Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy (CORE) Act gets day in Congress, supporters and opponents testify about act’s merits
The Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy Act, a sweeping public lands bill focused on Colorado with significant provisions for Summit County, had its first hearing in Congress on Tuesday with the House Natural Resources Committee.
The bill, which combines four previously introduced public lands bills protecting 400,000 Colorado acres from development, is being pushed strongly by its primary sponsors, Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Boulder) in the House of Representatives and Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, in the Senate.
Of the four original bills, the most significant for Summit is the Continental Divide Recreation, Wilderness and Camp Hale Legacy Act. That bill would permanently protect 98,000 acres of the White River National Forest in Summit and Eagle counties, as well as designate Camp Hale, the historic birthplace of the 10th Mountain Division located near Leadville, and its surrounding vistas as the nation’s first National Historic Landscape.
Neguse, who represents Summit and Eagle counties in Congress, told the Summit Daily that he made the CORE act a priority based on promises he made to constituents on the campaign trail, as well as to continue the legacy of his House predecessor, Gov. Jared Polis.
“It’s clear conversing with folks in Summit County, this is a bill they deeply support,” Neguse said. “It has been endorsed by every county commissioner, every mayor in Summit and a multitude of outdoor organizations.”
Former Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs, who now serves in Gov. Polis’ cabinet as the head of the state’s department of natural resources, was invited by Neguse to testify to the committee in favor of the CORE act.
In his testimony, Gibbs emphasized that the CORE Act and its subsidiary bills were painstakingly negotiated with many different Colorado stakeholders over the past decade.
“I felt like there was a really great balance at bringing many different stakeholders — the firefighting community, the towns, the ski resorts, mountain biking and recreation user groups — to nonstop stakeholder meetings to figure out what is appropriate (in regard to wilderness boundary lines),” Gibbs testified to the committee.
However, some aspects of the bill are facing opposition, particularly from oil and gas interests and foresters, who believe it goes too far to limit economic development and forest management.
Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Cortez), who represents a portion of Eagle County and the Western Slope, is not on the House Natural Resources Committee, but was invited by the chair to preside over the hearing and question witnesses as one of the CORE Act’s bundled bills — the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act — affected his district and constituents.
While acknowledging that he had heard constituents and concerned groups voice a lot of support for the CORE Act, Tipton was concerned that the voices of some of his constituents — such as Garfield County’s commissioners, who oppose the withdrawal of oil and gas leasing brought about by wilderness designation — were not being heard.
“I think it is important to note that we do have differing opinions that are in my district, that may not have had their voices heard in the development of some of this legislation,” Tipton said.
Tipton rattled off a number of letters from groups that opposed the act due to the limits it posed on certain recreational and work activities, such as motorized vehicle use. Among the opponents to the CORE Act are the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition, the Colorado Snowmobile Association and the Trail Preservation Alliance.
David French, acting deputy chief of the National Forest System, also testified to the committee that the U.S. Forest Service, while approving of a majority of the proposed protections, objected to certain portions of wilderness designation, including significant wilderness designations in Summit.
French testified that certain wilderness designations ran afoul of a 2002 forest management plan intended to prevent wildfire and make use of timber resources, and that wilderness designation would prevent motorized vehicle and machinery use necessary for forest management.
When asked about French’s opposition to certain portions of the bill, Neguse downplayed the objections. Neguse said that the forest management plan French mentioned was out of date, having not been updated within 15 years as mandated by law, and did not reflect current conditions and forest management needs. Neguse also said that the concerns did not reflect those of the community who actually live in the areas affected by the legislation.
“The forest plan and wilderness designations we develop here in Washington should reflect the views of the people who live in these communities and the people we represent,” Neguse said. “In this case, I believe the CORE Act does that.”
Gibbs, a certified wildland firefighter, countered French’s opposition in his own testimony. Gibbs told the committee that the CORE Act provided the necessary flexibility in language to allow for forest management, ensuring public safety would not be threatened by wildfire. Gibbs once again brought up the exhaustive attempts to include stakeholders in the process as proof that the community supported the plan.
“Half of this room is full of Coloradans who would say the exact same thing, that (the CORE Act) was really collaboration-based,” Gibbs said.
On a follow-up question, Neguse asked Gibbs directly if he felt the CORE Act would put Colorado communities at risk of wildfire.
“No, I don’t,” Gibbs answered. “I feel the language (of the act) gives flexibility where it’s most needed.”
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