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The gap in Sen. Gardner’s environmental record

Greg Nash

While Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) deserves credit for supporting permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), he remains the only Colorado senator not to have sponsored a Colorado wilderness bill since the Wilderness Act’s passage in 1964. With his vote to permanently renew LWCF — America’s most important program to conserve irreplaceable lands and improve outdoor recreation opportunities throughout the nation — he also supported mineral withdrawals, new wilderness areas and public land protections across the United States, but none of that legislation contained similarly substantial protections for lands in his home state. 

Now Gardner has a chance to fix that discrepancy by supporting the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act, but to date his lack of support is notable and disappointing.

{mosads}Sponsored by Colorado’s Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse, the CORE Act protects four significant Colorado landscapes comprising 400,000 acres and brings decades of work by many communities into one bill. Stakeholders from nine counties worked for years to find consensus through compromise: fine-tuning proposal boundaries and legislative language.

In particular, the protections provided for the 200,000-acre Thompson Divide area — a spectacular landscape on Colorado’s Western Slope with critical grazing lands, outstanding recreation opportunities and excellent wildlife habitat — would exempt the area from future oil and gas leasing, ensuring the wellbeing of the multiple existing uses so important to local communities.

Most of the Thompson Divide is roadless terrain lying within the White River and Gunnison National Forests and has been described by former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper as a “Colorado Crown Jewel.”  In 2015, the Forest Service completed a management plan that closed a large portion of the area to oil and gas leasing. Any new exploration — with the necessary roads, pads and pipelines — would cause a great deal of damage. Gunnison Energy, one of the two mineral leaseholders with leases in the Divide, supports protecting Thompson Divide because it “balance[es] energy needs with the wishes of the community to keep some areas undeveloped.”

The unique coalition that has come together to protect Thompson Divide from oil and gas leasing is an impressive list of local and statewide supporters that includes ranchers, mountain bikers, mayors, newcomers, and even fifth generation Western Slope daughters of coal miners.  They are a testament to the importance of the place to the area’s local economy and culture. Many of them traveled to Washington recently to attend a hearing for the CORE Act in the House Natural Resources Committee.

At the hearing Dan Gibbs, director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, offered compelling testimony acknowledging support for the bill from Colorado’s governor and over a dozen counties and municipalities from the affected landscapes. Newspapers across the state have editorialized in favor of the bill including the Grand Junction Sentinel, the Denver Post, and the Durango Herald. In addition to Gunnison Energy, the bill has support from electric utilities and water providers.

The 2019 Conservation in the West poll reveals that more than two-thirds of Colorado voters care more about protecting sources of clean water, air, and wildlife habitat while providing opportunities to visit and recreate on our national public lands, while only 25 percent favor producing more domestic energy by maximizing the amount of national public lands available for responsible oil and gas development and mining. Put another way, what’s on top of Thompson Divide is far more valuable to Coloradans than any petroleum that might lie below it. 

{mossecondads}But passage of the CORE Act and protection of the Thompson Divide may hinge on Gardner’s support. He has said he “will fight for public lands.”  However, in the 10 years Coloradans have been fighting to protect places in the CORE Act, Gardner has never championed the designations it includes. He also says he plans to run for re-election in 2020 on his environmental record, but with a 10 percent lifetime rating on the League of Conservation Voters environmental voting scorecard he’ll need to take some dramatic steps to show voters he can walk the talk.

Becoming a vocal proponent of the CORE Act could be immensely important to help Gardner convince voters that he really means what he says about fighting to protect public lands for the enjoyment and benefit of future generations.

Mike Pritchard is the executive director of Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association and Thompson Divide coalition board member.

Jason Sewell is a fifth-generation rancher whose great-great grandfather Myron Thompson is the Thompson Divide’s namesake, and founding member and former board president of the Thompson Divide Coalition.

Tags Cory Gardner Environment Joe Neguse John Hickenlooper Michael Bennet public lands wilderness

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