Passing a major Colorado public lands bill through Congress just became a lot more complicated.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Cortez Republican, took issue with parts of the omnibus Colorado Outdoor Recreation Economy Act — or CORE Act — brought earlier this year by his Democratic colleagues from Colorado. It aims to protect thousands of acres of public land with new wilderness designations and by limiting oil and gas drilling.
And on Wednesday he unveiled a draft public lands proposal of his own: the Colorado Recreation Enhancement and Conservation Act, or Colorado REC Act.
“This isn’t so much in response to the CORE Act,” Tipton told The Colorado Sun, saying it was drawn from conversations with his constituents in his 3rd Congressional District over a long period.
But the two pieces of legislation have a number of similarities and key differences that make it hard to see the two as anything other than being intertwined — especially at a time with outdoor recreation forces are increasingly getting involved in politics.
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“There’s some elements of the CORE Act that we’ve supported and naturally included into the Colorado REC Act, that we’ve expanded to be able to include all of the voices,” Tipton said, adding that he’s heard from a number of constituents in his Western Slope district opposed to the Democratic measure.
Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner is also pushing for the Colorado REC Act and is expected to soon introduce a companion version of the measure in the Senate. Democrats U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, of Lafayette, are backing the CORE Act.
The partisan split is a potentially perilous sign for either measure’s chance of passage, even with the similarities and the fact that the two sides say they’re open to working with each other. Public lands bills frequently spend years being debated in Congress before — if ever — passing, but the competing bills present a nearly impossible path forward without significant compromise.
“In general, if you have bills that are explicitly addressing an issue that particularly relates to one state and the delegation itself is split, it’s going to be very hard to build support from other (members of Congress) from other parts of the country,” said C0rina McKendry, an associate professor of political science at Colorado College who leads the State of the Rockies project studying public lands.
Some kind of consensus could eventually be reached, McKendry said, citing what’s happened with the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the bipartisan momentum to secure its financial backing in perpetuity.
“It’s conceivable that getting the issue on the table could set the stage for negotiation down the line,” McKendry said, “but I would assume that would take some time.”
Tipton’s office says they are planning to solicit input from constituents in August and then formally introduce the bill in September.
Here’s how the bills are similar: They both call for offering permanent protections, including wilderness designations, for some 60,000 acres of land in the San Juan Mountains. Both bills also would formally establish the boundary for the Curecanti National Recreation Area near Gunnison, giving the National Park Service more ability to manage the land. Finally, the measures similarly aim to prevent mineral development for about 6,500 acres outside of Norwood at Naturita Canyon.
But they diverge in significant ways.
The CORE Act calls for roughly 100,000 acres of wilderness, recreation and conservation areas in the White River National Forest along the Continental Divide and would also designate the land around Camp Hale, where the 10th Mountain Division’s roots are, as a national historic landscape.
That’s not part of the Colorado REC Act.
The CORE Act also has clauses withdrawing about 200,000 acres of public lands along the Thompson Divide from being open to oil and gas drilling. The measure also would create a program to lease and generate energy from excess methane in coal mines in the North Fork Valley.
Again, those are not components of the Colorado REC Act.
Tipton’s bill includes several elements that are not in the CORE Act. One of those is a clause allowing permanent, wilderness protections for 40,000 acres of land within the Rio Grande National Forest. It would also release nearly 40,000 acres of wilderness study areas in Dolores, Montezuma and Jackson counties to the Bureau of Land Management.
Finally, the Colorado REC Act would add 160 acres to the Yucca House National Monument in southwest Colorado.
Neguse told The Sun this week that he is open to making changes to the CORE Act and that he and his staff have had “multiple interactions” with Tipton’s office and with Gardner about the bill and how to move forward.
“We’ve always said we are open to making amendments and improving the bill provided that everyone is approaching it consistent with the spirit of the bill, which is protecting public lands in our state,” Neguse said. “If that’s not the case, we’d be less likely to be amenable to those changes.”
Bennet, in an interview with The Colorado Sun earlier this year, echoed that sentiment.
“Where we can find opportunities to work with people to bring people along, we will do that as we have done that throughout the entire process,” said Bennet, who is running for president. “Where people are simply stuck because they have an ideological antagonism towards public lands, that’s going to be something we’re just going to have to try to overcome because it can’t be satisfied.”
But Tipton complained that he had little notice before the CORE Act was introduced and that the concerns he’s voiced about the bill have not been addressed.
Tipton says he’s hopeful, nevertheless, that there can be some kind of compromise reached on Colorado public lands legislation.
“We’ll be open to those conversations and being able to make adjustments,” he said when asked if he would consider adding in elements of the CORE Act, including protections for Thompson Divide and Camp Hale.
“Again, this is draft legislation. It’s obviously going to change,” Tipton added.
They could use the Colorado REC Act as another way — on top of pointing to the public lands package passed by Congress earlier this year — to rebuff accusations that they’re not working hard enough on environmental and outdoor recreation issues.
Conservation Colorado, a liberal-leaning environmental group, was quick to attack the Tipton-Gardner proposal, saying the pair should just sign onto the CORE Act instead. The organization called it “a deliberate attempt to muddy the waters when it comes to our public lands.”
The CORE Act passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee and is awaiting further debate on the U.S. House floor.
Updated on Wednesday, July 24, 2019, at 7:40 a.m.: This story was updated to clarify that both the CORE and REC acts aim to prevent mineral development on about 6,500 acres at Naturita Canyon.