Nine months after a public lands bill impacting Gunnison County passed the U.S. House of Representatives, the legislation passed the House once again — this time as an amendment to a national defense budget bill.
The Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act — sponsored by Rep. Joe Neguse (CD-2) and Sen. Michael Bennet, both Democrats from Colorado — was added by Neguse to the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual bill that provides a budget for the military and national defense initiatives. The legislation is often the vehicle for a variety of “rider bills” — or unrelated provisions. The passage allows for another opportunity to pass the bill which would define the boundaries of Curecanti National Recreation Area and fulfil a promise from the federal government to Gunnison County regarding fishing easements.
The CORE Act on its own passed the House last fall and still sits in a Senate committee for review.
Gardner won’t ‘stop it’
This week during a visit to Gunnison County, Sen. Cory Gardner said he will not stop the CORE Act, but still believes more work must be done on it before it passes.
Gardner visited last Friday to tour the Paul M. Rady Computer Science and Engineering building being constructed on the campus of Western Colorado University, and then met with a handful of students. He also traveled to Lake Irwin and then on to Oh Be Joyful campground north of Crested Butte — although his stop was brief and he did not engage with protestors or media at the site.
Garner was touting the success of his own public lands legislation, the Great American Outdoors Act which recently passed the Senate on a 73-25 vote. The bill promises to address a $12 billion National Park Service maintenance backlog, fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund and potentially backfill $7.7 million in maintenance at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
The bill would split $1.9 billion a year in funding among the following agencies — 70 percent for the U.S. Park Service, 15 percent for the U.S. Forest Service, 5 percent for the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Indian Education each.
The CORE Act, on the other hand, would preserve approximately 400,000 acres of public land across Colorado, including more than 100,000 acres along the Continental Divide and 61,000 acres in the San Juan Mountains.
It would withdraw nearly 200,000 acres in the Thompson Divide area — which includes a portion of northern Gunnison County — from future oil and gas development. That’s the most controversial provision of the bill.
It would formally designate Curecanti National Recreation Area west of Gunnison — a move that local officials have attempted to see enacted for more than a decade.
The CORE Act also agrees to memorialize a promise to Gunnison County by the Bureau of Reclamation for the construction of Blue Mesa Reservoir in the mid-1960s. To date, it is estimated only about half of the agreed-upon easements to compensate for lost river access have been acquired.
Bill ‘doesn’t have the buy-in’ from Tipton
Gardner has continued to defer to Congressman Scott Tipton, who opposed the bill when it passed the U.S. House of Representatives on a 227- 182 vote. The bill now sits with the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
During the debate of the bill on the House floor last fall, Tipton argued that the legislation lacked support in his district among government leaders and stakeholders. Yet, only one of the counties he listed as opposing the measure were directly affected by the bill — that being Montrose County.
“I think (a) portion of the bill is ready to go. The other portion of the bill doesn’t have the buy-in from the member of the Congress from the 3rd Congressional District,” Gardner said. “The way we have always passed land designations in Colorado is we’ve always had the agreement of whoever is in that district.”
Gardner said he has given several ideas to both Neguse and Bennet. He said he hopes all lawmakers can work through the legislation to “get it done.”
“I’m certainly not stopping it,” Gardner said. “They could pass it and I'm not objecting to it.”
Yet, local conservationists used Gardner’s visit to challenge him on his position regarding the CORE Act.
“Senator Gardner has been completely absent from any and all discussions around conservation and the environment in Gunnison County during his term,” said Brett Henderson, executive director of High Country Conservation Advocates in a press release. “Proposals such as the CORE Act have broad community support across the Western Slope of Colorado and should be a no brainer for anyone who cares about public lands and the essential recreation economy that Colorado thrives on.”
The group is also critical of Gardner for not revealing his position on the President’s intended nomination of William Perry Pendley to lead the Bureau of Land Management. Pendley, who has been leading the agency for the last year, is alleged to have said he supports selling federal public lands.
Yet, Gardner said Pendley will have to face tough questions in an upcoming confirmation hearing which has yet to be scheduled. He said he would make his decision on the BLM lead following the hearing.
“Does he really support selling off public lands? That’s a non starter,” Gardner said. “I certainly oppose that.”
(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)