By Nick Coltrain
The Denver Post
With the conservation-aimed CORE Act stalled in Congress — having passed the House of Representatives four times but deadlocked in an evenly divided Senate — leading Colorado Democrats are now pushing President Joe Biden to pursue executive action.
On Tuesday, Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, Rep. Joe Neguse and Gov. Jared Polis hosted Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack near historic Camp Hale to make the case for whatever action the president could take to achieve the goals of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act.
Surrounded by nearly two dozen advocates and more onlookers, Vilsack said he’d take back a favorable report of “extraordinary collaboration and partnership” driving the initiative. But it would be premature to say exactly what those actions might be.
The Colorado Democrats credited Bennet with convening the roundtable and bringing Vilsack literally to the table near Leadville. The CORE Act is essentially four separate pieces of legislation that, combined, would add various protections to more than 400,000 acres of public lands throughout the state, according to advocates.
Neguse has ushered the bill through the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives four separate times in various ways. However, it hasn’t been able to pass through the evenly divided Senate.
In May, a Senate committee deadlocked on the proposal, a setback but nonetheless the farthest it’s made it through the legislative process, according to Colorado Public Radio.
With time running out on this Congress, and the Democrats’ slim edge in the Senate up in the air this November, backers hope to use the Oval Office to gain some protections for state public lands, even if it wouldn’t be as lasting as federal law.
“Our preference obviously is to pass the CORE Act. We’re going to continue to fight for that,” Bennet said.
But there are non-legislative options, like national monument designations and prohibitions on mineral extraction, he added.
“We’re just going to have to decide what’s going to be appropriate, and we haven’t made those decisions yet,” he said.
The choice of Camp Hale for the roundtable was by design. The CORE Act would create a new National Historic Landscape designation for the area that prepared the legendary 10th Mountain Division for fighting in the Alps during World War II.
Vilsack and others note the dwindling number of World War II veterans in general, and veterans who came up through Camp Hale specifically, puts a special emphasis on the project.
“This conversation needs to take place, in a sense, yesterday,” Vilsack said.
He didn’t have a specific timeline for briefing President Joe Biden on the request, but said he would make sure his team is moving “as expeditiously as we can.”
The bill itself has failed to garner support from Colorado Republicans.
U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, whose district includes much of the land that would be protected under the act, called it “a partisan land-grab promoted by big-city Democrats who aren’t affected by the land-use bureaucracy that they are shoving down rural Colorado’s throat.”
An energy firm paid her husband nearly $1 million as a consultant over two years, according to Congressional disclosures. She has also been a fierce partisan throughout her tenure.
The Democrats dismissed that criticism Tuesday and argued it has broad support.
“I expect there to always be criticism from people who don’t have an appreciation for the importance of public lands in our state,” Bennet said, without naming any person in particular.
The state Republican Party also used the bill’s stalled status to criticize Bennet, who is up for re-election this November.
“It’s clear that Bennet’s absence of results is because he lacks any real clout or respect from his Democrat colleagues who just view him as Biden and (Senate Majority Leader Chuck) Schumer’s yes man,” Colorado GOP Chair Kristi Burton Brown said in a statement.
Bennet pushed back, noting billions of dollars he’s added to conservation efforts, state forestry and watershed protections, and billions more in the bipartisan infrastructure bill for rural broadband development.
“They keep saying that, but I think the evidence is exactly the opposite of what they’re saying,” Bennet said.