The year 2021 has brought new energy and urgency for the important work of conservation. With ever-present reminders of climate change in the form of wildfires, extreme weather events, the decline of wildlife species, and a changing natural landscape, protecting what is so special about our home in Colorado has become a priority for voters and elected officials.
In January, President Joe Biden committed the United States to a new goal of conserving 30% of our lands and waters by the year 2030 (commonly called 30×30), a benchmark that a chorus of scientists tell us is critical to mitigating the twin climate change and biodiversity crisis.
The president also temporarily paused new leasing for oil and gas on public lands while a comprehensive review is undertaken to ensure that exploration for fossil fuels on public lands is actually in the public interest and meets our national climate goals.
Congress has also moved to conserve public lands at a rapid clip. In February, the House of Representatives passed the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act, a package of bills which would protect special lands across the West, including just over 2 million acres here in Colorado via two bills: The Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act and the Colorado Wilderness Act.
The CORE Act emerged from a decade-long, stakeholder-driven effort and enjoys broad local support. It would provide protections for about 400,000 acres of Colorado’s public lands, including areas in the San Juan Mountains, along the Continental Divide, historic Camp Hale, and the Thompson Divide near Carbondale.
After coming close in the previous Congress, and now with the support of both Colorado senators, the CORE Act seems poised to become law.
U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette’s Colorado Wilderness Act would designate 660,000 acres of wilderness, mostly on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands in western Colorado. Different versions of her bill have been introduced since the late 1990s, but were unsuccessful. The CWA has not been endorsed or introduced by either Colorado senator and its path through the Senate remains unclear.
Passing the Protecting America’s Wilderness (PAW) package, including the CORE Act and Colorado Wilderness Act, would be an important step forward. And yet there is a broader opportunity to initiate a dialogue with communities and stakeholders to conserve the last, best BLM wildlands before it’s too late.
Colorado’s U.S. senators have the power to change the conversation around conserving BLM wildlands in the state. Only 5% of the 8.3 million acres of BLM public lands in our state are permanently protected, lagging behind our national forests and parks.
Newly elected U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, in particular, is well-positioned to lead on BLM wildlands conservation. He has been appointed to the Senate’s key public lands committee and brings relationships, connections, and goodwill with the Western Slope from his years as governor.
Known as a problem-solving pragmatist who relishes bringing together parties to try to overcome seemingly intractable conflicts through dialogue and compromise, Hickenlooper’s skill set is exactly what is needed to navigate the often contentious issue of public lands management.
Some Western Slope politicians have bristled at DeGette’s legislation because they feel they were not consulted on her legislation. Their objections tend to be about the process, not the actual lands to be conserved, an important distinction.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, who represents western Colorado, offered a slate of anti-conservation amendments to the PAW package that were all voted down, but otherwise seems to have little interest in actually legislating on public lands.
There is a clear opening here for Colorado’s senators to lead and restart a critical dialogue on BLM wildlands conservation. A chance to engage local voices in outreach while balancing local needs and desires with a truly statewide perspective. And a chance to make wise conservation choices that benefit people, public lands, wildlife, and future generations of Coloradans. Let’s get to work!
Scott Braden of Grand Junction is the director of the Colorado Wildlands Project, which works to protect wild public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
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