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Politics and Government

The CORE Act has passed the U.S. House, but the massive Colorado public lands bill faces tough odds in the U.S. Senate

Colorado's Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner is raising alarms because the legislation was passed without the support of the GOP congressman, Scott Tipton, whose district would be most affected

The Dillon Pinacles tower over a portion of Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison. Blue Mesa Reservoir is within Curecanti National Recreation Area and managed by the National Park Service. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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While proponents of the CORE Act are celebrating its passage out of the Democratic-controlled U.S. House on Thursday, the bill affecting about 400,000 acres of public lands in Colorado faces an uncertain future in the Republican-led Senate. 

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, is raising the alarm over the fact that the legislation passed without the support of U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Cortez Republican whose district has the majority of the lands the legislation seeks to address. 

“For a matter of collaboration, cooperation and bipartisanship in the delegation, it’s important for the member of Congress who is in the district where the land is located to be supportive of the bill,” Gardner told The Colorado Sun. “That’s the way it’s always been done in Colorado.”

Tipton voted against the bill on Thursday, arguing that it “has not adequately incorporated the necessary feedback from the Western Slope communities which the bill predominantly impacts.” He expressed his concerns on the House floor, calling for the legislation to be pulled back for further change.

Gardner echoed those concerns, saying that while his potential support for the CORE Act is not out of the question, he wants to see a host of changes made to the bill. 

Those alterations focus on protection of water rights, strengthening language allowing grazing on affected lands and the release wilderness-study areas, though most are in counties that are not included in the CORE Act or near lands the bill affects.

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The Democratic champions of the bill, U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse of Lafayette and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, argue that the legislation is a result of a decade of discussions in Western Slope communities and that some of the proposed changes threaten to undermine fragile compromises that have been reached.

“Ultimately, this bill does have the support of every single local jurisdiction that’s impacted directly,” Neguse told reporters in a call after the House passed the CORE Act by a vote of 227-182. 

Montrose County has taken a neutral position on the legislation. The CORE Act affects a sliver of the county’s eastern edge, in the Curecanti National Recreation Area. Montrose County Commissioner Roger Rash told The Colorado Sun “we definitely have some concerns about the CORE Act and we have concerns about the way they went about it.”

None of Colorado’s three GOP members of the U.S. House, including Tipton, voted for the CORE Act on Thursday and the partisan split appears to narrow its chances for passage in a divided Congress. Adding to the unlikelihood of its success is a White House policy memo released this week threatening a President Donald Trump veto of the measure unless changes are made.

MORE: White House threatens veto of CORE Act, the massive Colorado public lands bill splitting the state’s congressional delegation

Bennet called the veto threat “completely inexplicable” and “just completely inconsistent with what the local counties want in Colorado.” 

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t have a hearing in the Senate,” Bennet said, referencing the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, whose Republican chair, Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, has refused to grant the measure a hearing. 

In order to just send the bill to Trump’s desk, Bennet will have the tall task of shepherding the CORE Act through a Republican Senate and doing so without the active support right now of the state’s GOP senator. 

Gardner said that about two weeks ago he shared with Neguse and Bennet changes he’d like to see to the bill. “Unfortunately we’ve not heard back from Senator Bennet or Neguse yet,” Gardner said. “But I don’t think it’s because they don’t want to. I think it’s just maybe they haven’t had time to process this.”

Notably, Gardner did not ask, in that request for changes, for the removal of a long-controversial provision in the bill banning future oil and gas drilling on about 200,000 acres of public land along the Thompson Divide, an area spanning from Paonia to Carbondale. Tipton also now approves of the provision. 

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, left, and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse on Jan. 25, 2019, discussed the CORE Act, or Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, to protect about 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

He declined to directly say if he supports that section of the legislation, but noted that Garfield County’s commissioners, who oversee the area, have dropped their opposition, while officials in adjacent Mesa County still take issue with Thompson Divide prohibition. 

Garfield County’s commissioners in July sent a letter to Bennet’s office supporting the CORE Act after adjustments to the legislation allowing methane capture at active and inactive coal mines in the Thompson Divide. 

“We’ll continue to talk about it,” Gardner said. “There are still some issues that need to be worked out.”

Gardner also rejected accusations that he is holding up the bill and slammed political attacks on him over it. For instance, former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is running as a Democrat in the primary to unseat Gardner next year, has been trying to use Gardner’s lack of support for the CORE Act to drum up campaign support.

“I’ve not blocked this,” Gardner said. “I’ve not stopped it. I’m not the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. But I’m pretty sure for the people who want to use this for politics, I can designate the entire state of Colorado as wilderness and I’m pretty sure they’d oppose me.”

A vista of the San Juan Mountains near Telluride. The area is part of the CORE Act.(Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Gardner also said he had nothing to do with the White House’s veto threat.

“I haven’t talked to the White House about it,” he said. “They did not talk to us. It’s not our bill.”

Bennet said he is committed to listening to lingering local concerns about the measure, but that those conversations have to be in good faith.

“That’s different from having people at the federal level make excuses about a bill that has broad bipartisan support and should be supported by the whole Colorado congressional delegation,” he said.

Neguse echoed that sentiment. “Ultimately, Republicans in the Senate and the House must choose if they will side with President Trump or with Colorado,” he said in a statement.

The CORE Act is actually a combination of four measures that have been debated for years. The two most-discussed sections deal with public lands along the Thompson Divide and the area around Camp Hale, where the 10th Mountain Division’s has its roots.

A map of lands affected by the CORE Act in Colorado. (Handout from U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet)

The legislation 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 near Leadville as a first National Historic Landscape.

The measure offers permanent protections, including wilderness designations, for roughly 60,000 acres of land in the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado. It would also formally establish the boundary for the Curecanti National Recreation Area near Gunnison and prevent mineral development on about 6,500 acres outside of Norwood at Naturita Canyon.

Staff writer Jason Blevins contributed to this report.

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