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Editor’s note: A version of this story first appeared in the Vail Daily:
Democrats, conservation groups and some local elected officials on Wednesday were quick to pounce on a draft of a public lands bill by U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton that largely ignores the CORE Act and omits key elements of that wilderness bill, including Camp Hale and Thompson Divide.
A spokesman for the Cortez Republican who represents the western two-thirds of Eagle County and most of Colorado’s Western Slope said the draft is merely a starting point – one that’s focused solely on the sprawling 3rd Congressional District.
“This bill is a draft proposal with room for critiquing and finetuning,” Tipton spokesman Matthew Atwood said. “Congressman Tipton looks forward to continue his years-long conversations he has held with a variety of stakeholders and looks forward to including their input as the bill moves forward in the legislative process. This proposal is a 3rd Congressional District-specific bill and is meant to balance the needs and interests of the public lands within that boundary.”
Tipton’s Colorado Recreation Enhancement and Conservation Act (Colorado REC Act) would designate more than 70,000 acres of new wilderness while releasing around 39,000 acres from Wilderness Study Areas – lands with wilderness characteristics being studied for preservation.
The Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act, introduced by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse earlier this year, passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee by a 23-15 vote late last month. The bill resulted from more than a decade of deliberations dating back to the controversial Hidden Gems proposal and has been pared down to its current version that includes more than 400,000 acres of public lands.
The CORE Act includes the first ever National Historic Landscape for Camp Hale that combines education with preservation of terrain for outdoor recreation and ecological conservation. The CORE Act is headed for a possible full House floor vote in the fall, while Tipton hopes to introduce his bill then – possibly as a companion to a Senate version from Sen. Cory Gardner.
A spokeswoman for Colorado Republican Gardner, who has yet to sponsor a significant wilderness bill during his time in office, did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. Gardner’s office has previously told the Vail Daily he won’t block the CORE Act but has some issues with the House version of the bill.
“Well, the upside is that now Tipton and Gardner are engaged,” Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry said. “The disappointment is that the Thompson Divide and Continental Divide portions of the CORE Act are missing. Our hope is that they will engage with local elected officials and local stakeholder groups for input. The CORE Act was extensively vetted over the last decade. I’m not sure anyone has seen the Tipton version in advance of this announcement. Room for collaboration? I hope.”
Bennet, a Democrat whose seeking his party’s nomination to run for president, welcomed Tipton coming to the table with any proposal.
“The CORE Act is the result of Coloradans working together to hammer out compromises and develop proposals that have widespread local support, including in places such as the Thompson Divide,” Bennet spokeswoman Courtney Gidner said. “Our focus is on advancing each of the four components of the CORE Act together. Any contribution that leads us to accomplish these goals is welcome, and we hope Congressman Tipton will join this effort.”
The Continental Divide Trail Coalition points out that about 20 miles of the famed trail system designated for construction and preservation by Congress runs through the CORE Act’s proposed Camp Hale National Historic Landscape and Tenmile Recreation Management Area.
“It is disappointing to see the special landscapes of the Continental Divide — especially the historical treasure that is Camp Hale — ignored in any proposed legislation that purports to protect Colorado’s public lands,” said Teresa Martinez, executive director of the Continental Divide Trail Coalition. “Veterans, county commissioners, and local business owners alike across Eagle and Summit Counties have spent years working to see these areas protected.”
Vail Resorts is one of many businesses backing the CORE Act. The company’s namesake ski resort is in House sponsor Neguse’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes the eastern third of Eagle County, Summit County and Boulder and Fort Collins along the Front Range. Neguse could not be reached via a spokeswoman for comment on Wednesday.
But even elected officials near Aspen in Tipton’s CD3 lamented Tipton’s omission of Camp Hale between Vail and Leadville – the training ground of the famed 10th Mountain Division of ski troopers who fought in World War II and returned to found much of the state’s ski industry.
“A generation of Colorado veterans trained at Camp Hale, including my father,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman. “The provisions in the CORE Act to protect this heritage and landscape of national importance are something that all members of Colorado’s congressional delegation should be able to support. I urge both Senator Gardner and Congressman Tipton to co-sponsor the CORE Act …”
Of perhaps more concern in Pitkin and Garfield counties is the exclusion by Tipton of the Thompson Divide – an area long in the crosshairs of oil and gas drilling interests. Tipton drew fire in 2016 for floating a bill containing language written by a Texas energy company eager to drill in the Thompson Divide – an area that is in his 3rd Congressional District.
“Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District is home to some of the most cherished public lands in the country, and we must ensure responsible management and protection of them,” Tipton said in Wednesday’s press release. “The Colorado REC Act is intended to balance the unique needs and desires of various stakeholders that I have met with in recent years, and I hope to be able to build broad consensus around this bill as it moves through the legislative process.”
A group of three mechanized, off-road vehicle groups – the Colorado Snowmobile Association, the Trails Preservation Alliance and the Colorado Off Highway Vehicle Coalition — issued a statement in favor of Tipton’s draft bill on Wednesday: “The organizations would like to thank Congressman Tipton’s office for developing the REC Act that protects and preserves all recreational interests,” the statement reads. “There are many benefits for the multiple use recreational community to support, such as wider 150-foot trail corridors for all trails near new management area boundaries, which ensures the routes are available and maintainable both now and into the future.”