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Gardner green washing on GAOA? Many conservation groups don’t care, but call out dismal record

July 23, 2020, 11:43 am
camp hale from EcoFlight
Camp Hale from an EcoFlight flyover on Aug. 9, 2016 (Kristin Kenney Williams photo).

Is U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner engaged in an epic act of green washing or is his pushing through of the Great American Outdoors Act on Wednesday a signature environmental accomplishment that should be celebrated from the Four Corners to the Pawnee National Grassland?

Both things can be true, right, and the collective opinion of Colorado conservation groups seems to be, who cares? Whatever it took – even if it was Gardner’s sinking prospects of holding onto his Senate seat as he takes on former Gov. John Hickenlooper – all that matters is the Land and Water Conservation Fund will soon be signed by one of the nation’s least environmental-minded presidents in recent memory. And it wouldn’t have happened without Gardner twisting arms.

As the Colorado Sun pointed out on Thursday, the LWCF has paid for numerous public lands projects in Colorado over the years, and the Great American Outdoors Act does these two key things:

“It mandates that the Land and Water Conservation Fund receive all of the money it was allotted — $900 million annually — from royalties collected on offshore oil and gas drilling. Congress, in the decades since the program was created, has repeatedly diverted the fund’s money. It allocated $9.5 billion over five years to address the National Park Service’s maintenance backlog.”

President Donald Trump, whose administration has rapaciously rolled back protections for public lands, withdrawn from key international treaties such as the Paris Climate Accord, undercut regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions on public lands, and welcomed fossil fuel industry insiders into their ranks at alarming rates, clearly was thinking of Gardner’s tenuous reelection when he sent out this tweet on Wednesday:

“We MUST protect our National Parks for our children and grandchildren. I am calling on the House to pass the GREAT AMERICAN OUTDOORS ACT today. Thanks @SenCoryGardner and @SteveDaines for all your work on this HISTORIC BILL!” Trump tweeted Wednesday.

Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines is another Republican in a tough race with a popular governor, Democrat Steve Bullock, as the Dems try to wrestle back control of the upper chamber of Congress on Nov. 3. The House did pass the GAOA by a vote of 310-107.

There’s also the nagging question of whether fees on offshore gas drilling are a sustainable source of funding for public lands projects when climate change would seem to dictate that fossil fuels need to be rapidly phased out anyway.

Still, the obvious short-term upside for conservationists and public lands fans aside, does the green feather in Gardner’s cap come a little too late in a race that polls have him trailing by double digits, or does it offset his fairly abysmal record on environmental issues in the House and Senate since 2011?

Depends on who you ask, of course, but Gardner clearly had a lot of ground to make up with conservation-minded Coloradans before shepherding through the GAOA. Most notably, locally, he has refused to support Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse in their bid to pass the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act – a major wilderness protection bill.

The CORE Act has been pared down and shaped over the last decade in a painstakingly collaborative process that brought together scores of local stakeholders, often with very divergent interests, to craft a wilderness bill with some very innovative protections. One of those would be a first-ever National Historic Landscape designation for nearby Camp Hale.

The bill passed the House nine months ago but has yet to see the light of day in Mitch McConnell’s grim-reaper Senate, and now it’s been passed yet again in the House as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. Gardner tells the Sun that’s unlikely to happen in the Senate, and it’s worth noting that Gardner is only the second U.S. Senator from Colorado since 1964 who has failed to pass any significant wilderness protection legislation.

When I brought that up with a Gardner spokeswoman – and the rest of the senator’s less than stellar record on environmental issues in Congress over the last decade – she became quite indignant back in March. She could not understand why I wouldn’t simply write about LWCF funding and Gardner’s role in securing the GAOA support of Trump.

Maybe I would have been more sympathetic had Gardner been more available over the last six years. I’ve yet to interview him even once, whereas I’ve spoken to his Democratic counterpart, Bennet, numerous times. Gardner just dodged constituents and press yet again near Crested Butte, grabbing a photo opp and heading to a funder’s house instead.

Gardner cites as his reason for failing to back the CORE Act the opposition of U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, whose district is less impacted than Neguse’s, and who is now on the bench after being run off in a primary by far-right QAnon backer Lauren Boebert.

Boebert’s Democratic opponent, former Eagle and Routt County state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, just landed an endorsement from the League of Conservation Voters. I’ll make one not-so-bold prediction right now: no matter how they do in the rest of the state, Boebert and Gardner will not win in conservation-minded Eagle County on Nov. 3.

Cory Gardner and Lauren Boebert.

Tipton, who represented the western two-thirds of Eagle County the last 10 years, was even less available to the press than Gardner over the years and look where that got him. Boebert, whose husband works in natural gas drilling, is even more supportive of fossil fuels and less supportive of public lands preservation than Gardner and Tipton.

Here’s a press release from the CORE Coalition on the passage of the CORE Act as an amendment to the NDAA:

Bill to Honor World War II Veterans Passes House with National Defense Authorization Act

GOLDEN, CO  (July 21, 2020) — Veterans, sportsmen, small business owners, and conservation and recreation groups across Colorado welcomed a vote in Congress today that helped move important public lands legislation forward. The Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act (CORE Act) passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and would safeguard more than 400,000 acres in the state, including designating Camp Hale, where World War II 10th Mountain Division soldiers trained, as the nation’s first National Historic Landscape.  

The bipartisan support for the CORE Act amendment included Colorado Representatives Joe Neguse, Diana DeGette, Ed Perlmutter, and Jason Crow.  

 The CORE Act was introduced by Rep. Joe Neguse and Sen. Michael Bennet in January 2019 and was passed by the House with bipartisan support last fall. Given the few legislative days left in this Congress, the NDAA offers an opportunity to advance the bill. While Senator Cory Gardner has yet to take a position on the bill, he said this month, “We’re trying to figure out a way forward for it. I think there is certainly a way that it can pass.” 

The NDAA offers such a way, as the House and Senate reconcile their versions of the bill; the last major public lands bill for Colorado was passed in the 2015 NDAA to protect the Hermosa Creek wilderness and watershed. 

It is more clear than ever how important Colorado’s public lands and waters are to residents during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people have turned to nature for their physical, emotional, and mental health. Coloradans have always known that outdoor recreation and rural communities are the backbone of the state’s economy, and the pandemic has made that even clearer. The NDAA passage recognizes and honors the connection people have to the natural world during difficult times. 

The following are quotes from stakeholders who have been working for decades to protect for future generations 400,000 acres in the San Juans, Thompson Divide, Continental Divide, Curecanti, and the historic WWII training grounds at Camp Hale: 

“My parents met at Camp Hale in 1942 and our family has been involved in outdoor recreation, outfitting and ranching ever since. The CORE Act combines important protections for the wild places that Americans yearn for, while also paying tribute to the courageous 10th Mountain Ski Troopers, like my father, who established mountain warfare and forged today’s modern ski industry. Passing the CORE Act as part of the NDAA provides a legacy for future generations of protected lands and honors the pioneering spirit of America.”
– Linda Gundell, Eagle teacher, outfitter, rancher, daughter of Herbert C. Gundell, 87th Infantry, 10th Mountain Division

“Our public lands, including Camp Hale and the surrounding areas, define our country, and it is what I fought to defend. Adding the CORE Act to the National Defense Authorization Act is fitting for it will honor generations of veterans, from World War II to Operation Enduring Freedom. I want to thank Congressman Neguse for his leadership in preserving this important area, and I hope the CORE Act becomes the law of the land.”– Bradley Noone, 10th Mountain Division Veteran

“The Thompson Divide Coalition has been working for over a decade to protect the long term viability of grazing, hunting, and recreation that have supported and been enjoyed by many generations of my family and other families on the public lands of the Thompson Divide. The watersheds, wildlife, and healthy biodiversity of this keystone parcel of mid-elevation productive habitat on public lands is invaluable to the ranchers and all who base their livelihoods on resources from this outstanding landscape. We are grateful to Rep. Neguse for supporting the CORE Act amendment in the NDAA bill, which includes the Thompson Divide area. We know Sen. Bennet knows and understands the value of the Thompson Divide and all the lands of the CORE Act and we hope Sen. Gardner will also show his support of the public lands in his state that need protection by supporting the CORE Act amendment to the NDAA bill.”
– Judy Fox-Perry, rancher Thompson Divide Coalition

“Long-term protection for areas in the San Juan Mountains included in CORE Act has been strongly supported by our communities for over a decade now because we rely on these places for our own recreational opportunities, and they drive our local economy. People come here from all over the world to experience the beauty and wildness of our public lands. The adventures they have here shape their lives and they keep coming back, again and again. We value the incredible landscapes and ecosystems included in the CORE Act, and we ask our elected officials to think about our future and move the CORE Act forward.” 
– Erik Dalton, owner of Montrose Surf and Kayak and Jagged Edge Mountain Gear

“As small business owners, hunters, and residents of Colorado’s Western Slope we are fortunate enough to live amongst the public lands that make Colorado so special. Protecting these lands is not only important for our wildlife, outdoor recreation economy, and future generations, but passing the CORE Act is a simple and effective way to ensure long term protections for a large swath of Colorado. From the first National Historic Landscape at Camp Hale to fully protecting Mt. Sneffels the CORE Act is an amazing opportunity to protect landscapes and our way of life. We are thankful that people like Representative Neguse and Senator Bennet have made it their goal to fight for public lands and Colorado, we look forward to seeing the CORE Act passed after all of their hard work.”
– Kevin Timm, President of Seek Outside

“Coloradans have long recognized Blue Mesa Reservoir and Curecanti National Recreation Area as an outdoor mecca that generates over $40,000,000 of revenue annually for the counties of Gunnison, Montrose, and Delta.  Seeing Congress pass legislation that would officially authorize Curecanti National Recreation Area as a unit of the national park system would be one of many extraordinary gifts that the CORE Act would deliver to the citizens of Colorado.”
Bruce Noble, retired National Park Service, former superintendent for Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Curecanti National Recreation Area

“Eagle County is pleased that the CORE Act passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. Our public lands define the American spirit and continue to be a place where people go to gain strength and resiliency.  Our reliance on public lands is especially apparent in this time of challenges from COVID-19.  The CORE Act will designate Camp Hale as National Historic Landscape and preserve important wildlife habitat prized by local hunters and anglers. We are hopeful that the CORE Act passes the U.S. Senate so current and future generations can always have a place to go for reflection, growth, and adventure.”
– Kathy Chandler-Henry, Commissioner, Eagle County    

“We have worked on the designations of the CORE Act for over a decade. The designations are widely supported by citizens and stakeholders across Colorado and has already passed the House. It is long past time that the Senate consider the CORE Act, yet it hasn’t even received a hearing in Senator Gardner’s committee. Once again we ask that Senator Gardner listen to the majority of his constituents and allow the CORE Act to move forward.”
– Hilary Cooper, San Miguel County Commissioner

“We are excited to see the CORe Act be included as part of the NDAA and move forward to protect critical landscapes across the state of Colorado.  The portion of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail included in the legislation are some of the more unique settings across not just the CDNST -but any national scenic trail across the United States.  There are few places in our country of more national significance than Camp Hale and the Continental Divide, itself. We hope to see this important legislation move forward and wish to thank Congressman Neguse and Senator Bennet for their leadership in creating a long lasting legacy for all of us.”
– Teresa Ana Martinez, Executive Director, Continental Divide Trail Coalition.

And here’s a press release from Neguse on the passage of the GAOA:

Congressman Neguse Helps Secure Passage of the Great American Outdoors Act Out of the House

Washington D.C. —Today, Congressman Joe Neguse helped secure passage of the Great American Outdoors Act out of the U.S. House of Representatives. The legislation would fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million and invest $19 million in the public lands maintenance backlog. In May, Congressman Neguse led a group of 118 Members of the House – including 7 Republicans – in sending a letter to House and Senate leadership requesting full and permanent funding for LWCF and parks maintenance funding in future COVID-19 stimulus legislation. In November 2019, Congressman Neguse led a letter signed by over 60 of his colleagues requesting increased funding for LWCF in the FY2020 appropriations process. 

View the Congressman’s remarks on the House floor here.

“I am thrilled to ensure passage of the Great American Outdoors Act out of the U.S. House of Representatives today. This important legislation will fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund—a program responsible for many of our nation’s most coveted public lands and investments in over 41,000 parks —and address our public lands maintenance backlog. I am incredibly grateful to our county commissioners, conservation groups, anglers and outdoor recreation businesses who have contributed time, dedication and commitment to this collaborative effort for many years,” said Congressman Joe Neguse. “While this legislation is crucial, we can’t stop here. We must take up the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act — which has now passed the House on a bipartisan basis twice — to provide permanent protection for 400,000 acres of Colorado’s public lands. The Senate’s cooperation to work with our communities on public lands legislation can and should extend to the locally-crafted CORE Act, it’s time we see a hearing and vote in the Senate on this bill. Preserving our public lands, investing in our outdoor recreation economy and ensuring future generations can continue enjoying Colorado’s beautiful outdoors is an ongoing task, and we must continue to work to ensure the voices of our local communities are heard and our environment and lands are protected.”

“We are beyond grateful to Rep. Neguse for getting The Great American Outdoors Act over the finish line after years of work and for his consistent leadership protecting our public lands. He has been a conservation champion for Coloradans and our communities across the state are better off because of his service.” Anna Peterson, Executive Director of The Mountain Pact, an organization that works with local elected officials in the west and with over 30 mountain communities across Colorado.

“Today’s bipartisan House passage of the ‘Great American Outdoors Act’ gets us to the very brink of fully and permanently funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund so it can serve its full potential for our country and communities,” said Jamie Williams, President of The Wilderness Society. “After years of leadership and support from long-term and recent champions in both chambers of Congress, the ‘Great American Outdoors Act’ is now heading to the President’s desk with a tidal wave of momentum. Once signed, this historic bill will finally keep the 55-year-old promise of the Land and Water Conservation Fund to strengthen our communities through investment in our parks and public lands.”

“Thank you Congressman Neguse and members of our federal delegation who worked for years to fully fund and permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The Great American Outdoors Act will play a critical role in Colorado’s path to economic recovery by protecting our public lands, open spaces, and parks now and for decades to come. The president should sign this bill as soon as possible,” said Jessica Goad, Deputy Director at Conservation Colorado. “Since it was created in 1965, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has enjoyed some of the most bipartisan support we have ever seen for conservation legislation. With this commonsense legislation so close to the finish line, it is critical that Congress and our Congressional delegation turn their attention to other legislation that will protect Colorado’s environment and spur our country’s economic recovery. Their work is not done, and we hope they will act in this legislative session to pass bold climate policies, protect the budget and enforcement powers of the Environmental Protection Agency, ensure public lands protections through legislation like the CORE Act, and stand up against Trump administration nominees like William Perry Pendley who are attacking the public lands we love.”

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is the editor and co-founder of RealVail.com and has had his awarding-winning work (see About Us) published in more than 75 newspapers and magazines around the world, including 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), the Anchorage Daily Press (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Boulder Daily Camera, the Casper Star Tribune (Wyoming), the Chicago Tribune, Colorado Central Magazine, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), Colorado Newsline, Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Colorado Times Recorder, the Cortez Journal, the Craig Daily Press, the Curry Coastal Pilot (Oregon), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Del Norte Triplicate (California), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Gazette, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, Explore Big Sky (Mont.), the Fort Morgan Times (Colorado), the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), the Kingman Daily Miner (Arizona), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the Las Vegas Sun, the Leadville Herald-Democrat, the London Daily Mirror, the Moab Times Independent (Utah), the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), the Montrose Daily Press, The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, the Rio Blanco Herald Times (Colorado), Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), the Salt Lake Tribune, SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Sky-Hi News, the Steamboat Pilot & Today, the Sterling Journal Advocate (Colorado), the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Health Magazine, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail, Westword (Denver), Writers on the Range and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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