The executive director of a local conservation watchdog group says he believes that passage of the CORE Act is no longer a matter of if, but when.

Will Roush of Carbondale-based nonprofit Wilderness Workshop said it’s fair to say he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the bill — designed to protect 400,000 acres of Colorado public lands — will pass federal lawmaker muster either this year or next year, in some form: either standing alone or as part of some greater legislative package.

The Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act passed in the friendly confines of the Democrat-controlled U.S. House early last year, though it was opposed by U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Silt, who represents much of the Western Slope. More recently, in what was heralded by supporters as a huge step forward, it was heard by the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee earlier this month and garnered a 10-10 vote among party lines, with Democrats for it and Republicans in opposition.

The May 3 committee tie doesn’t kill the bill and supporters say there’s a good chance the CORE Act will get a full Senate vote sometime later this year. However, the Senate, like the aforementioned committee, is divided 50-50 among party lines, with 48 Democrats, two “independents” who caucus with the Democrats and 50 Republicans. Political reality dictates that some measure of GOP support for the CORE Act will be necessary for passage.

“There’s kind of a difference in procedure when there’s a tie in committee or if it’s approved by a [committee] majority, but either one does allow the bill to move forward in the future,” Roush said. “That tie vote did not kill the bill.”

The legislation seeks to preserve various lands, ­i­­ncluding areas of the Continental Divide and Camp Hale, the Thompson Divide west of Pitkin County and wilderness in the San Juan Mountains. It also aims to define the boundaries of the Curecanti National Recreation Area, in Gunnison and Montrose counties, while restoring public access to Curecanti’s nearby fisheries, according to the nonprofit Wilderness Society.

The Senate committee debated a proposed amendment that sought to exclude Thompson Divide provisions from the bill. Republicans continue to tout the potential for oil and gas production in that area. But Colorado U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, a new Senate ally for the CORE Act following his 2020 victory over Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, reportedly argued that oil-and-gas development in the Thompson Divide would be extremely cost-prohibitive. The amendment vote also resulted in a tie.

In general, though, some of the committee’s Republicans appeared to be more receptive to the CORE Act than they’ve been in the past, and lauded the fact that the bill’s supporters went further in building a coalition of diverse interests. In particular, Roush said some Republicans complimented Hickenlooper and fellow Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet for bringing together farmers, ranchers, recreationalists, local government officials and industry in support of the legislation.

“It’s a partisan environment right now [in Washington, D.C.], so it’s not a huge surprise there was a tie vote, but I was encouraged by some of those comments,” Roush said. “My sense is that the most likely path forward will be as part of a larger package of bills where there’s something in it for both sides.”

It’s anybody guess as to when or how that might happen, he said. Much of the opposition appears to be “ideological” rather than detail-based — in other words, conservatives looking to fight any form of government intervention, Roush said.

“When the log jam breaks, the CORE Act is at the top of the list,” Roush said. “I’m feeling as optimistic as I ever have.”

Individual components of the CORE Act have been a decade in the making, he noted. The composite legislation is newer, less than five years old.

“It feels like we’ve resolved all the concerns at the local level and that it really should move forward,” Roush added. “It’s a testament to the work of the ranchers and local businesses and officials who have been working on this for years and years, so hats off to them. The folks who live in these areas really want to see it happen.”

Diverse voices

On the day of the committee hearing, numerous officials within the public, nonprofit and private sectors were quoted in a Wilderness Workshop news release to hail the fact that senators had finally taken up the bill. There was little mention of the 10-10 committee deadlock, but many of the comments were gathered prior to the hearing.

“For over a decade, the Glenwood Springs City Council and the citizens of Glenwood Springs have advocated for the protection of the Thompson Divide,” Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes said in a prepared statement. “A diverse group of stakeholders from across our region — including ranchers, outdoor recreationists, sportsmen and women, and local governments — have come together to try and protect this important landscape for our community.”

After the committee vote, Godes added, “We are one step closer to achieving permanent protection for this special place.”

The bill also would establish the nation’s first National Historic Landscape at Camp Hale to honor the legacy of the 10th Mountain Division and lands where they trained during World War II. Some Republicans on the Senate committee expressed opposition to the creation of a “National Historic Landscape,” which would give greater protections to Camp Hale and the 30,000 acres surrounding it than its current designation as a National Historic Landmark.

Sgt. John Tripp, a 10th Mountain Division veteran living in Carbondale, said in the same news release that he fully supports the CORE Act.

“I think Camp Hale should be preserved and taken care of for the benefit of my children, my grandchildren, yours also, of course, and everybody in the U.S. could come to Camp Hale and realize they had seen something from World War II, which was a very historic time,” said Tripp, who is 102 years old.

Tripp, additionally wants protections for the Thompson Divide, “which they want to rip up and drill oil wells and gas wells, and who knows what. That’s a beautiful place for my children, grandchildren and yours, and everybody in the U.S. to enjoy forever and ever.”

Another force behind the cause: Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship, a national nonprofit founded on the premise that environmental stewardship and natural resource conservation are inherently conservative “and that the true conservative will be a good steward of the natural systems and resources that sustain life on earth.”

“It’s time to pass the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act,” said Steve Bonowski, a member of the nonprofit’s board. “The CORE Act protects significant portions of our beautiful mountains from unneeded development while still preserving places for the outdoor recreation activities that drive rural county economies in Colorado.”

And, Bonowski said, “Recognizing the history and value of Camp Hale is a tribute to all Americans who have served, and continue to serve, in our military.”

Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman, who participated in a news conference with supporters to laud the committee hearing, said he’s both frustrated and encouraged about the twists and turns of the proposed bill. Like many proposals put before local, state and national governments, the process takes a long time.

“I was kind of upset last week, after the hearing,” he said. “I was worried that things in the bill were being chopped up.”

He said politicians on both sides of the aisle should recognize how the regions covered in the bill are crucial to the health and wellbeing of millions of Americans who live downstream of the mountains — which he referred to as “water towers” — that must be protected amid what’s estimated by some sources to be a 1,200-year drought in the Southwest.

“Enough already,” Poschman added. “Let’s just get this done. It’s being opposed more for political reasons than common sense. It all comes down to political gamesmanship. But I came away admiring Sens. Bennet and Hickenlooper for staying at it. I think it will happen eventually.”

Andre is a reporter for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at andre@aspendailynews.com.