Cory Gardner shepherds massive public lands bill toward vote, but Michael Bennet wants more for Colorado

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The U.S. Senate is set to do something that it hardly ever does, political observers say: Pass a bipartisan package of more than 100 public lands and water bills that would increase conservation and access to the outdoors across the country.

Senate Bill 47, which is expected to get a vote early next week, has nine Colorado-related bills inside it, but the biggest win for conservation groups would be the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which expired at the end of September.

Colorado’s senators and national conservation groups say they expect it to win approval.

Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Yuma, who serves on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has been instrumental in building this delicate house of cards out of bills from states and communities across the country, according to hunting, biking and conservation groups. 

“This is a very significant package of bills for public lands and the West,” Gardner told The Denver Post. “All these bills have been carefully negotiated and vetted.”

Environmental groups consider the Land and Water Conservation Fund the crown jewel of public lands legislation. Created in 1964, the LWCF takes revenues from offshore oil and gas development and deposits it into a fund to improve outdoor recreation.

The money has built everything from playgrounds to fishing sites and bought public easements from private landowners. In Colorado, the fund has invested nearly $270 million in projects like the Continental Divide Trail and Golden Gate Canyon State Park.

The problem with the LWCF is that Congress authorized it for 50 years. The fund got a three-year extension when it was first set to end in 2015, but then lawmakers couldn’t agree on another one when the fund expired in September. The fund isn’t in danger of running out of money anytime soon, but every day it can’t collect those deposits, it loses out on about $2.4 million for public lands projects, according to the conservation fund.

Gardner said that’s partly why he yelled at his Republican colleague, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, when Lee objected and effectively blocked a nearly identical package of public lands bills from passing by unanimous consent in December.

“Let me talk about this because I am pretty doggone upset,” Gardner said during a floor speech as he pounded the podium. “The people of Colorado tonight, who are worried about whether they can protect themselves from fire, lost the Wildfire Technology Act in this bill.”

This time, the bill is moving through normal channels and a single senator can’t block its passage with an objection.

That wildfire bill Gardner railed about in December is in the new package, along with ones that would add private land to the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, allow the town of Minturn access through a wilderness area to finally fix its water system and study whether Amache, a Japanese internment camp site in Granada, should become part of the national park system.

“We just don’t have the manpower to keep it up the way we should,” said John Hopper, who runs the Amache site with donations and an ever-changing group of local high school students. “You know if it’s a national park, it’s going to be taken care of for years to come.”

Hopper said he’s grateful for the support from Gardner and Colorado’s Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in moving Amache forward for national park designation.

“It’s rare that a bipartisan lands package moves in Congress, so this bill is a significant accomplishment with a number of provisions important to communities in our state,” Bennet said.

But Bennet isn’t completely happy with how the bill came together.

The Senate’s public lands package creates about 1.3 million new acres of wilderness area, but not a single one of those acres would be in Colorado.

Bennet’s office tried to get some Colorado wilderness bills, like the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act, into the package, but committee members — including Gardner — ultimately decided against it.

“While other Western states like Utah and Montana will celebrate thousands of acres of new land protections in the bill, we’re disappointed new protections for Colorado are not included,” Bennet said.

He has filed an amendment, called the CORE Act (Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy Act), to the package of public lands bills.

It’s a move that makes Gardner and even conservation groups like the National Wildlife Foundation nervous.

Bills like SB 47 that get assembled over time with dozens of smaller bills that would likely never get votes on their own are fragile things.

“Everybody wants their piece of the action,” Gardner said. “It becomes this escalating tit for tat.”

And if lawmakers aren’t careful, the whole house of cards will collapse.

The NWF and other conservation groups are urging members of Congress to pass “a clean bill,” which means ignoring amendments as they come up next week even if they have merit.

“We’re excited about this,” Gardner said. “The whole package is good for public lands. We’re not giving up until we get this done.”

Colorado bills included in public lands package

  • Crags, Colorado Land Exchange Act: Would clear the way for a land exchange between the Broadmoor Hotel and the United States Forest Service. It will allow public access to the Barr Trail and other areas while easing the property management burden on USFS, proponents say.
  • Bolts Ditch Access and Use Act: Would allow the town of Minturn broader access Bolts Lake, which is part of its water system. In 1980, Congress designated the Holy Cross Wilderness Area, but the designating legislation failed to include Bolts Ditch as an existing water facility.
  • Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument Act: Would allow the park, which currently can’t grow beyond 6,000 acres, to add 280 acres that’s controlled by a local conservation group.
  • Endangered Fish Recovery Programs Extension Act: Would extend an act that provides protections for four endangered fish through 2023.
  • Amache Study Act: Would direct the National Park Service to study the Amache site for inclusion as a unit of the National Park System. Located in Granada, a town on the Eastern Plains, it was an internment site for Japanese Americans during World War II. Amache was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2005.
  • Arapaho National Forest Boundary Adjustment Act of 2017: Would adjust the boundary of the Arapaho National Forest to include a 10-lot subdivision known as the Wedge, which will protect the view of Rocky Mountain National Park and the headwaters of the Colorado River.
  • Fowler and Boskoff Peaks Designation Act: Would name two unnamed peaks in the Uncompahgre National Forest after legendary Colorado mountain climbers Charlie Fowler and Christine Boskoff, who lost their lives in an avalanche in China in 2006.
  • Pike National Historic Trail Study Act: Would authorize the National Park Service to study the feasibility of including in the National Trails System explorer Zebulon Pike’s route across the Midwest and West beginning in 1806.
  • Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act of 2017: Would bring firefighter safety into the 21st century, proponents say, by requiring the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to begin providing GPS locations for crews on wildfires and using Unmanned Aircraft Systems to scout out and map wildfires in real-time.

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