A Colorado Department of Natural Resources official told a congressional committee this week that a bill to designate more than 400,000 acres of land in the state as “protected” would benefit conservation and the local economy.

“I support this bill because it will benefit our wildlife by protecting critical habitat and migration corridors,” said Dan Gibbs, executive director of the state Natural Resources Department. “It will protect the outstanding recreational experiences that bring people from across Colorado — and the world — to these special places.”

He was referring to H.R. 823, the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act, which was authored by U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a Boulder Democrat.

“It strikes the right balance by protecting key public lands from development, while protecting all existing mineral rights and leaving other appropriate lands available for mining, oil and gas development,” Gibbs said Tuesday in his testimony before the House Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks, forest and public lands.

Neguse and U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, are subcommittee members.

Colorado Democrats widely support the bill, but some Republicans expressed concern it might unnecessarily limit economic development and the ability to prevent forest fires.

The bill consolidates other legislative proposals that largely failed in Congress over the past decade. They were introduced by Colorado lawmakers, including current Gov. Jared Polis while he served in Congress.

Key provisions of Neguse’s bill would give protected status to three mountain peaks with elevations over 14,000 feet, namely Mount Sneffels, Wilson Peak and Quandary Peak. Other portions of the bill seek to conserve watersheds and declare 73,000 acres as wilderness to halt commercial development and entry of mechanized equipment.

Specific lands that would be set aside include:

  • The Continental Divide and Camp Hale in the White River National Forest, which is one of the most-visited national forests in the United States. It would become the nation’s first National Historic Landscape, partly to support the area’s outdoor recreation economy.
  • The San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests of southwestern Colorado. They have been proposed for protected status previously but left out of surrounding wilderness areas when the plans reached a vote in Congress.
  • The Thompson Divide in the White River National Forest. Some oil, gas and mining companies want to extract minerals from the rugged lands.
  • The CORE Act would protect the state’s largest intact aspen grove along Kebler Pass and allow continued use for ranching, agriculture and outdoor recreation.
  • The Curecanti National Recreation Area, which would be incorporated into the National Park system. Visitors could use it for outdoor recreation such as boating, hiking and fishing.
  • “As a kid living in Gunnison, Colorado, the spectacular lands and waters of the Curecanti National Recreation Area were my backyard and my favorite place to fish,” Gibbs said in his congressional testimony. “As an outdoor adventure guide, and board member of the Summit County Chamber of Commerce, I learned to appreciate the economic value of protecting wild places.”
  • U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Cortez Republican, disputed some of the economic advantages of the CORE Act.

He referred to an editorial and letters he received from some Colorado groups who said expanded protected status could reduce their economic and recreational opportunities.

In Garfield County, some residents worry about their agricultural industry, he said. The Snowmobile Association told him their members would be stopped from riding through wilderness areas. The Intermountain Forest Association complained that restrictions on harvesting timber would hurt the business of forestry companies.

Tipton added that a ban on the forestry industry in the expanded wilderness areas would add to wildfire risks by preventing workers from removing underbrush that could fuel the fires.

Under questioning from Tipton, Chris French, acting deputy chief of the National Forest System, acknowledged that some equipment for potentially removing fuels for wildfires would be banned.

“It’s not just fighting the fires,” French said. An additional issue is “what you need to do in the future to prevent fires.”

(Tipton is not a subcommittee member, but the panel’s chairwoman, Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., allowed the Colorado congressman him to participate based on his interest and previous bills he introduced on similar issues.)

Neguse denied Republican allegations that he introduced the CORE Act without adequate input from residents in the affected areas.

“I am very proud to say the CORE Act was created by Coloradans over a decade of collaboration,” Neguse said.

More support came from DeGette, who cited surveys showing many residents choose to live in Western states because of the nearness to wilderness.

“These folks are counting on us to protect these lands,” DeGette said.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, issued a statement supporting the measure.  “We believe protecting the places we love drives economic growth,” he said.

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