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Remnants of Camp Hale, Aug. 16, 2022, near Leadville. Camp Hale was a mountain and winter training center by the U.S. Army. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

CAMP HALE —Supporters of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Economy Act, after watching the bill fail to advance past the U.S. Senate for several years, are asking President Joe Biden to take executive action to protect the tens of thousands of acres of federal land in Colorado the measure aims to shield.

And they appear to have Tom Vilsack, Biden’s secretary of agriculture, in their corner.

Vilsack, speaking Tuesday to a group gathered for a roundtable near Camp Hale, the former military base near Leadville where 10th Mountain Division soldiers trained before heading to battle in World War II and that would get further protections under the CORE Act, said he would encourage Biden to help.

“Frankly,” Vilsack said, “I don’t want to disappoint.”

The decision to seek executive action from Biden on portions of the CORE Act is tacit acknowledgement that the legislation doesn’t currently have a path toward passage in the 50-50 U.S. Senate, where Republicans have been leery about expanding protections on federal lands. The Democrats who back the bill need the support of all of the members of their party in the Senate as well as at least 10 Republicans to overcome the filibuster and send the measure to Biden’s desk. 

That appears unlikely to happen anytime soon. 

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat who is among the sponsors of the CORE Act, organized the gathering Tuesday.

“I think our preference, obviously, is to pass the CORE Act,” Bennet, who is facing election-year pressure to get the CORE Act done, told reporters. “We’re going to continue to fight for that.”

From left, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, and U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper answer reporters’ questions on Tuesday during a visit at Camp Hale near Leadville. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

But in the meantime, Bennet said, national monument designations and mineral withdrawals through executive action will be sought in an effort to speed up the protections. 

“We’re just going to have to decide what’s going to be appropriate,” Bennet said. “We haven’t made those decisions yet.” 

The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives presidents the power to declare areas a national monument, protecting them from oil and gas drilling and mining. But national monument designations can potentially be granted by one president and amended or rescinded by the next.

President Barack Obama, for instance, created the Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah in 2016. The monument designation area was reduced by President Donald Trump in 2017. Biden then restored the monument in 2021.

Executive actions are also subject to lawsuits.

The CORE Act, in addition to protecting the land around Camp Hale by designating it the nation’s first National Historic Landscape, calls for creating roughly 100,000 acres of wilderness, recreation and conservation areas in the White River National Forest along the Continental Divide.

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 the Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison and prevent mineral development on about 6,500 acres outside of Norwood at Naturita Canyon.

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

Portions of the CORE Act have been debated in Congress for many years, and supporters of the bill are frustrated with the lack of progress.

“There are perfect solutions and then there are good solutions that deserve consideration now just to get something over the finish line,” John Gale, who oversees policy and government  relations for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said during Tuesday’s roundtable. “And I think that now’s the time not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Let’s get done what we can now while we can. There’s too much on the table.”

Storm clouds roll over Camp Hale Memorial Campground near Leadville. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Bill Fales, a rancher near Carbondale, said protections for the Thompson Divide are urgently needed. “We really need to get the administrative withdrawal to protect this area,” he said, acknowledging the failure to get the CORE Act through the Senate. 

The bill has passed the U.S. House several times.

Asked why Biden hasn’t taken action already, U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper exclaimed “he’s been busy.” 

Vilsack echoed that sentiment, but also acknowledged that conversations with the president about protecting lands targeted by the CORE Act should have happened “yesterday.” 

“I think it really is a model of what we should be doing in this country,” Vilsack said, nodding to how the bill was formed through conversations with groups and elected leaders across Colorado. “I’m gonna go back and make sure that the president and the White House are fully briefed on this and make sure that our team is moving as expeditiously as we possibly can to do whatever we can.”

Gov. Jared Polis, another CORE Act supporter who attended the meeting Tuesday, said  pursuing executive action from Biden doesn’t mean the bill is dead.

From left, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, and U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper answer questions on Tuesday during a visit at Camp Hale near Leadville. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“The two paths are not mutually exclusive,” he said. “Taking additional executive actions can help provide momentum for the future.”

Hickenlooper said he still thinks there’s a path toward passing the CORE Act in Congress. “We’re close,” he said, explaining that he’s gotten verbal support from Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Kevin Kramer of North Dakota. 

Murkowski and Cassidy sit on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where the CORE Act has been assigned.

“If we had three Republicans on the committee,” Hickenlooper said, “we’d get 10 in the Senate. That’s my feeling.”

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...