Public lands Colorado’s congressional delegation goes to bat for state’s resources

While the wheels of Congress struggle to gain traction on virtually any legislation this session – and become increasingly jammed with election-year gunk – those delegates who are able to build momentum for measures important to their constituents are rare among their colleagues. For Colorado Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, though, this long-run work is moving ahead, albeit slowly.

Udall and Bennet, both Democrats, have been working separately, together and, in at least one instance, with U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, to advance an agenda of public lands protection in Colorado that suggests a refreshing dedication to gathering and responding to public input on matters of significance to Coloradans. While that commitment might not translate to legislative action anytime soon, there is movement nonetheless to secure long-term protection for lands and resources worthy of elevated designation. Many such lands are located in the southwest part of the state, and the area most close to achieving such protection is Chimney Rock Archaeological Area.

The 4,700-acre site between Pagosa Springs and Bayfield for several years has been targeted by lawmakers for national monument status. Legislation reflecting that desire is pending in both the U.S. House and Senate, sponsored by Tipton and Bennet, respectively. Recognizing the near standstill pace at which Congress is moving, the two, along with Udall, earlier this week requested that President Obama use the Antiquities Act to bestow monument status on the area. Doing so indicates that Bennet’s, Udall’s and Tipton’s priority is protecting the archaeological resources that make Chimney Rock such a unique treasure to the region – not simply notching their legislative belts.

Bennet and Udall have set their sites beyond Chimney Rock and are working to secure permanent protection for a number of wild places in Colorado, closest to home among which include the Hermosa Creek watershed and additions to the San Juan Wilderness. Each of these areas has been recommended for protection by a broad range of local interests as well as elected and appointed officials, and the senators’ effort to embody that support in legislation is the best in representative democracy.

While passing these or other Colorado-related protection measures through the 112th Congress would take intervention of forces unlikely to have much influence – divine or otherwise – the energy that Udall and Bennet are investing will not be lost when the session closes. Moving protective legislation is rarely a short-term effort and doing so requires thorough vetting and amassing of widespread support just to get on the legislative docket – and then the real fun begins. And while national issues eclipse those at the state level, it is easy for each state’s senators and representatives to lose sight of what is important at home. These land-protection efforts serve to counterbalance the cynicism that can develop among voters who see little at all happening in Washington, D.C., and do not much care for that which is happening.

There still is much to be cynical about with respect to the workings – or failings – of Congress, but when glimmers of positivity appear, it is worth recognizing. In their work to gain national recognition for important public lands in Colorado, Udall, Bennet and Tipton have the potential to do much good: for the lands involved, businesses that stand to gain from visitors to the lands and for responsive politics that reflect the shared values of their constituents. That alone is worth the effort.

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