Sen. John Hickenlooper took a hands-on approach to meeting with Durango locals about outdoors issues Friday: hopping on a whitewater dory and floating the Animas River.
The Colorado senator’s visit to Durango and other Southwest Colorado communities was, in part, to celebrate Colorado Public Lands Day, signed into law by Hickenlooper in 2016. But with more than 15 conservation and outdoors business representatives in tow, the conversation quickly turned to key concerns and priorities for Colorado’s public lands.
“Anything I should know before I get into the boat?” Hickenlooper said as the dory and two rafts prepared to launch from Oxbow Park.
“Are your affairs in order?” came a jest from the crowd.
As the three boats floated down the river toward 29th Street, several people asked about progress on the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act. The four-part bill aims to protect 400,000 acres of public land and sustainable recreation activities.
In the San Juan Mountains, it would provide permanent protections for almost 61,000 acres of land and designate more than 21,000 acres around Sheep Mountain, between Ophir and Silverton, as the Sheep Mountain Special Management Area, the headwaters of the Animas River.
“I think it’s got a real good shot of passing,” Hickenlooper said. “The really immediate issues of climate change, health care, COVID and the economic recovery – these have such a fierce sense of urgency, there’s a possibility that they will push the CORE Act off till next year. ... I’m going to do everything I can not to let that happen.”
Great Old Broads for Wilderness offered grassroots support and collaboration to help get the bill passed. Ty Churchwell with Trout Unlimited and Jeff Wider with The Wilderness Society in Durango said their organizations support the bill.
Business representatives emphasized the importance of public lands to Colorado’s economy. Outdoor recreation generates about $28 billion in consumer spending and each year about 13.6 million people visit Colorado’s state parks, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
But they said communities need help scaling up to match growth in the outdoor industry. That could mean federal assistance with community infrastructure, whether it’s reducing water and sewer infrastructure costs or increasing electric vehicle use.
It could also mean managing increased use of public spaces. In 2020, Southwest Colorado saw a dramatic rise in visitors – and damage – to its public lands. Off-trail ATVs damaged fragile alpine tundra and local trails were strewn with litter.
“Are we going to love our public lands to death? There’s clearly a risk,” Hickenlooper said. “I think the federal government’s job is to talk to local communities and say, ‘What is your perception of maximum capacity?’”
Marcel Gaztambide, Animas riverkeeper with San Juan Citizens Alliance, said he wanted Animas headwaters management to be based on science-informed policy. Forest health, river health, water quality and recreation all intersect. Those connections need to be considered by policymakers, he said.
Moira Compton, executive director of the Durango Mesa Park Foundation, said all of Colorado needed to be represented in state-level groups like the Great Outdoors Colorado committee, which she said was starting to have more Front Range representation.
“I will investigate. The one thing I have learned in my four months as a senator is that somehow my voice has gotten louder,” Hickenlooper said. “It’s a good thing if I make sure it goes in the right direction.”
Before heading off to lunch, a trip to Cortez, and likely some beer at Carver Brewing Co. or Ska Brewing Co. before he leaves the area, Hickenlooper said his main takeaway from the group discussion was the commitment to public lands.
“There is a widespread, bipartisan commitment to public lands and the long-term economic benefit is sustainable, with that caveat that you don’t want to love our lands to death,” Hickenlooper said.