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

Summer is in full swing in Colorado. As the snow melts from high alpine slopes and the COVID-19 pandemic continues, wilderness areas and open space prove to be even more valuable. At a national level, Congress moved one step closer to enshrining more of the West’s natural landscapes as permanent designated wilderness.

On July 21, the House approved two big pieces of wilderness legislation in amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2021, which budgets annual defense spending. Wilderness protection in Colorado has a history of success when included in the national defense budget.

“It’s not unprecedented for wilderness bills to be included in the National Defense Act,” explained Robyn Cascade, who represents the local chapter of Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a national nonprofit dedicated to wilderness protection and preservation.

Senator Michael Bennet was able to work with Republican Representative Scott Tipton to include the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act as an amendment in the NDAA for 2015 fiscal year. Hermosa Creek protections include over 100,000 acres of land in southwest Colorado.

The Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act was adopted as an amendment to the defense bill. In October 2019, the CORE Act previously passed the House of Representatives as an independent piece of legislation.

Sponsored by U.S. Representative Joe Neguse, the CORE act would protect more than 400,000 acres of wilderness in Colorado. Locally, the legislation would complete the protection of the Sneffels Wilderness Area between Telluride and Ouray.

Notably, CORE Act would stop future leasing for oil and gas drilling on the Thompson Divide. In tribute to the 10th Mountain Army Division, the bill would also designate Camp Hale as the first-ever National Historic Landscape.

“It’s significant that the first ever historic landmark, Camp Hale, which is a military training site, is within the Defense Authorization bill,” said Cascade.

In the Senate, Bennet is now working to include a CORE Act amendment in their version of the NDAA

“Now, it’s up to the Senate to deliver, and the inclusion of the CORE Act in the NDAA provides a real opportunity to see this across the finish line,” Bennet said in a statement after the House passed the defense spending bill.

Although it has now passed the House in two different iterations, the CORE Act has struggled in the Senate, largely due to a lack of partisan support for the wilderness bill. Thus far, Colorado Republican Senator Cory Gardner has refused to endorse the CORE Act.

“Still the Senate has not taken the legislation up or brought it to committee for consideration,” Neguse in a statement.

“The CORE Act was carefully crafted by Coloradans over the last decade, and they deserve to see this bill,” he added.

Mark Pearson, executive director of San Juan Citizens Alliance, has been working for years to help protect wilderness in Colorado and at a local level in the San Juan Mountains. Pearson expressed similar comments to Neguse.

“It’s perplexing why lawmakers in Congress will not pass acts that have been in the works for decades,” he said in an interview with the Daily Planet.

Separately, an amendment to the defense act will permanently protect almost 1.4 million acres of wilderness in the states of Colorado, California and Washington. Earlier this year, U.S Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) proposed the bill, which will be included as part of the House’s annual defense bill — the National Defense Authorization Act.

In Colorado, there would be 660,000 new acres of wilderness — primarily in mid-elevation landscapes. The 36 protected areas include Handies Peak, Dolores River Canyon and Little Bookcliffs. To create DeGette’s bill, the Colorado Wilderness Act got combined with five different wilderness bills and passed through the House in February.

If the bill is approved, the bill will offer the largest area of wilderness protection for Colorado in over 40 years. As designated wilderness, the protected land would be permanently guarded against future development, logging, drilling or mining.

The new amendment will also provide funding to Colorado's High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site (HAATS). This flight school offers a unique program for helicopter pilots to train in tough conditions and prepare for high altitude flying.

“The purpose behind this amendment is simple,” DeGette said during her remarks on the House floor.

“It’s to protect more of America’s public lands and to ensure some of our nation’s most elite military pilots have the opportunity to train for some of the harshest environments on the planet.”

But unless the Senate approves to include these wilderness amendments, Colorado wilderness will remain in Congressional limbo. Now could be the time for Gardner to improve his voting record for public lands, explained Lexi Tuddenham, executive director of Sheep Mountain Alliance.

“It is an election year and Senator Gardner needs to show his support for wilderness legislation. Senator Gardner saying he ‘won't stop it’ is not nearly enough. Through his inaction he is preventing this bill from moving forward,” said Tuddenham. “This is a chance for Senator Gardner to do the right thing. Senator Bennet has been advocating for a long time, but he can’t do it on his own.”

Now, more than ever, the necessity of open spaces and wilderness is apparent, and public support in Colorado is strong, she added.

“Certainly during this pandemic we have seen how crucial public lands are for our health, our well-being, our sanity,” said Tuddenham. “Can you imagine at the end of the pandemic if we had protected wilderness for our economy, our future and our way of life?”