CAMP HALE — President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed a proclamation creating the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument as his administration simultaneously moved to block mining and oil and gas drilling on 225,000 acres of Colorado’s Thompson Divide.
Biden visited Eagle County on Wednesday to discuss and celebrate the actions. His trip also comes on behalf of Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who is running for reelection in November and has pushed for years for additional protections inside the White River National Forest and along the Thompson Divide.
Ballots start being mailed out to Colorado voters on Monday.
“This guy, he made this finally happen,” Biden said of Bennet while speaking Wednesday at Camp Hale. “He came to the White House and he said ‘I told you what I need.’ And I said ‘I’ll do it.’ You know why? I was worried he’d never leave the damn White House.”
The Camp Hale monument, adding protections to the former Army base near Leadville where 10th Mountain Division soldiers trained before heading to fight in World War II, is the nation’s 159th national monument and the ninth in Colorado. It’s the first designated by Biden.
The monument also includes the Tenmile Range mountains west of Frisco and Breckenridge.
“I’m honored to sign this proclamation and preserve a special part of our military history,” Biden told the crowd of about 300 people gathered in the field on textbook Colorado day of blue skies and a cool wind.
The 53,804-acre monument and an area of the Thompson Divide near Carbondale that will be protected includes portions of land that would have been otherwise shielded from development by the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act — or CORE Act — that has been stalled in Congress because of a lack of Republican support. Bennet is a lead sponsor of the CORE Act.
Biden’s use of the 1906 Antiquities Act to create the monument early Wednesday sidesteps Congressional inaction on the lands bill.
“By protecting this iconic area and proposing a mineral withdrawal for the Thompson Divide, the President is building on a series of steps the Administration has taken to protect some of America’s most cherished lands and waters,” the White House said in a written statement.
During the ceremony, Sen. John Hickenlooper gave credit to Bennet for switching gears as the bill stalled.
“The CORE Act is not going anywhere. We’re going to get it done,” Hickenlooper told the crowd. “But I give Michael the great credit to say if we’re not going to get it done in the near term, time is of the essence where people and their families have been working so long to make this happen and make this Continental Divide national monument a reality. Then why wait? Why don’t we recognize that we can protect this land by making it a monument by making it a reality and allow us to move forward and have an event like this.”
After the event, Hickenlooper, who is a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said, he hopes the CORE Act will get through the committee next summer.
“There are a bunch of Republicans who are moderates on the committee, and they recognized we did it the right way,” he said.
The White House said the Camp Hale monument won’t affect any of the nearby ski resorts — including Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Ski Cooper — in the White River National Forest, many of which were founded by soldiers who trained at the camp.
“I don’t think until you see some of these places you don’t understand why it was so important to continue to preserve,” Biden said.
The land in the Pando Valley was home to the Ute Tribes before they were pushed out in the mid-1800s. For centuries, the area was used as a summer hunting ground.
A number of the members from the Ute Tribe were at Wednesday’s ceremony. Ute chairman Melvin Baker said recognizing the importance of the land to his tribe was important and he hopes it sets the tone about preserving more Native lands.
“This was a homeland for survival. If you look at it today how beautiful it is and think hundreds of years back when our Ute people roamed these mountains in peace. There was no pressure, nothing. And they left it as it is,” Baker said after the ceremony. “I feel like today is a game-changer and we can do more in the future.
“Others can learn that we can work together, whether it’s states, tribes, governments working together to make this happen on behalf of the earth that we live on and Mother Earth that we protect. I think it will be a big help moving forward.”
The Biden administration’s Department of Interior and U.S. Department of Agriculture on Wednesday proposed a 20-year mineral withdrawal of 225,000 acres of the Thompson Divide. That would block future mining and oil and gas drilling in the area.
The withdrawal is pending the approval of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, as well as public comment.
The White House says the Thompson Divide area has not been available for oil and gas leasing for several years and that there is no planned development of the area. Preexisting natural-gas leases in the area, which represent less than 1% of the 3,000 active federal drilling leases in Colorado, wouldn’t be affected by the withdrawal.
“This has been, obviously, an incredibly long and arduous and difficult journey,” U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a Lafayette Democrat and prime sponsor of the CORE Act, told The Colorado Sun. “Virtually every administration, certainly in the modern history of the country, has utilized the Antiquities Act to protect various treasured public lands across the country. That process takes time. It’s a very complex process that requires a great deal of research and deliberation.”
Bennet, a Colorado Democrat who is also a lead sponsor of the CORE Act, also celebrated the news Wednesday.
“This designation will permanently protect Camp Hale and the Tenmile Range, the iconic site where the 10th Mountain Division trained to fight in World War II and later returned to found much of Colorado’s ski industry,” he said in a written statement.
Bennet this summer said he didn’t think he needed Biden to travel to Colorado to campaign on his behalf ahead of the November election.
U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Garfield County Republican whose 3rd Congressional District includes the Thompson Divide, opposes the CORE Act and sent a letter to Biden in recent weeks asking him not to use executive action to protect public land that would have otherwise been shielded under the bill.
Biden’s actions do not affect the Curecanti National Recreation Area and public lands in the the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado, two areas that also would get added protections under the CORE Act.
Neguse said he and Bennet will continue fighting for the passage of the CORE Act in Congress.
“I think we’ll have a global conversation with stakeholders, with Sen. Bennet, of course, about the next steps with respect to protecting the various areas within the CORE Act that were not included within the president’s announcement,” Neguse said.
Biden’s visit to Colorado is part of a three-state trip across the western U.S. After stopping Eagle County, the president heads to California, where he will hold a pair of events promoting two of his most significant legislative achievements and headline a fundraiser for the House Democrats’ campaign arm.
Finally, Biden will visit Oregon, where Democrats’ grip on the governor’s mansion in Salem is being threatened by an unaffiliated candidate who has captured double-digit support in polling, giving an opening for a Republican to win the race outright in November.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.