A Senate subcommittee took testimony this week about the Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy Act as Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet pushes for the public lands bill to be passed before the end of the year.
Wednesday’s hearing came as Congress is negotiating a final version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act; Bennet is pushing for the CORE Act to be included as a part of the package. The House of Representatives already passed a version of the NDAA that included the CORE Act, introduced in that chamber by Colorado Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse. The bill would protect about 400,000 acres of Colorado land, including some in the San Juan Mountains.
“We’re at a moment ... as the Senate’s going to decide whether or not to include public lands provisions as a part of the NDAA,” Bennet said in an interview with The Durango Herald. “This hearing is a big step toward having the CORE Act be one of the bills that would be considered there.”
Although the primary purpose of the NDAA is military funding, the yearly act has been a vehicle for public lands provisions in the past. Bennet pointed to the 2014 NDAA, which included provisions protecting the Hermosa Creek watershed outside Durango.
The CORE Act combines and modifies four previously introduced bills ranging back to 2009 and would designate new wilderness areas in the San Juan Mountains and elsewhere. It would also modify existing protections, including establishing a special management area around the Ice Lakes Basin near Silverton.
During the hearing, Trump administration officials representing the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management said the administration had concerns that prevented it from supporting the CORE Act, although it generally supported provisions in the bill.
Chris French, deputy chief of the Forest Service, said in his testimony that the administration had reservations about land-use restrictions imposed by the bill and the potential limitation of motorized activities on parts of the land that the bill protects.
BLM Deputy Director for Operations Michael Nedd echoed those statements, particularly about the bill’s provisions restricting mining and mineral development on parts of the land.
Nedd told Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, “This bill does not support the department’s goal of maintaining its energy dominance and relying less on foreign countries.”
Some of the criticisms echo concerns that Colorado legislators previously raised about the bill. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., whose district includes much of the land affected by the bill, voted against it in the House, saying he had concerns about whether the bill had adequately incorporated feedback from communities around the affected land.
However, Bennet pointed to statements he received from county leaders and residents from around the areas affected to demonstrate local support for the bill. He said the fact that the bill hadn’t yet been voted on by the Senate was a reflection of problems with Congress, not with the bill itself.
“I think the holdup has been less about the CORE Act itself than just general Washington dysfunction,” he said. “What I’m very pleased about is that the CORE Act represents 10 years of really close-quarter work all across the state of Colorado.”
The bill and its components have been supported by the county commissioners of several counties whose land would be affected as well as conservation and outdoor recreation groups. It also has earned the support of some veterans groups, as it would create the nation’s first National Historic Landscape at Camp Hale, a World War II-era military training ground.
Because the 117th Congress is slated to be sworn in Jan. 3, Bennet is hopeful the subcommittee hearing will build momentum for the bill to be added to the final version of the NDAA or to be passed on its own or in a different package by the end of the year. If the bill is not passed, it will have to be reintroduced after the new Congress is seated.
“It’s important for us to keep the pressure on right now, and I hope we succeed,” Bennet said. “But, if we don’t, we’ll come back again in the new Congress and find a way to get it passed.”
John Purcell is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.