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A backpacker on Colorado's Continental Divide Trail takes in the view from a vantage point in the South San Juan Wilderness, one of the remotest areas in Colorado. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

As Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner rides a wave of accolades for swaying President Donald Trump to support legislation to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, he’s also floating his first-ever bill to grow wilderness acreage in Colorado. 

Last month the Republican quietly — as in without any news release or announcement — introduced the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Additions Act, a bill that would add to the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness area above the San Luis Valley.

The measure closely follows the preferred alternative of the Rio Grande National Forest’s management plan, which was last revised in 1996 and has been under review since 2015. 

The latest iteration of the management plan calls for 58,669 new acres of wilderness in the forest, most of it adjacent to the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness. Gardner’s bill, meanwhile, calls for 40,038 acres identified as possible “wilderness additions.” 

Gardner has been criticized by conservation groups and Democrats as being the only Colorado senator since 1964 to not sponsor a wilderness bill for Colorado.

He has not supported the CORE Act proposed by Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, both Democrats. That criticism fades with his Sangre de Cristo wilderness proposal.

Gardner says he opposes the CORE Act in part because it doesn’t have the support of U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Cortez Republican whose district includes the majority of the impacted land in the sweeping public lands bill.

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, center, during a tour of abandoned mines in Clear Creek County in August. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Conservation groups have blasted Gardner’s voting record on environmental issues, with the League of Conservation Voters last year tallying 64 of Gardner’s 75 environmental votes between 2015 and 2018 falling against increased protection on issues like methane capture, public input on oil and gas drillings, protecting public lands and addressing climate change. 

As Gardner prepares to battle for his U.S. Senate seat in November, he has made his record on the environment and public lands a central part of his campaign. That includes his supporting of legislation to direct the full $900 million-a-year into the LWCF and his first-ever wilderness legislation.

Gardner’s spokeswoman, Annalyse Keller, said the senator has been working on the Sangre de Cristo wilderness measure for “a number of years” and has been following the Rio Grande forest management plan as it progressed. 

“The bill represents the preferred alternative in the forest plan revision proposal after multiple rounds of public input,” Keller said in an email. “If that proposal changes as the Forest Service moves to finalize the revision plan and there are additional conversations with stakeholders and other members of the delegation, the senator is open to altering the bill to reflect the consensus view.”

On Wednesday, the Forest Service published responses to issues and objections raised to its final draft of the 5-year-old forest plan revision. A final Record of Decision should come this summer. Gardner’s legislation steps ahead of that process by designating wilderness before the forest plan is finalized.

Conservation groups, especially in the San Luis Valley, are wary of Gardner’s embrace of wilderness.

A map showing the areas Gardner’s bill would affect. (Handout)

“We are happy to see the senator supporting wilderness, but we feel the recommendations were plucked for political purposes. He doesn’t want to support the CORE Act so he’s coming up with something and this was the low-hanging fruit, since the locals are pretty much in support of it. So there’s no controversy for him,” said Christine Canaly, the longtime director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council.

She wonders why Gardner didn’t wait for a final decision on a long-negotiated forest plan that designates the same land as wilderness. “Now he can take this to the conservation community and say, ‘See, I support land protection.’ So it’s a no-brainer,” Canaly said.

Keller said Gardner has not voted for a wilderness package in Colorado but, as a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, he has voted in favor wilderness designations.

Gardner supported last year’s National Resources Management Act, which protected 1.3 million acres of wilderness, created new National Park Service areas and permanently authorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund. 

Gardner told The Colorado Sun in February he was “excited to be a part of protecting Colorado’s public lands.” He said his bill is not supposed to be a replacement for any other legislation and dismissed criticisms that he hasn’t supported the CORE Act or done enough for public lands.

“We just think this is a good public lands bill. I think that criticism shows that I could designate the entire state of Colorado as a wilderness area and they would still play partisan politics,” Gardner said. “Unfortunately they have really made public lands partisan. Public lands used to be bipartisan in Colorado.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out.

Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors, ski industry, mountain business, housing, interesting things

Location: Eagle, CO

Newsletter: The Outsider, the outdoors industry covered from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state

Education: Southwestern University


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