The Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act seeks to protect wilderness areas throughout the state, including San Miguel County. (Courtesy image)

Public lands and a healthy environment are essential for outdoor recreation. Professional athletes have even more at stake in the game. Some are using their social influence in the outdoor world to demand change.

Professional climber Tommy Caldwell, ski mountaineer Caroline Gleich, and snowboarder Jeremy Jones spent last week testifying before the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis. The athlete testimonials were intended to help humanize the effects of climate change and the importance of protecting public lands, explained Lindsay Bourgoine, Director of Policy & Advocacy at the POW Action Fund.

“It’s not a list of statistics. It’s people sharing stories,” said Bourgoine. “Our adventures from the field are really compelling.”

The testimonials were part of the campaign by climate advocacy nonprofit Protect Our Winters (POW). Jones founded the organization in 2007. Each September, organizers from POW Action Fund spend several days in Washington, campaigning for climate legislation.

This year POW focused on six pieces of climate and environmental legislation, including closing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development and passing the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (“CORE”) Act.

“We have the technology and the financial instruments to solve climate change but we need the political will,” said Bourgoine.

Over three days, members from the POW Action fund conducted 36 meetings with members of Congress, including 19 who had never been involved with POW before.

“Meetings are an incredible opportunity to kick off these relationships,” said Bourgoine. As we’re trying to rally to get the CORE Act through, we can talk to those people.”

The POW Action Fund’s mobilization coincided with another push to pass the CORE Act in Congress. Last Thursday, Senator Michael Bennet published a letter urging the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to conduct a hearing on the CORE Act. Senator Bennet and Representative Joe Neguse introduced the CORE Act into Congress in January. The bill passed the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee in June. Now it is the Senate’s turn.

“The CORE Act is an exemplary piece of legislation,” said Bourgoine.

Gleich supports the forward-thinking vision of the CORE Act. “A lot of time as environmentalists we are going after threats as attacks. What makes me excited about the CORE Act is that a piece of preemptive legislation,” she explained in an interview with the Planet.

If enacted, the CORE Act would protect 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado, including 61,000 acres in San Juan Mountains near Telluride. The bill would add 73,000 acres of declared wilderness areas in Colorado. On the Continental Divide in Summit and Eagle counties, the CORE Act would designate Camp Hale as a National Historic Landscape--the first of its kind. Notably, the legislation ends oil and gas development on the Thompson Divide and introduces a plan to create a coal mine methane capture pilot project near Carbondale.

“Public lands are used for fossil fuels,” said Bourgoine. “What we really love about the CORE Act is not only does it protect public lands, but it addresses climate change.”

Gleich agreed. “I don’t think people realize how connected public lands and climate change are. We love to separate these issues but they’re all related,” she said.

Josh Jesperson is also a part of the CORE athlete alliance. He’s a former Navy Seal and now a pro snowboarder.

“I’m totally behind [the CORE Act] for a number of reasons,” he said. “First being that I’m a vet and I take vets out climbing and hiking. We need public lands for that. I show them the outdoors and it gives them a sort of catharsis. Public lands are a great common thread to reach across the aisle.”

The CORE Act is still lacking support from Colorado’s Republican Congressional representatives. Representative Tipton introduced his own public lands bill, the Colorado REC Act, but wilderness advocates are concerned it is not sufficient, especially as it does not offer protections to the Thompson Divide. Bourgoine hopes Representative Scott Tipton comes around and supports the CORE Act.

“The CORE Act is such strong legislation, and we would love to see [Tipton] sign up just because they are so similar,” said Bourgoine. “We really commend his team and the work he’s done.”

Bourgoine noted that during the recent listening sessions, Representative Tipton did not appear to take issue with banning oil and gas drilling on the Thompson Divide.

“There were conflicts in the past, but the key word is in the past. They have been resolved, and it’s time to move forward,” she said.

Gleich’s testimony improved her outlook. “It can seem like there’s not a lot of change happening in Congress, but it’s cool to see things being done,” she said.

Bourgoine urged people to continue to call their representatives and keep fighting for environmental protections.

“Even if it does feel insignificant it is absolutely not. If we let that apathy take over, then we lose” she said.