Cory Gardner faces questions over his wilderness protection record
Eagle County officials ‘disappointed’ with lack of wilderness in public lands package
February 28, 2019
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."
CORE Act left out
The proposed CORE Act is the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act was 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.
"He is the only Colorado senator in 50 years – from either party – to fail to support legislation that would protect public lands in Colorado."
— Mike Johnston, a challenger for Gardner's Senate seat
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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.
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.
Putting on the local press
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 theNational Association of Counties public lands steering committee, said the group is confirmed to meet with Gardner on Tuesday.
"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.
Some praise for LWCF passage
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."