The Colorado Wilderness Act Moves Forward, And Demonstrates The Congressional Partisan Divide

Nathaniel Minor/CPR News
The night sky looking south at Buffalo Peaks Wilderness Area north of Buena Vista, Colorado.

Another Colorado Public Lands Bill is showing the partisan split among the state’s delegation when it comes to protection for federal lands.

The House Natural Resources Committee approved Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette’s Colorado Wilderness Act along a party line vote at 21-13. The bill, which has been 20 years in the making, would protect 32 areas across 600,000 acres in the state as wilderness area. 

DeGette said a lot of work and consultations with local community went into the bill. 

“The only thing that is more amazing than the land that this bill would protect is the support we’re received along the way,” DeGette said.

There have been some changes to the bill since it was first introduced.  As DeGette pointed out, if the bill were signed into law, less than 5 percent of the land in Colorado would have wilderness designation. 

DeGette said Coloradans from both sides of the aisle can agree on protecting public lands. But that wasn’t the case with this bill. Republicans on the committee, including Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs, voted no.

Lamborn said there are some philosophical differences on whether wilderness designation would really allow the public to use the land. He said sometimes it can be too restrictive. If the land is under federal control, he said it already has more protections.  

“I’m just for more people using the land,” he said. 

Lamborn and DeGette went on a wilderness trip to see some of the proposed land that would be protected in Lamborn’s district. While he was appreciative of the efforts DeGette made to address some of his issues, Lamborn noted that fellow Republican Rep. Scott Tipton doesn't believe he was fully consulted. That’s another reason Lamborn didn’t support the bill.

DeGette said she agrees not every place should be wilderness. The land included in her bill has strong wilderness characteristics, she said. And earlier this summer, when a Montezuma County Commissioner testified that DeGette hadn’t visited his county, she visited them during the August recess to talk about the bill. 

In a statement, Tipton said he supports protecting public spaces, but that any changes to federal land need “broad community support.”

“[The] bill as written does not incorporate the necessary adjustments needed to garner more community support,” he said.

One amendment would have removed the 3rd and 5th Congressional districts from the measure, but as DeGette pointed out, all the lands in the bill are in those two districts. She said she contacted Lamborn, Tipton and their predecessors the entire time she was working on this bill. 

“I have enormous respect for both of my colleagues from Colorado,” DeGette said. “But it’s just not one person who controls all of the public land in their district. Public lands belong to everybody.”