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Wilderness bill gains local momentum, lacks congressional bipartisan support

County commissioners, mayors and ranchers travel to the nation’s capital
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., is working to get the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act passed this year, which would provide federal protections to almost 400,000 acres of Colorado land.

WASHINGTON – Bill Fales has worked his ranch for the past 45 years, and has recently started providing quality beef to Whole Foods.

The ranch, in his wife’s family since 1924, stretches along the Thompson Divide and borders land open for potential oil and gas drilling.

“If I take a picture, and instead of a nice aspen grove, there’s the drill pad behind it, that’s not a very good marketing tool for our beef. So it really impacts our bottom line,” Fales said.

The current drilling leases on the land near his ranch have been canceled, Fales said. Yet, without added protections, the possibility of future mineral development remains open.

“We’d like to get some permanence so that we can have the comfort to continue to invest in our ranches and our operations, knowing we’ll be secure in the future,” he said.

In early April, he left the ranch and traveled to Washington, D.C., to show support for the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act. If passed, the bill would provide federal protections to almost 400,000 acres of Colorado land, including land near the Thompson Divide and the San Juan Mountains. Fales joined a coalition of seven county commissioners, mayors and nonprofit conservation directors from across the state to rally their support around the public lands bill during its first congressional hearing.

The act contains four earlier bills that have been around for almost 10 years. One of those, the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act, would protect about 52,000 acres in Southwest Colorado.

Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., who took office in January, is spearheading the bill as it moves through the House.

“We just introduced the bill less than two months ago, and we had a legislative hearing, which is no small feat,” Neguse said.

Bennet, Neguse lead efforts

Although the bill is still working its way through the House committee, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., has been working alongside Neguse to push the bill forward. Bennet has been involved with parts of the bill for almost the entire decade he has been in the Senate.

Bennet said each provision was crafted from the work done on the local level.

“The bills were really written in Colorado, and now after 10 years, we’ve brought them together,” he said.

San Juan County Commissioner Scott Fetchenhier said there has been a lot of local support for the legislation throughout his community. Fetchenhier, who also traveled to D.C., collected almost 800 signed postcards of support.

“Coloradans are pretty adamant about it because our lands are shrinking; a lot is getting developed,” Fetchenhier said. “It’s important that we set aside big hunks of land, not only for us, but for biodiversity, wildlife and migration runs.”

While the bill has a large conservation impact, the economic benefits to Colorado are huge, Neguse said.

“Just think about the 82 million visitors who come to Colorado to visit these wild places, to be able to engage in outdoor recreation,” he said. “There’s an economic case to be made to continue to protect these beautiful, wild places.”

Fetchenhier said San Juan County’s economy, which relies on a lot of outdoor and recreational tourism, would also benefit from the bill.

It’s a benefit that will be felt throughout the state, Bennet said.

“Colorado has become known to the world as a place that is one of the great homes for outdoor recreation and outdoor recreation businesses,” he said. “This bill has been supported by that industry because they see the economic value of preserving this land.”

Partisan divide

Colorado Republican lawmakers Sen. Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton are conspicuously absent in co-sponsoring the CORE Act.

In a state that routinely promotes bipartisan efforts, people have noticed their silence. There have been opinion pieces in The Durango Herald urging Tipton and Gardner to “jump on board.” Kelly Nordini, executive director of Conservation Colorado, and Jim Ramey, Colorado state director of The Wilderness Society, both addressed Tipton’s and Gardner’s silence in written statements.

Fetchenhier said he and his fellow county commissioners throughout the state have heard a lot of community support for the CORE Act.

“That’s why we want support from both Tipton and Gardner,” he said. “A majority of people would really like to see these things happen.”

Tipton and Gardner have both supported previous bipartisan land packages, like the Natural Resources Management Act passed last month, but have yet to back the CORE Act.

“The Department of Defense and Forest Service have expressed concerns with the bill. Senator Gardner is reviewing the legislation and hopeful these problems can be resolved,” said Jerrod Dobkin, the senator’s communication adviser.

Some of those concerns were voiced during the Natural Resources committee hearing April 2 by Chris French, acting deputy chief of the National Forest System, U.S. Forest Service. French said the Forest Service had issue with a couple of the bill’s provisions. During his testimony, he said there could potentially be unexploded ordnance in parts of the Continental Divide and that a proposed wilderness area did not currently meet the agency’s standards for a designation.

After the hearing, Tipton echoed the concerns of the Forest Service. The congressman said there were interest groups directly affected by the bill that were not consulted. Specifically, he referenced local wool-gatherers.

“Their concerns hadn’t been addressed as this legislation was being put together,” Tipton said.

Bennet remained hopeful that with such local bipartisan support, the misunderstandings would be worked out in the legislative process.

“We’ve spent a lot of time with the Forest Service out in Colorado. I think they understand well what we’re trying to do,” he said.

Tipton said he was only given an hour’s notice before the bill was officially introduced Jan. 28.

“We would have liked to have been included in that process,” he said, noting that while the bill consists of legislation that has been around for a few years, “We feel like there’s more work to be done.”

Neguse said they are planning to build on the momentum the bill has had so far.

“We’re continuing to have conversations with other members, both Republican and Democratic, so we’re going to continue to build support for the bill within the Congress,” he said.

Liz Weber is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.

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