New legislation seeks to protect state public lands

JOEL L. EVANS/Special to The Daily Sentinel Kayakers enjoy a summer day of fun on the Taylor River near Almont. Public access to rivers is a key part of Colorado's reputation as a fun place to residents and visitors alike, as well as an economic driver.

Plains, mountains, canyons.

Forests, grasslands, rivers, lakes.

Colorado has so much to offer. And much of it lies within public lands.

To build a strong and diverse economy, any city, state or country seeks to take advantage of their natural geography and topography. Colorado has a vast variety of both for its citizens to promote economically and to personally enjoy.

Colorado's outdoor driven segment of the state economy has expanded greatly in recent decades. It is estimated that the outdoor industry in Colorado is $62 billion.

Those two goals can sometime be conflicting. Heavy human use of our state's outdoor assets, be it for production or recreation, can sometimes lead to overuse and abuse. It is appropriate that we find a balance between the two goals.

Such it the intent of new legislation introduced by Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse. The CORE Act, for Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy, seeks to protect 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado, by establishing new wilderness areas and protecting existing outdoor recreation opportunities that contribute to the economy.

While the CORE Act itself is new, it draws from four previously introduced bills going back years and relating specifically to the Continental Divide and Camp Hale, the San Juan Mountains, the Thompson Divide, and the Curecanti National Recreation Area.

Recreation groups, sportsmen, conservationists, governments, businesses, landowners, and other interested parties have worked together to discuss the issues and craft the language of the bill.

Packaged together as one bill, Sen. Bennet and Congressman Neguse summarized the four proposals in this way:

The Continental Divide Recreation, Wilderness, and Camp Hale Legacy Act, which establishes permanent protections for nearly 100,000 acres of wilderness, recreation, and conservation areas in the White River National Forest along Colorado's Continental Divide. It also designates the first-ever National Historic Landscape around Camp Hale to preserve and promote the 10th Mountain Division's storied legacy.

The San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act provides permanent protections for nearly 61,000 acres of land located in the heart of the San Juan Mountains in Southwest Colorado. It designates some of the state's most iconic peaks as wilderness, including two 14ers: Mount Sneffels and Wilson Peak.

The Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act protects the Thompson Divide—one of Colorado's most treasured landscapes — by withdrawing approximately 200,000 acres from future oil and gas development, while preserving existing private property rights for leaseholders and landowners. It also creates a program to lease excess methane from nearby coal mines, supporting the local economy and addressing climate change.

The Curecanti National Recreation Area (NRA) Boundary Establishment Act formally establishes the boundary for the Curecanti NRA. Although created in 1965, the boundary has never been designated by Congress, limiting the ability of the National Park Service to effectively manage the area. The bill improves coordination among land management agencies and ensures the Bureau of Reclamation upholds its commitment to expand public fishing access in the basin.

Me being a fisherman that lives on Colorado's western slope, of particular interest to me is the Curecanti Act, which speaks to expanding public fishing access for the Gunnison River basin.

In the 1960s, when three dams and reservoirs were built on the Gunnison River between the towns of Gunnison and Montrose, known as the Aspinall Unit, many miles of prime fishing water were covered. To mitigate for the loss of public fishing access, the Colorado River Storage Project Act in 1956 established a fish and wildlife program that would acquire 26 miles of public fishing easements within the upper Gunnison Basin.

Much of that remains unfulfilled to this day.

"Angling on the Gunnison River and it's many tributaries upstream of the Aspinall Unit is an economic driver for the towns of Gunnison, Crested Butte, Lake City, and Almont," said Jesse Kruthaupt, Upper Gunnison Project Specialist for Trout Unlimited. "This iconic river developed its reputation from sportsmen who stepped off the Denver Rio Grande at fishing resorts now under Blue Mesa Reservoir. Today, anglers compete for trout and waters in numbers that were unimaginable 50 years ago. Acquiring access easements to stream reaches in the Upper Gunnison will provide potential revenue for private property owners and help disperse anglers from high traffic areas allowing for balanced and long-lasting use of the resource."

Also close to home, the Thompson Divide Act enhances protection for another angler interest, the native cutthroat trout. Found in Thompson Creek, cutthroat trout are sensitive to changing environmental conditions.

According to the bill's sponsors "the bill permanently withdraws around 200,000 acres in the Thompson Divide near Carbondale and Glenwood Springs from future oil and gas development, while preserving existing private property rights for leaseholders and landowners" and "creates a program to lease and generate energy from excess methane in existing or abandoned coal mines in the North Fork Valley — supporting the local economy and addressing climate change".

Although Colorado is not unique in having outdoor recreation opportunities, it is well known to outdoor recreationists and includes significant amounts of public land. Hopefully we continue to find ways to make wise use of those public lands.

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