outreach needs to happen, negotiations need to take place, and compromises need to be made,” he said.

Despite Tipton’s claims that the CORE Act doesn’t adequately incorporate most Western Slope opinions, a poll of voters in Tipton’s district a month before the vote, conducted by New Bridge Strategy, found otherwise. The majority of Voters from both major parties (85% of Republicans, 93% of Democrats) agree public lands help the Colorado economy. 

To address lingering concerns, Tipton proposed 10 amendments to the CORE Act, three of which were debated on the floor, with two eventually included in the bill: a measure that protects grazing rights on the Thompson Divide, and another that protects local water rights in the proposed Curecanti National Recreation Area. “It is my hope,” he concluded, “that continued outreach occurs to include the ideas of all of Western Colorado. I stand ready to work with them.”

The next step for the CORE Act is the Republican-controlled Senate, where Sen. Cory Gardner is at odds with Bennet, who has had no luck in bringing about a vote. Wary of the already-divided House, Gardner has not pledged support for the bill, and at a campaign rally in Minturn in August, he stated concerns of his own he’d like to see addressed.

Even if this Colorado bill moves through the Senate without unified state support, the federal administration has already made their views on the CORE Act clear. In an Oct. 28 statement, the White House condemns the proposed “land restrictions,” declaring the president’s “advisors would recommend that he veto it.” 

Neguse isn’t giving into defeat. “Ultimately this bill is about protecting our most pristine and treasured places for generations long after we’re gone,” he told the House. “That’s the essence of our service: leaving a better world for those who come next.”