An ambitious effort to preserve mountain wilderness and historic landscapes in Colorado will launch Monday with the introduction of a bill in Congress that aims to protect 400,000 acres of public lands in the state.
It would pay special homage to Camp Hale, home to the historic 10th Mountain Division.
The bill — dubbed the Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy Act — is spearheaded by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, both Democrats.
“Public lands are really who we are in Colorado,” Neguse, who was recently elected to represent the 2nd Congressional District, told reporters on a conference call Friday. “We will be pushing hard in the 116th Congress to get this bill across the finish line.”
The bill, which goes by the shorthand CORE, is combination of four pieces of legislation that have been introduced over the past decade to preserve land along the Continental Divide in the White River National Forest, designate iconic peaks in the San Juan Mountains as wilderness, withdraw 200,000 acres from oil and gas leases on the Thompson Divide near Carbondale, and fix permanent boundaries around Curecanti National Recreation Area near Gunnison.
Bennet said the last time so much acreage was set aside for protection in Colorado was in 1993, when the Colorado Wilderness Act was passed by Congress.
“This covers a lot of places in our treasured state of Colorado,” Bennet said Friday of the proposal.
One notable element of the bill would be the creation of the first-ever National Historic Landscape to preserve nearly 29,000 acres surrounding Camp Hale, which is located 17 miles north of Leadville. The high-altitude camp is where the Army’s 10th Mountain Division trained for combat in World War II.
Garett Reppenhagen, director of the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Vet Voice Foundation, who served as an Army sniper in Iraq, said many Colorado veterans view undisturbed wilderness as a therapeutic antidote to the rigors of the battle field.
“The serenity of the natural world helped to heal my war trauma,” Reppenhagen said.
The CORE Act dives into the nettlesome conflict between energy development and environmental preservation in Colorado by calling for the permanent withdrawal of approximately 200,000 acres in the Thompson Divide from oil and gas development while still preserving leaseholders’ and landowners’ private property rights.
Last year, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit challenging the cancellation of oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide, which lies between Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. The Bureau of Land Management had agreed to pay energy company SG Interests $1.5 million for 18 leases it cancelled in 2016 at the request of a coalition of governments, environmentalists, ranchers and others.
The bill would also create a program to lease excess methane from coal mines along the Thompson Divide.
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The legacy of Camp Hale and the 10th Mountain Division
Another Colorado Democrat, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, filed legislation in the last session of Congress to preserve 740,000 acres and plans to reintroduce that bill as part of her new role as a member of the House Natural Resources Committee.
According to a report issued by the state in October, the value of Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy grew to $62.5 billion in 2017, almost double what it was just five years ago. The industry now supports about 511,000 jobs across the state, according to the report from Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
In southwest Colorado, the CORE Act would protect nearly 61,000 acres of the San Juan range and would designate a number of the area’s highest peaks, including fourteeners Mount Sneffels and Wilson Peak, as wilderness. It also would designate as wilderness nearly 32,000 acres near Telluride, Norwood, Ouray and Ridgway.
A number of environmental groups lauded the introduction of the CORE Act Friday, with The Wilderness Society’s state director, Jim Ramey, saying the law “would protect some of the best that Colorado’s public lands have to offer.”
Asked how likely it would be for President Donald Trump to sign the CORE Act into law if it made it through both chambers of Congress, Bennet said he had no definitive answer. But he said the legislation was too important to not push forward.
“What we know about President Trump is that he’s completely unpredictable, and in the meantime we need to do our work,” Bennet said.