Cory Gardner’s Conservation Credentials Stand On His Great Outdoors Bill. Is That Enough?

In terms of presidential politics, Colorado has lost a bit of its luster as a battleground state. That's not the case if you look at the contested race for the Senate. The winner of the contest between incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner and his Democratic challenger, former Gov. John Hickenlooper, will most likely be the lynchpin for whoever gets control of the chamber.

You've seen the almost inescapable TV political ads between the two, now you can get the backstory.

The Claim:

In numerous ads, Cory Gardner has been touting his public lands and conservation record, including the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act. One of his ads intones that he delivered the goods for Colorado and America's fragile environment.

The Backstory:

If you haven’t heard, Republican Sen. Cory Gardner’s bill, the Great American Outdoors Act, has become the law of the land. It ensures permanent and full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and money to start addressing the maintenance backlog at national parks. They were ideas that had strong bipartisan support in Congress.

Conservation and outdoor groups hailed its passage. Call it historic, call it the “holy grail of the conservation community”: GAOA is a big deal. And Gardner played a large role in convincing President Donald Trump to get behind it. The fact that passage of this bill would also boost two Republican senators in tough reelection fights where control of the Senate is at play didn’t hurt its chances either.

“Being a conservation champion takes more than supporting one bill or pushing one bill through, however historic,” said Mike Saccone, advisor to the National Wildlife Federation Action Fund. And to say conservation has been a “defining issue” for Gardner, Saccone thinks, would be “misleading.”

This gets to the crux of many conservation groups’ hesitation about Gardner: look past the Great American Outdoors Act and the senator’s conservation record is mixed.

Yes, he along with Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, sponsored Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument to expand (via a private donation), got legislation passed to conduct a study at Amache, a WWII-era Japanese-American internment camp in southeastern Colorado, passed the endangered Fish Recovery Program and supported the permanent reauthorization of LWCF (all these were part of the 2019 John Dingell Conservation Act). And he’s introduced a bill to expand Rocky Mountain National Park (again through private donation) with Bennet and a companion bill in the House offered by Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse.

Gardner was named a ‘Congressional Champion’ in 2019 by ConservAmerica, a conservative conservation group, for his support of traditional and renewable energy development and his advocacy for active forest management.

Many conservationists, however, say Gardner’s record is missing one big thing: he has not sponsored nor advocated for a Colorado wilderness bill — a first for a senator from the Centennial state. (Now, earlier in 2020, Gardner did in fact introduce a small wilderness bill — adding about 40,000 acres to the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness near the San Luis Valley — with no press release, no co-sponsors and no companion bill in the House. But it is a bill that he can wield against this charge.)

The bill Colorado conservationists have in mind, though, is the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, introduced by Bennet and Neguse, which started as separate local efforts across the Western Slope and gained strong local support in the affected communities over the years. Many of the same Colorado conservation groups that supported the Great American Outdoors Act, also support CORE.

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In the past, Gardner has said he wants to defer to Republican Rep. Scott Tipton, whose district covers the lands included in the CORE Act, and who opposes it. And he said he is not blocking it or standing in the bill’s way. But it is highly unlikely that the Republican-controlled Senate will bring forward a bill that the Republican senator from Colorado, who also sits on the committee of jurisdiction, is not behind. That has many conservation supporters disappointed that Gardner has chosen to stay on the sidelines. It’s become a campaign issue, too, with John Hickenlooper, the Democratic candidate for Senate, saying he would support the CORE Act.

Saccone also points out that conservation is more than public lands bills. “It’s also about who the White House nominates and puts forward to run public lands agencies,” he said. 

This is another area that conservationists say is a Gardner weak spot. He had been quiet about William Perry Pendley, who among other things called for the sale of public lands, leading the Bureau of Land Management for more than a year. (Pendley’s nomination was withdrawn in August, saving Republican senators like Gardner a tough vote, but he still remains the deputy at the leaderless BLM.) This spring the BLM released a lands management plan for western Colorado which critics say could open 95 percent of the North Fork Valley to drilling. 

Gardner also supported Coloradan David Bernhardt’s confirmation to be Secretary of the Interior and Andrew Wheeler to be the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator. Bernhard was a former lobbyist for the oil industry, while Wheeler was a coal lobbyist.

Conservationists also point out that Gardner has done nothing to stop the Trump administration from rolling back clean air and water rules. And that he supported a procedural vote to start a debate on rolling back Obama-era rules on methane emissions. These and other votes have helped earn Gardner a League of Conservation Voters’ score of 36 percent in 2019 and a lifetime score of 11 percent. The Great American Outdoors Act isn’t expected to lift those scores much in 2020.

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