CORE Act gets another chance in Congress

The CORE Act would protect 61,000 acres of land in the San Juan Mountains (Planet file photo)

Major public lands legislation for Colorado is headed back to Congress. On Wednesday, May 17, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse said they are reintroducing the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act to Congress. The bill would protect over 420,000 acres of public lands in Colorado, including 61,000 acres in the San Juan Mountains, encompassing Mount Sneffels and Wilson Peak.

Sen. John Hickenlooper and Rep. Diana DeGette, Jason Crow, Yadira Caraveo and Brittany Pettersen will co-sponsor the legislation.

Previously, the House of Representatives has passed the CORE Act five times with bipartisan support, but the bill has been unable to get through the Senate. Sen. Bennet and Rep. Neguse first introduced the CORE Act to Congress in 2019.

“The CORE Act is the result of years of conversation and compromise to boost our economy and protect our public lands for future generations,” Bennet said in a press release.

The dynamics in the current Congress are different than when the CORE Act was last up for a vote. Republicans have a majority in the House, while Democrats hold a narrow majority (51-49) in the Senate. In previous votes, support for this public lands legislation has followed party lines, with Republicans, including Rep. Lauren Boebert, voting against it.

The CORE Act has strong bipartisan support across the state.

“Eighty percent of people support the CORE Act throughout Colorado and want the rest of it done as well,” Bennet said.

Over the years, the proposed iterations of this public lands bill have been popular with residents of the Telluride area.

“We have a good track record in the San Juans of support from local businesses and the community. It would be great to get this bill through the finish line,” Mason Osgood, executive director of Sheep Mountain Alliance, told the Planet.

If approved, the CORE Act would establish 73,000 new acres of designated wilderness area across the state and ban future leasing for oil and gas drilling on the Thompson Divide.

Near Telluride, Ice Lake Basin would be protected from future mining and Sheep Mountain would be designated a Special Management Area.

Local wilderness advocates have been working to protect the same lands for over a decade. The San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act is one of the smaller bills that was incorporated into the CORE Act.

“This region has been working on the San Juan wilderness act for close to two decades now. These lands deserve to be protected,” Osgood said. “The climate is affecting these lands more than ever.”

Advocates say the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act has support from all three counties involved, as well as over 120 local businesses and local stakeholders including ranchers, private landowners, and the region’s only operating mining company.

As the CORE Act has yet to make it through Congress, proponents have devised different strategies to incorporate pieces of the bills into public lands protections.

In October 2022, President Joe Biden used executive authority under the Antiquities Act to designate Camp Hale, which had previously been included in the CORE Act, as a national monument.

The 53,800-acre Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument honors veterans and the 10th Mountain Army Division. The veterans who trained at Camp Hale during World War II were crucial in starting Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy.

“Getting Camp Hale designated helped the momentum for the whole CORE Act,” Osgood said.

The same month, Biden announced that his administration would initiate the process for a 20-year mineral withdrawal on the Thompson Divide, which would halt new oil and gas leasing, as well as mining.

On May 3, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management announced they had begun the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) scoping period to start the withdrawal. The public can submit comments through June 16.

Passing the CORE Act would make this 20-year ban permanent.

Aside from protecting open space for future generations, public lands help the state’s economy. In Colorado, the outdoor recreation industry accounts for $62 billion annually and added $35 billion to the state’s GDP, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.