Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Democrats introduce bill to protect 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado

Posted By on Tue, Jan 29, 2019 at 5:52 PM

Two Democratic lawmakers have introduced a bill in Congress they say would safeguard 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado.

The 82-page Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, or CORE Act, would create about 73,000 acres of new wilderness areas, preserve nearly 80,000 acres for outdoor recreation, expand access to existing protected lands and prohibit new oil and gas development in some areas. Sponsored by Sen. Michael Bennet and freshman Rep. Joe Neguse, the legislation "unites and improves" four bills spearheaded by Bennet and other Colorado legislators — including now-Gov. Jared Polis and former Rep. Joe Salazar — in previous years.

"This bill is the result of years of hard work from local leaders, businessmen, sportsmen and conservationists across Colorado," Bennet said in a Jan. 25 conference call announcing the legislation.

Not since 1993, when Congress passed the Colorado Wilderness Act, has this much Colorado land been preserved at once, Bennet told the Denver Post.

Should Congress pass the CORE Act this year, Bennet's likely to leverage it if he runs for president — which he told MSNBC he was "thinking about" just a day before announcing the new legislation, after an uncharacteristically emotional speech on the Senate floor had catapulted him into the national spotlight.

(Does Bennet's verbal takedown of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., pass fact-checking muster? Check out this analysis from PolitiFact.)

click to enlarge Proposed Porcupine Gulch Wildlife Conservation Area. - MASON CUMMINGS, THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
  • Mason Cummings, The Wilderness Society
  • Proposed Porcupine Gulch Wildlife Conservation Area.

Anyhow, here's a quick summary of each section of the CORE Act (formerly separate bills):

Continental Divide Recreation, Wilderness and Camp Hale Legacy Act

Last year, Bennet introduced this bill in the Senate, and Polis sponsored its counterpart in the House. Neither got a vote.

This section of the CORE Act would create three new wilderness areas totaling 21,000 acres in the Tenmile Range west of Breckenridge, Hoosier Ridge south of Breckenridge, and Williams Fork Mountains north of Silverthorne. In the Tenmile Range, a new 17,000-acre recreation area would protect access to hiking, hunting and mountain biking. The bill would also expand three existing areas — Eagles Nest, Ptarmigan Peak and Holy Cross — by a total of 20,000 acres. Two new wildlife conservation areas, Porcupine Gulch and Williams Fork, would comprise a total of 12,000 acres.

Under this bill, the 29,000-acre area surrounding Camp Hale, where Army troops trained in skiing and mountaineering during World War II, would become the first ever National Historic Landscape. This section creates a $10 million fund for "activities relating to historic interpretation, preservation and restoration" in the Camp Hale area.

The bill would also adjust boundaries around the Trail River Ranch in Rocky Mountain National Park to ensure continued public access, protect water rights for Minturn, a town southwest of Vail, and grant several parcels of land in Grand County to the U.S. Forest Service.

click to enlarge Proposed Sheep Mountain Special Management Area. - MASON CUMMINGS, THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
  • Mason Cummings, The Wilderness Society
  • Proposed Sheep Mountain Special Management Area.

San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act

Bennet introduced this bill last spring. Subcommittee hearings were held in the fall, but it never reached the Senate floor.

The CORE Act's version of the bill designates new wilderness areas and expands others — including Lizard Head and Mount Sneffels — near Telluride, Norwood, Ouray and Ridgway in southwest Colorado. It also creates two special management areas where roads and most motor vehicles would be prohibited: the 22,000-acre Sheep Mountain area between the towns of Ophir and Silverton, and 790-acre Liberty Bell East area near Telluride.

This bill also prohibits future oil and gas development on 6,600 acres in Naturita Canyon.

In total, this section of the CORE Act protects about 61,000 acres of land in the San Juan Mountains through new wilderness areas, expansions, and oil and gas restrictions.

Stakeholders in San Miguel, Ouray and San Juan counties "came together over a decade ago to plan for the future," San Miguel County Commissioner Hilary Cooper said on Bennet's Jan. 25 conference call. "All sides compromised again and again, and then again, and the result is the designations and boundaries of the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Bill we have today."

click to enlarge Thompson Divide. - JON MULLEN, COURTESY OF THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
  • Jon Mullen, courtesy of The Wilderness Society
  • Thompson Divide.

Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act

Bennet introduced this bill in 2017, after which it languished in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The CORE Act version protects around 200,000 acres in the Thompson Divide near Carbondale and Glenwood Springs from future oil and gas development, while preserving existing property rights.

"There's just some areas where the costs to the community outweigh any potential benefit of drilling, and Thompson Divide is surely one of those places," said Bill Fales, a local rancher on Bennet's conference call. "What is on top of this land is much more valuable to us than any petroleum that might lie below it."

This section of the CORE Act also creates a leasing program to generate energy from excess methane produced by abandoned and existing coal plants in the North Fork Valley, a region on Colorado's Western Slope.

click to enlarge Curecanti National Recreation Area. - NPS/VICTORIA STAUFFENBERG
  • NPS/Victoria Stauffenberg
  • Curecanti National Recreation Area.
Curecanti National Recreation Area Boundary Establishment Act

Last introduced by Sen. John Salazar in 2010, this bill formally establishes the boundaries of the Curecanti National Recreation Area, which includes three reservoirs on the Gunnison River. Though the National Park Service has co-managed the area since 1965, it has never been legislatively established by Congress. The bill makes some administrative changes to the way the land is managed, gives the Bureau of Reclamation jurisdiction over Curecanti's three reservoirs, and ensures that the public will have greater access to fishing.

Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck spoke in support of the bill on Bennet's conference call.

"The need to declare that boundary designation and have management plans...has been the desire of this community for decades," Houck said, pointing out that Curecanti's Blue Mesa Reservoir is the largest body of water in Colorado.

"You can count on the support from the greater Gunnison community to provide a voice to match our values around this legislation to protect these amazing and cherished places for now and into the future," he added.

Go to the next page for maps of each area.

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