Protection file

Congressional traffic jams hamper land protection in Colorado – The Durango Herald

The CORE Act hit a major milestone in early May when the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee finally passed it.

The Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, or CORE Act for short, would bring legislative protections of various forms to 400,000 acres of public lands across Colorado.

More importantly here in our backyard, the CORE Act would double the size of Mount Sneffels Wilderness by finally including the entire spectacular Sneffels Range. The bill also ensures that the beloved Ice Lake Basin would be protected from future mining or road development with the Sheep Mountain Special Management Area designation.

What makes the action on the CORE Act all the more remarkable is the snail’s pace at which Congress has taken action on legislation to be added to Colorado’s protected landscapes. A bill to protect these areas in the San Juan Mountains was first introduced in 2009 and has been stalled in Congress for 13 years.

The disappointing progress in advancing land protection in Colorado was recently highlighted in a report titled The impasse of conservation. The Center for Western Priorities report notes that the last legislation enacted to add protections to Colorado’s public lands was in 2014, with the designation of the wildly popular Hermosa Watershed Protection Act.

Alas, Congress has not acted on any additional Colorado legislation since. In fact, the report documents Colorado’s status near the bottom of the heap when it comes to protecting public lands. Perhaps surprisingly, our neighbors in Utah rank near the top of the list, with more than 2 million acres protected over the past decade via the designation of the Bears Ears National Monument and the enactment of the Emery County Public Lands Management Act for lands encompassing the San Rafael Swell, and the Labyrinth and Desolation Canyons.

By comparison, Colorado has only 134,000 acres in Hermosa and Browns Canyon National Monument near Buena Vista under our belt in the past decade. How did Utah achieve 20 times the conservation of Colorado?

Unfortunately, conservation is apparently as mired in partisan gridlock as so much else in Congress. The Senate committee’s recent vote on the CORE Act resulted in a 10-10 tie, with all Democrats in favor of the conservation bill and all Republicans opposed. And this despite overwhelming support for the CORE Act from local elected officials, businesses and even a mining company, for heaven’s sake!

The CORE Act isn’t the only one facing congressional deadlock. The Colorado Wilderness Act that would designate more than 600,000 acres of largely canyon country as wilderness under the Bureau of Land Management has been pending in Congress for more than 20 years. First introduced in 1999, the Colorado Wilderness Act would eventually convert wilderness study areas originally established more than 40 years ago into official wilderness areas.

Despite broad support and decades of public scrutiny and scrutiny, these landmark conservation bills for Colorado are stalled. Congressional inaction is at odds with public opinion as repeatedly expressed in polls year after year. Polls like the one from Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Survey document unwavering support for action on public land conservation, and repeated polls show 70% or more support for action on the CORE Act and the Colorado Wilderness Act.

The recent report The impasse of conservation offers no miracle solution. Its value simply highlights the disconnect between public opinion across Colorado favoring land conservation and congressional inaction. The stalemate is not due to lack of effort by Colorado senators and top House champions. This is unfortunately a symptom of the partisan divide in Congress and the inability of conservation to rise above it.

Mark Pearson is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance. Contact him at mark@sanjuancitizens.org.