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Gridlock in Congress stymies land protection in Colorado

The CORE Act achieved a significant milestone at the beginning of May when the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee finally voted on it.

The Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, or CORE Act for short, would bring legislative protections of various forms to 400,000 acres of public lands across Colorado.

Most significantly here in our backyard, the CORE Act would double the size of the Mount Sneffels Wilderness by finally including the entirety of the dramatic Sneffels Range. The bill also ensures that beloved Ice Lake Basin would gain protection from future mining or road development with designation as the Sheep Mountain Special Management Area.

What makes action on the CORE Act all the more notable is the snail’s pace at which Congress has taken up action on legislation to add to protected landscapes in Colorado. A bill to protect these areas in the San Juan Mountains was first introduced in 2009, and has been stalled in Congress for 13 years.

The disappointing progress in advancing lands protections in Colorado was recently highlighted in a report entitled Conservation Gridlock. The report by the Center for Western Priorities notes the last legislation enacted to add protections to Colorado’s public lands was back in 2014, with designation of the wildly popular Hermosa Watershed Protection Act.

Alas, Congress has failed to act on any additional Colorado legislation since. In fact, the report documents Colorado’s status near the bottom of the heap when it comes to public lands protections. Perhaps surprisingly, our neighbors in Utah rank near the top of the list, with well over 2 million acres protected in the last decade via the Bears Ears National Monument designation and enactment of the Emery County Public Land Management Act for lands encompassing the San Rafael Swell, and Labyrinth and Desolation canyons.

By comparison, Colorado has just 134,000 acres in Hermosa and Browns Canyon National Monument near Buena Vista to our credit in the last decade. How did Utah achieve 20 times the conservation that has Colorado?

Unfortunately, conservation is apparently as mired in partisan gridlock as much else in Congress. The recent Senate committee vote on the CORE Act resulted in a 10-10 tie, with all Democrats in favor of the conservation bill, and all Republicans opposed. This despite the overwhelming support for the CORE Act evinced by local elected officials, businesses and even a mining company, for heaven’s sake!

The CORE Act is not alone in facing Congressional gridlock. The Colorado Wilderness Act that would designate as wilderness more than 600,000 acres of largely canyon country under the Bureau of Land Management has been pending in Congress for over 20 years. First introduced in 1999, the Colorado Wilderness Act would finally convert Wilderness Study Areas originally established more than 40 years ago into official wilderness areas.

Despite widespread support, and decades of public scrutiny and review, these landmark conservation bills for Colorado are stymied. Congressional inaction is at odds with public opinion as repeatedly expressed in polls year after year. Polls like that of Colorado College’s State of Rockies survey document unwavering support for action on public lands conservation, and repeated surveys show support of 70% or more for action on the CORE Act and the Colorado Wilderness Act.

The recent report Conservation Gridlock doesn’t offer any silver bullets. It’s value is simply highlighting the disconnect between public opinion across Colorado favoring land conservation and Congressional inaction. The gridlock isn’t for lack of effort by Colorado’s senators and key House champions. It’s unfortunately a symptom of Congress’ partisan divide, and the inability of conservation to rise above that.

Mark Pearson is executive director at San Juan Citizens Alliance. Reach him at mark@sanjuancitizens.org.