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With Democrats in control, CORE Act receives hearing in Senate subcommittee

Legislation would protect 400,000 acres, establish wilderness areas
A U.S. Senate subcommittee held a hearing about the CORE Act, which aims to protect 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado, including 52,000 acres in the San Juan Mountains. (Courtesy of Mason Cummings/The Wilderness Society)

The Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, a multipart bill that aims to protect more than 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado led by Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, was heard in the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Public Lands Subcommittee on Wednesday.

The legislation would establish new wilderness areas, protect current recreation options and develop methane capture and leasing programs in Colorado.

The legislation, known as the CORE Act, was introduced first in 2019 by Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo. The bill passed in the House twice in the last congressional session but stalled in the Senate. The act passed a third time in the House in February. The bill was endorsed by President Joe Biden this year, as well.

The CORE Act is made up of previously introduced and refined bills, including 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.

Much of the legislation within the package has been developed over the last decade. Bennet began working with local landowners, sportsmen and federal agencies in developing the Curecanti National Recreation Area Boundary Establishment Act in 2011.

In his opening statement, Bennet emphasized Coloradans’ input in drafting the CORE Act. In developing legislation, Bennet sought feedback from hunters, ranchers, anglers, environmentalists and small business owners.

“The most important thing to know about the CORE Act is that it was not written in Washington, D.C.,” Bennet told senators. “It was written by Coloradans – on the ground, in conference rooms, on kitchen tables, and at trailheads across our state ... over the past decade.”

Hickenlooper, a member of the Natural Resources Committee and co-sponsor of the bill, said it feels “great” to join Bennet in the legislation.

“The way that Michael and the teams of people he helped pull together – the ways that they built the CORE Act – is a model for how we should do public lands legislation in the future,” Hickenlooper said in an interview with The Durango Herald.

What the bill means for Colorado

The package will address increased outdoor recreation use during the COVID-19 pandemic, address climate change and protect public lands and wilderness in Colorado.

“These places can get loved to death, and COVID shows this,” Hickenlooper said. “COVID got all these people to go outside and enjoy nature. We’ve got to make sure that we have enough nature to supply them. We can’t re-create wilderness.”

The CORE Act would also sustain and maintain outdoor recreation jobs in Colorado. The Bureau of Economic Analysis found outdoor recreation accounted for more than $12.2 billion in economic impact in Colorado in 2019, about 3% of the state’s total economy.

The Continental Divide Recreation, Wilderness and Camp Hale Legacy Act would establish permanent protection in about 100,000 acres of wilderness, recreation and conservation areas in the White River National Forest.

The bill designates 28,000 acres surrounding Camp Hale as a National Historic Landscape to honor the U.S. Army training facility built in 1942. Later known as the 10th Mountain Division, Camp Hale is where personnel trained in climbing and skiing during World War II.

“Protecting Camp Hale would not only honor this incredible history, but the veterans who continue to find peace and solace in our outdoors,” Bennet told the committee.

The San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act would establish permanent protections for about 60,000 acres of land in the San Juan Mountains in Southwest Colorado. The act would also protect 6,590 acres from mineral withdrawal outside of Norwood at Naturita Canyon, prohibiting future mineral development in the area.

The Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act would protect the area by permanently barring 200,000 acres from future oil and gas development. Existing property rights will be preserved under the bill. The bill also creates a pilot program for leasing excess methane from coal mines in the North Fork Valley.

“When I was governor, we worked on methane a lot. We were the first state to pass rigorous methane regulations,” Hickenlooper told the Herald. “I think these are all facets of what really has to be an integrated approach to dealing with climate change. And I think these public lands efforts and the outdoor recreation industry are a key point to that as well in addressing fugitive emissions (of methane).”

The Curecanti National Recreation Area Boundary Establishment Act would establish a congressionally recognized boundary of the Curecanti National Recreation Area. Public land management would be improved through a series of administrative jurisdiction changes and the Bureau of Reclamation would be given jurisdiction over the three dams in the area. The bill would also ensure public fishing access in the basin is upheld.

Local and federal reactions

The CORE Act has received 39 letters of support since its introduction, including from Gov. Jared Polis; several county commissions, including San Juan County; environmental nonprofits; and the Colorado Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

When serving as a House representative for Colorado’s 2nd district, Polis advocated for the passing of the Continental Divide Recreation, Wilderness and Camp Hale Legacy Act with Bennet.

“This legislation would be great for Colorado and has been carefully crafted to protect existing uses, respect valid and existing rights to water and mineral development, and balance different outdoor recreation demands,” Polis wrote in a letter of support. “It recognizes the critical voice of local communities and counties to shape final decisions about what areas are appropriate for what type of use, including what areas are appropriate for commercial timber and energy protection.”

Beau Kiklis, Conservation Colorado’s public lands advocate, said Bennet and Hickenlooper have “made Coloradans proud” in getting the legislation a hearing in the Senate.

“Passing the CORE Act would be a significant victory for the countless local voices that worked hard to craft it and it would align with the science-based 30x30 vision of conserving 30% of our land and water by 2030,” Kiklis wrote in an emailed statement to the Herald.

House Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., called the CORE Act a “land grab.”

“The CORE Act is a partisan land-grab promoted by big-city Democrats who aren’t affected by the land-use bureaucracy that they are shoving down rural Colorado’s throat,” she said in a news release. “Despite roughly 65% of the lands affected by this bill being in my district, I was never consulted on this bill, and common-sense changes proposed by Senator Gardner last Congress were also not incorporated. While locking up land may sound good to the swamp, it doesn’t work for the people who actually live there.”

Former Sen. Cory Gardner declined to endorse the CORE Act in the last congressional session. But he pushed the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, which he re-introduced in March 2020. The bill was passed by Congress and signed by former President Donald Trump.

The Great American Outdoors Act funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million per year in perpetuity and provides $9.5 billion over five years to address the maintenance backlog in national parks.

In the hearing, witnesses, including National Forest System Deputy Chief Chris French, noted support for the legislation. Deputy Director of Policy and Programs Nada Culver at the Bureau of Land Management said the BLM supports the CORE Act but would like to work with the sponsors “on a number of modifications to aid the bill’s implementation.” Specific modifications were not given.

Kaela Roeder is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a 2021 graduate of American University in Washington, D.C.

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