While some conservation leaders were celebrating, turns out quite a few others were wondering why Colorado got so severely short-changed in the wilderness-protection arena with the passage this week of the Natural Resources Management Act.
Seriously, states like neighboring Utah, which lost the Outdoor Retailer Show to Colorado after its elected officials led the charge to downsize Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, wound up with a lot more wilderness acres from the bill than Colorado, which has been working on and getting stakeholder buy-in for various wilderness proposals for years.
There seems to be a difference of opinion on just how hard Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner worked to get any of the various wilderness proposals into the larger bill, but even his critics agree he deserves credit for pushing so hard to get the lapsed Land and Water Conservation Fund reauthorized. Now they want him to work just as hard to fully fund that critical program.
And unless he works equally hard to get some sort of wilderness bill passed in what could be his last couple of years in office, the Republican who’s up for re-election in 2020 is going have to answer some very tough questions from a conservation community that notes he’s the only Colorado senator since the Wilderness Act first passed in 1964 who has never sponsored a wilderness-protection measure (see list below compiled by Conservation Colorado).
Then check out two stories produced by RealVail.com and published first in the Vail Daily on the topic of the Natural Resources Management Act, which still needs the signature of mercurial President Donald Trump.
Wilderness legislation sponsored by Colorado’s United States senators, 1964 – present
Senator Gordon Allott (R) 1955-1973
Senator Peter Dominick (R) 1963 – 1975
Senator Floyd Haskell (D) 1973 – 1979
Senator Gary Hart (D) 1975 – 1987
Senator William Armstrong (R) 1979 – 1991
Senator Tim Wirth (D) 1987 – 1993
Senator Hank Brown (R) 1991 – 1997
Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D) then (R) 1993 – 2005
Senator Wayne Allard (R) 1997 – 2009
Senator Ken Salazar (D) 2005 – 2009
Senator Mark Udall (D) 2009 – 2015
Senator Michael Bennet (D) 2009 – present
Senator Cory Gardner (R) 2015 – present
A version of this story first appeared in the Vail Daily on Feb. 28:
Gardner questioned on wilderness protection record
Local elected officials and conservation advocates on Thursday expressed disappointment that there wasn’t more wilderness protection for public lands in Colorado contained in the Natural Resources Management Act that passed out of the U.S. House late Tuesday.
There was near universal relief that the bill permanently reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses offshore drilling fees to pay for open space, parks and recreation facilities around the nation – including here in Eagle County — but a fair amount of displeasure with the lack of Colorado wilderness protection.
“It’s really disappointing that the CORE Act wasn’t included in that big public lands bill,” Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry said on her way to advocate for the bill with the editorial board of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel newspaper. “There were about a hundred different small lands issues, including Bolts Lake in Minturn, so we’re pleased about that.”
The proposed CORE Act is the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act introduced in late January by Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet and Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse. It combines the Continental Divide Wilderness, Recreation and Camp Hale Legacy Act with the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act and other proposals to preserve nearly 400,000 acres of federal land in Colorado.
Some question why Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, who fought hard for the LWCF reauthorization, has not signed onto the CORE Act and didn’t push harder for inclusion of existing wilderness bills in the Natural Resources Management Act, which passed out of the Senate in mid-February and still must be signed into law by President Donald Trump.
“With the CORE Act, it would have been helpful if Sen. Gardner had signed his name onto that bill, and that probably would have helped it become part of this package,” said Democratic state Rep. Dylan Roberts of Eagle. “I don’t know what his hesitancy could be with that.”
Gardner press secretary Jerrod Dobkin referred to a Gardner statement to the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel in mid-February: “Sen. Gardner has previously stated, ‘I support moving the bill [the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act] forward. There’s some issues that I hope can be resolved. I hope that this bill can pass and receive support from our colleagues.’
“Sen. Gardner will continue working with his colleagues and stakeholders across Colorado to continue to protect Colorado’s public lands,” Dobkin added, although he did not directly address the CORE Act or its predecessor, the Continental Divide Wilderness, Recreation and Camp Hale Legacy Act, which proposes a first-of-its-kind National Historical Landscape at Camp Hale.
Chandler-Henry on Friday is joining other county officials traveling to Washington, D.C. for a National Association of Counties legislative conference on public lands. Chandler-Henry, who serves on the NACo public lands steering committee, said the group hopes to meet with Gardner on Monday.
“The CORE Act that Bennet and Neguse have introduced, we’re hoping that [Republican U.S. Rep. Scott] Tipton and especially Gardner get on board with that, because it’s been crafted really painstakingly by so many of the stakeholder groups,” Chandler-Henry said, referring to elected officials, utilities, businesses and outdoor recreation groups that have spent years working on the bill. “Somebody called it a stakeholder-rich environment.”
Some Colorado conservation groups discount the notion that the CORE Act was introduced too late to be included in the Natural Resources Management Act, which was negotiated late in 2018.
“It’s true that the CORE Act was just recently introduced, but the fact is that back in late 2018, Sen. Gardner, as a member of the [Senate] Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was in a position to negotiate what was in or out of the bill,” said Conservation Colorado Wilderness and Public Lands Advocate Scott Braden.
“I’m grateful that [Gardner] prioritized the Land and Water Conservation Fund reauthorization, but I think we really missed an opportunity to include the San Juan Mountains bill or the Continental Divide bill, which were both available to him,” Braden added. Versions of both bills have been kicking around Congress for the better part of a decade.
Other conservation groups did widely praise Gardner’s leadership on the LWCF, and Dobkin said the senator will now work hard to make sure it’s fully funded.
“Sen. Gardner has long supported fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” Dobkin said. “Now that he was able to successfully permanently reauthorize the program, he will turn his attention and work with his colleagues to ensure the program is fully funded.”
Braden blames Republicans for letting the fund lapse in September, and he estimates it cost the program $2 billion. Chandler-Henry also wants to see it fully funded.
“The reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, that is big, although it still has to be funded every year and is subject to appropriations,” Chandler-Henry said. “It’s typically funded, if it is, at about 50 percent of what is authorized. There’s $900 million authorized, and it’s funded at about $450 million.”
Vail native Mike Johnston, a former state senator seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Gardner in 2020, said the Republican is the only Colorado senator since the Wilderness Act passed in 1964 who has not sponsored any wilderness legislation.
“He is the only Colorado senator in 50 years – from either party – to fail to support legislation that would protect public lands in Colorado,” Johnston said. “That’s not leadership. In the Senate, I won’t duck this issue. I’ll work with Sen. Bennet to permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund and pass Bennet’s CORE Act to protect Colorado’s wild places.”
Dobkin did not address Gardner’s record on wilderness legislation.
A version of this story first appeared in the Vail Daily on Feb. 27:
Local conservation leaders celebrate public lands win, push for cleaner air
Local conservationists celebrated a big federal win late Tuesday on public lands, while simultaneously continuing to push hard at the state level for tougher air-quality regulations on Colorado’s Western Slope.
The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the Natural Resources Management Act by a 363-62 margin on Tuesday, including the renewal of the Land and Water Conservation Fund that has pumped more than $268 million into Colorado parks, playgrounds, trails and more.
Six of Colorado’s seven U.S. Representatives voted in favor of the bill, which has helped to pay for several local projects in Eagle County. The only no vote was from Colorado Republican Rep. Ken Buck in northeastern Colorado, while both Democrat Joe Neguse and Republican Scott Tipton, whose districts both include parts of Eagle County, voted in favor of the bill.
Both of the state’s U.S. Senators – Democrat Michael Bennet and Republican Cory Gardner — pushed hard for the package of legislation, especially its renewal of the LWCF, which had been stalled for months in the midst of partisan squabbling over public lands. The LWCF for many decades has used offshore drilling fees, not taxpayer money, to fund conservation projects.
“This kind of restores our confidence in our federal government,” said Vail Town Council member and Walking Mountains Science Center founder Kim Langmaid. “I was surprised and it was great to see how many local projects truly benefit from [the LWCF]. We’re so dependent on our public lands and natural resources that it’s really important this passed and will continue to support local efforts.”
In Colorado, the LWCF has helped preserve places like the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, Great Sand Dunes National Park and has built boat launches on the Colorado River. The broader bill protects a wide variety of public lands that contain high-value fish and wildlife habitat, including extending authorization of the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Implementation Program.
“Passing this package of bills is a huge win for sportsmen and women,” said Scott Willoughby, Eagle-based Colorado field coordinator for Trout Unlimited. “Anglers and hunters know first-hand what it means to be connected to a place and to the fish and wildlife that make a place special.”
Willoughby added that TU is still working with Congress to secure dedicated funding, and the Natural Resources Management Act (SB 47) still needs the signature of President Donald Trump.
At the state level, local elected officials and conservation advocates also weighed in on efforts to strengthen air-quality regulations on the Western Slope and make them just as tough as existing rules for oil and gas drilling on the Front Range.
Langmaid joined Eagle County Commissioners Jeanne McQueeney and Kathy Chandler-Henry — as well as 24 other county and municipal officials from 14 Western Slope jurisdictions — in sending a letter to the Statewide Hydrocarbons Emissions Reduction (SHER) Task Force urging stringent protections against methane and ozone emissions from oil and gas drilling.
At present, Colorado’s brown cloud is largely viewed as a Front Range, or at least Denver metro area, problem. But Garfield County, the second most drilled in the state behind only Weld County on the Front Range, is just to the west of Eagle County along Interstate 70, and drilling in southwestern Colorado near Durango has contributed to a massive methane hot spot.
On Wednesday, the SHER task force met with the state’s Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) on whether Colorado rules to cut methane and ozone pollution – first passed in 2014 — should be adopted as mandatory standards applying to all oil and gas operations around the state.
Asked why a ski town like Vail or a county like Eagle, where there’s no oil and gas drilling, should be concerned about a stronger statewide air-quality standard, Langmaid said all of Colorado is interconnected and residents must breathe the same air.
“Although Vail may not have natural gas drilling in its backyard, we are in integral part of the western Colorado community,” Langmaid said. “The health of Colorado and all of its people is a significant concern, and Vail should use its leadership position to take a stand on this issue. The people who contribute to the success of our ski resort industry live across that state.”
Langmaid also views methane emissions, which are substantially more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, as a big contributor to climate change and therefore a threat to the state’s ski industry.
“In addition to the public health concerns, we also realize that methane emissions and use of natural gas contribute to global climate change, and that’s where mountain resort communities like Vail do take an active position and have set greenhouse gas emission goals,” added Langmaid. “We all need to work together to protect western Colorado and our winter tourism-based economies from the negative impacts of climate change.”