As a group, we have a combined 26.5 years of experience as superintendents of Curecanti National Recreation Area and a collective 179 years of service with the National Park Service. With the benefit of this extensive background, we would like to use our voices to endorse most enthusiastically the passage of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy (CORE) Act as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. The time for action on this legislation is now.
In truth, our primary interest revolves around the sometimes less-noticed portion of the CORE Act that would officially authorize the establishment of Curecanti National Recreation Area. We certainly support the other three components of this legislation calling for the designation of the San Juan Wilderness Area, protection of certain portions of the Thompson Divide from mineral exploration and development, and the designation of the Camp Hale area as a National Historic Landscape in honor of the training done there by the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. However, we would like to shine a spotlight on the decades of work devoted to finally making Curecanti National Recreation Area a full-fledged member of the national park system.
The particular story of the Curecanti legislation dates back to the creation of the recreation area in 1965. At that time, the area was created through an agreement signed by the directors of the National Park Service and the Bureau of Reclamation and endorsed by Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. A careful reading of the 1965 agreement suggests that all parties envisioned that legislation for the area would arrive quickly. And yet, here we sit 55 years later with no legislation officially authorizing Curecanti National Recreation Area.
In 1999, Congress opened a pathway toward Curecanti legislation with language inserted into the law that converted Black Canyon of the Gunnison from a national monument to a national park. This language called for the National Park Service to study the feasibility of legislation to make Curecanti an official part of the national park system and the best way to protect surrounding lands. This led to the completion of a combined Resource Protection Study/Environmental Impact Statement in 2008. Although this study received approval by Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, no legislation was introduced by Congress.
That finally changed on January 25, 2019 when Curecanti legislation was introduced as part of the CORE Act sponsored by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, who represents Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District. Despite opposition from Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, the CORE Act was passed by the House of Representatives in late 2019. After the Senate chose not to take action on the bill, Congressman Neguse sponsored an amendment to add the CORE Act to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that was passed by the full House of Representatives on July 21, 2020. Unfortunately, Sen. Bennet’s stellar efforts to add the CORE Act to the NDAA were not accepted by Senate leadership. As a result, the fate of the CORE Act as part of the NDAA will have to be decided through a conference committee of the House and Senate to resolve the differences in their two bills. If the CORE Act is excluded from the NDAA, it will likely die when this session of Congress ends on Dec. 31, 2020.
Why does Curecanti legislation matter? On a macro scale, having the area finally designated as a unit of the national park system will ensure the protection of its superb resources in perpetuity along with continued public access and enjoyment of the area for a variety of recreational purposes. On a smaller, but still important scale, the legislation will result in an exchange of lands between the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management that will allow each agency to acquire certain parcels that would be most efficient for them to manage. Significantly, the Curecanti legislation will not create a single acre of federal land that is not already federal land.
Sen. Gardner deserves great credit for his leadership role in the enactment of the landmark Great American Outdoors Act that permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund and provides up to $9.5 billion over the next five years to address the maintenance backlog of the National Park Service and other federal agencies. Rather than stopping there, we would encourage Sen. Gardner to use the conference committee process between the House and the Senate on the NDAA as an opportunity to join with Sen. Bennet to affirmatively support the CORE Act and the establishment of Curecanti as an official unit of the national park system.
Curecanti National Recreation Area is the home of fishing mecca Blue Mesa Reservoir and actually includes more miles of the Black Canyon than does the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. In addition, the recreation area injects approximately $40 million per year into the local economy. Sen. Gardner can take advantage of this unique opportunity to get the CORE Act to the finish line by signing onto the Congressional effort to make this much-loved national recreation area a permanent part of the Colorado landscape. Let’s get it done.
Submitted by Connie Rudd, Joe Alston, Sheridan Steele, Bill Wellman, and Bruce Noble.