As the year comes to a close, Congress is negotiating the final version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The NDAA budgets the country’s annual defense spending. But in a time of great political deadlock, the NDAA has also become one of the only venues for public lands bills to get through Congress.
Although the NDAA primarily allots defense spending, there is a history of attaching public lands bills to this annual budget. The 2015 NDAA included the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act as an amendment. This act protects 100,000 acres of land in southwest Colorado.
“It sounds a little bit out of the ordinary but it’s kind of how things get done in Congress,” explained Mark Pearson, executive director of San Juan Citizens Alliance.
Democratic senators, including Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, hope the CORE Act will be able to do the same.
“That’s the cleanest and swiftest path towards passage (of the CORE Act),” Pearson said.
If approved, the CORE Act would protect 400,000 acres of public lands in Colorado, and complete the local Sneffels Wilderness Area between Telluride and Ouray. The CORE Act also bans any future leasing for oil and gas drilling on the Thompson Divide, and the bill would establish the first ever National Historic Landscape, Camp Hale — a tribute to veterans and the 10th Mountain Army Division.
The House of Representatives have already passed a version of the NDAA that contains several public lands bills, including the CORE Act, the Colorado Wilderness Act and Protecting America’s Wilderness Act — a bill authored by Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO) that would establish 1.4 million acres of wilderness across Colorado, California, and Washington. This is the second time that an iteration of the CORE Act has been passed in the House.
In Colorado under DeGette’s bill, 660,000 acres would be established as wilderness, including Handies Peak, Dolores River Canyon and Little Book Cliffs under the Protecting America’s Wilderness Act. The bill also provides funding for the High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site in Colorado.
On Nov. 18, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appointed DeGette to the NDAA conference committee. This group is in charge of negotiating between the House and the Senate versions of the budget. DeGette and other public lands supporters on the conference committee are tasked with drafting a final version of the NDAA for 2021 that includes wilderness protections.
DeGette’s appointment helps her defend the passages of public lands legislation.
“Rep. DeGette is fiercely advocating not only for the Protecting America’s Wilderness Act, which is the legislation she introduced, but also the CORE Act and a separate bill Rep. Grijalva introduced to prevent new uranium mining near the Grand Canyon,” Ryan Brown, communications director for DeGette, wrote in an email to the Daily Planet.
Senator Bennet is pleased to have an ally for public lands on the conference committee.
“We’re grateful to have Congresswoman DeGette at the negotiating table as Congress works to finalize the NDAA. This has been a team effort with other members of the Colorado Congressional Delegation,” he wrote in an email to the Daily Planet.
The results of the 2020 General Election offer promise for the protection of public lands. Although the Georgia run-off will determine which party will hold a majority in the Senate, the election of John Hickenlooper means public lands bills will have united support.
“Now both senators from Colorado are champions of the CORE Act, whereas before Senator Gardner was pretty resistant and opposed it and stonewalled it. So that’ll be a huge change,” Pearson said.
The new composition of Congress people could also lead to more collaboration between Republicans and Democrats.
“I truly believe that we can have bipartisan support for this bill,” said Lexi Tuddenham, executive director of Sheep Mountain Alliance.
President Trump’s administration has been notoriously bad for public lands and environment protections. The administration changed the requirements for public participation in the National Environmental Policy Act, abolished the Endangered Species Act and rolled back air pollution regulations. Even after losing the election, Trump’s administration is rushing to open drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
“There will be a huge amount of work for the Biden administration to reverse all that damage and put us back on a pro environment course,” Pearson said.
“Unfortunately he’s going to have to spend a lot of time trying to get some of those regulations back to a reasonable place, because so many hundreds of thousands of acres have been opened up during this administration without a lot of forethought,” she said.
But going forward, Tuddenham hopes Biden administration will work on long-term reform, including more Indigenous sovereignty, more inclusive public agencies and a focus on large-scale conservation that will help mitigate the effects of climate change.
With a new administration, the energy will help public lands legislation, even if the bills do not make it through as amendments to the 2021 defense budget.
“If we don’t get these conservation bills over the finish line through the NDAA, we’ll have momentum in January to reintroduce those right away,” Pearson said.