Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck wishes he could have a cup of coffee with Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski to discuss the Colorado Outdoor and Recreation Economy Act.
At a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on the bill in May, the Alaskan Republican said, “It might be thin gruel to tell the people of Colorado that we need to keep working on this.”
That was one of the more positive comments from a Republican during the hearing.
Houck remembers listening to Republican Senators talk about ways to get more backing for the Colorado-focused legislation. “I’m sitting there thinking to myself, ‘Check, check, check, we’ve done that.’”
He has been working on elements of the bill for more than 10 years. Houck says he would tell Murkowski and the others about the years of work that have gone into the four different sections of the bill, the changes that have been made, and the "thoughtful" balance that proponents of the measure have struck to get a broad swath of support for the legislation.
The CORE Act includes four measures — the Continental Divide Recreation, Wilderness, and Camp Hale Legacy Act; the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act; the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act; and the Curecanti National Recreation Area Boundary Establishment Act — that would protect over 400,000 acres in Colorado through new wilderness, recreation and conservation areas, and establish a new historic landscape designation for Camp Hale, where the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division trained during World War II.
While the bill has sailed through the Democratic-controlled House a number of times under the leadership of Rep. Joe Neguse, it never managed to pass a Republican-controlled Senate, and it has moved slowly in a 50-50 Democratic-controlled Senate. The May 2022 Senate committee vote on the bill deadlocked, but supporters are still happy because it's the farthest the CORE Act has ever gone in the Senate.
The bill’s proponents are hopeful that it will go even further.
Neguse recently attached the measure to a must-pass piece of defense legislation. The Colorado Democrat is hoping against hope that it stays in, even if history has seen it taken out in the past.
And supporters are watching to see if Congress moves on a public lands package that incorporates the CORE Act and several other bills to make it easier for the legislation to clear the chamber’s 60-vote threshold.
It’s a long shot, but it might be easier than getting even more support for the bill back in Colorado.
“I think it’s rather unlikely that there’s much room for more work,” said Kaden McArthur with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, which is backing the bill. “There’s just been a significant amount of support and outreach from folks at the local level, from multiple user groups.”
CORE is from the ground up
The measures in the CORE Act started years ago in local communities, where people gathered around kitchen tables and thought of ways to protect water, wildlife and the beautiful vistas and places they recreate or work.
Bill Fales is a rancher in the Carbondale area. Judy Fox-Perry married into a ranching family that also lives in the area. The pair and several of their neighbors banded together when they learned oil and gas companies had plans to drill in a recreation area that contained some of the headwaters the city depends on. The group formed the Thompson Divide Coalition to seek protections for the pristine area.
Fox-Perry still laughs when she thinks back to the start, more than a dozen years ago, when she presumed it would be an easy task.
“I think it’s all politics at this point,” she said. “To tell us to go back and do more work, that’s just standard procedure … because we have been on this for 12 years and the CORE Act has coalesced, and has strong movement.”
But, Fox-Perry says they will keep on “keeping on.”
The portion of the bill addressing the Thompson Divide would withdraw over 200,000 acres from future oil and gas development but it would still preserve existing private property rights — including grazing rights. Under the legislation, anyone who currently has a permit to graze would still be able to graze.
When asked if he had received any specific changes or suggestions to the bill from those not on board, Fales was blunt. “No. Simple one-word answer.”
GOP Rep. Lauren Boebert, who opposes the bill, often points out that it did not incorporate reasonable changes requested by former GOP Sen. Cory Gardner.
That list could be described as specifically vague. It had suggestions like strengthening or adjusting language in sections without giving specific examples of the type of language that would work.
And once changes were made, new ones would come up. One proponent of the bill, granted anonymity to speak candidly on past negotiations, said when they asked Gardner for specifics, it felt like he kept moving the goal posts. "We were running to accommodate and he would move the goal posts further, and we got tired of the approach."
Mark Pearson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, has been working with different stakeholders on a section of the CORE Act addressing wilderness areas in the San Juan Mountains for almost 15 years. He says this has been one of the frustrating things: hearing more work needs to be done but never getting any concrete details or specific complaints.
The San Juan Mountains portion of the bill designates more than 31,000 acres of new wilderness, over 21,000 acres of special management areas, and protects just over 6,500 acres of mineral withdrawal.
Instead, Pearson gave several examples of how the bill has been fine-tuned to create additional support. For example, ensuring an existing motorized vehicle trail, called the Wilson Trail, would not be impeded or moving the boundary of one wilderness area so as to not affect operations at a silver mine near Ouray. A Bennet aide said the change was requested by Gardner and former Western Slope Rep. Scott Tipton, but even after it was included, the lawmakers did not support the measure.
“It’s hard to know what would be gained by endlessly reworking something that has been worked on,” Pearson said.
Bennet, Hickenlooper and Neguse continue to stress the grassroots support for the CORE Act to their colleagues in Congress.
Their list of supporters includes conservation groups, recreational groups, outdoor industry groups, farmers, ranchers and local leaders from the counties that have land in the CORE Act, including Garfield County, which lifted its opposition to the Thompson Divide provision after getting concessions from Bennet regarding methane mitigation for coal seams burning underground in the county.
“It is supported by local leaders on the ground, so I think we’ve done that stakeholder work,” Neguse said, pointing to Democrats and Republicans supporting the bill on the ground, if not in Washington, D.C.
But the CORE Act also has its detractors, including Boebert. She describes the bill as a “land grab.”
“The sponsors and proponents of the CORE Act have failed to even request a meeting with me to discuss this land grab that impacts 400,000 acres in Colorado, 65 percent of which is in my district,” said Rep. Boebert in a statement. “I’ll continue to fight this bill because environmentalist extremists aren’t reasonable and just want to lockup more land, because this legislation withdraws 200,000 acres from responsible oil and gas development in Colorado at a time of historic high gas prices, and because this misguided land grab will exacerbate catastrophic wildfires through new wilderness designations and other land restrictions that seek to limit access and use of public lands.”
A Bennet aide said the two offices have discussed the CORE Act, but there haven't been any active negotiations.
Pearson with the San Juan Citizens Alliance admits his group did not reach out to Boebert, saying she clarified her objections to the bill on the campaign trail. Fox-Perry, when she was president of the Thompson Divide Coalition, reached out to Boebert's office at the start of her term to talk about the bill and says she never heard back.
“When somebody comes to the negotiating table from the position of, ‘I’m not budging, I’m here to kill this thing,’ It’s not really a starting point to talk,” said one proponent who spoke with Boebert’s office. The proponent, granted anonymity to speak candidly, suggested the congresswoman was willing to work on some things, but not the CORE Act.
Houck, the Gunnison County Commissioner, did speak with Boebert and her staff about the CORE Act. He says he told her about the local support in Gunnison County for the bill.
“My hope would be that [Boebert] would have the opportunity to speak more directly to constituents in this community to see the level of support,” Houck said. “But, you know, I don’t know that would shift her perspective either.”
It likely wouldn't. That's something her office acknowledges, but a spokesperson added the congresswoman isn't anti-conservation and "is likely" to introduce the Senate version of a public lands bill concerning the Dolores River introduced by Bennet and Hickenlooper, which is "a locally driven bipartisan bill that threads the needle."
Boebert also has her own list of groups and elected leaders who oppose the CORE.
While more than half of those are out-of-state or national groups, it does include Colorado counties in and outside of her district that do not have any lands located in the bill.
A number of counties, including Mesa, Montezuma and Archuleta, oppose the bill. Fremont County Commissioner Dwayne McFall says even though none of their land is in the bill, they object to wilderness designations because they say it limits use and increases wildfire danger. Wilderness designations are a small portion of the CORE Act.
Houck in Gunnison says he struggles to understand opposition from counties that aren’t connected to the bill. “It’s difficult for me to have counties that are weighing in on things that my constituents and folks in this region want to see, when they are not connected to the issues at all.” He notes, for example, that areas of the Thompson Divide located in Mesa County were taken out of the bill because county leaders objected to the protections.
Objections also come from certain recreation groups. Scott Jones, executive director of the Colorado Snowmobile Association, says his group and other motorized vehicle users are also frustrated because their concerns are not being adequately addressed.
“This is where we struggled with this proposal from Day One. Everyone else wants to speak for us and we’re the only ones that are losing anything in terms of access,” he said. He notes trails don’t end at county boundary lines.
Jones’ group said did have one specific ask of CORE Act sponsors: increasing offsets from 50 feet to 150 feet for motorized trails that run up against proposed wilderness or special management area boundaries. The CORE Act uses the U.S. Forest Service standard, but a source close to the CORE bill said Bennet was willing to discuss increasing it to 150 feet when negotiating with Gardner. However, when he asked Gardner’s office for specific areas where the 50-foot offset was a problem, the source said they did not come back with any.
But McArthur with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers points out that there is no real incentive for opponents of the bill to negotiate with supporters. “The status quo right now is that these acres are essentially … open for business. I think it would make little sense for them to bargain away anything in exchange for a bill that would then hamper their ability to access any of those acres.”
In Congress, timing might be everything
The biggest roadblock to enacting the CORE Act, especially as Americans face high gas prices, may be how the bill handles mineral withdrawals.
Boebert has been an unabashed supporter of the oil and natural gas industry, even wearing a “Drill, baby, drill” shawl to this year’s State of the Union address. Her husband also works in the industry, earning consulting fees totaling $478,386 in 2020 and $460,000 in 2019, financial filings show.
Some Senate Republicans at the May 2022 hearing also said it wasn’t a good time to restrict oil and gas development or mining of critical materials in the United States.
Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma said the CORE Act advances “a false narrative” that energy development and land protection are mutually exclusive.
“Oil and natural gas development on public lands is done in a highly regulated, responsible manner to protect the land, wildlife, cultural and other resources,” she said in a statement. “We can do both: We can develop energy while protecting the land and there is no need to lock away further public lands and minerals.”
Gunnison County Commissioner Houck partially agrees. He says there is a fair amount of oil and gas development in the northern part of his county, including pipeline infrastructure. He says they aren’t anti-energy. “But we believe in balance and space.”
For Houck and others supporters, multi-use in public lands "is different then every use everywhere." He notes there is plenty of oil and gas development around the Thompson Divide. And while they see value in protecting watersheds, agriculture, grazing, hunting, fishing and other recreational opportunities, they don't necessarily want to protect extractive industries.
What it might all boil down to is how people view public lands and whether the federal government should be doing more or is doing too much.
If Senate Republicans think the government is doing too much or that now is not the time for the federal government to act, supporters of the CORE Act think local public opinion is on their side.
According to at least one recent poll commissioned by the Center for Western Priorities, which has backed the CORE Act, more than 8 in 10 Coloradans support national monument protections for CORE Act areas.
“It’s not a slam dunk by any means,” Fox-Perry admits. “But we have the best alignment we’ve had in the last 12 years to get this through.”
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