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Resiliency for mountain economies means protecting public lands

John Hickenlooper
Guest column

Coloradans love our public lands — and so do the visitors whose tourism helps drive our mountain economies. So when the coronavirus arrived in Colorado, the damage was staggering. Thriving high country communities — employing thousands of people — had to shut their doors overnight, telling visitors from around the world to stay home.

Those early decisions saved lives. Now our mountain towns are facing some of the highest unemployment rates in the state and the prospects of an extended economic crisis.

While we won’t fully rebuild until we have universal testing or a vaccine, we need to look beyond the multi-trillion dollar emergency aid bill passed by Congress and think about how to revitalize our mountain communities for the long run. Protecting our public lands is an essential part of that conversation.

Social distancing has given Coloradans one more reason to value our treasured public lands. The great outdoors have provided solace in a time of crisis and community in a time of distance. Even those of us on the Front Range know that when it’s safe, Colorado’s majestic peaks and over 39,000 miles of trail will be there to welcome us.

Unfortunately, the Republican-led U.S. Senate has been reluctant to protect our public lands and left new protections for Colorado wilderness out of the last major public lands bill to become law. The House of Representatives, meanwhile, took bold action by passing the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act — under the leadership of Rep. Joe Neguse — last fall.

The CORE Act would protect 400,000 acres of Colorado’s public lands, including the Thompson Divide and Camp Hale. As governor, I created the Colorado Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, which found that the outdoor industry generates 511,000 jobs and contributes $62 billion to Colorado’s economy. Many of those jobs are now in limbo, but bolstering our mountain economy is a key piece of the CORE Act — “economy” is even in its name.

This is the type of bold proposal we need to rebuild our outdoor economy and mountain communities so that they are stronger than ever. Hundreds of local leaders have worked on the CORE Act — some for over a decade. Ranchers, small business owners, and commissioners from counties encompassed in the bill support the collaborative plan. But the CORE Act won’t pass the Republican-led Senate without the support of Sen. Cory Gardner — and he has refused to lift a finger.

Instead, Sen. Gardner has voted repeatedly to confirm President Trump’s anti-environment nominees. These Gardner-approved officials have overseen the largest rollback of protected public lands in American history.

So it is no surprise that Gardner and Trump, who dismissed early warnings about COVID-19, are ignoring another looming threat that is already devastating Colorado’s public lands: climate change.

But Glenwood Springs knows we need to protect our environment and public lands. Amidst a global pandemic and economic downturn, Glenwood Springs is still fighting Trump’s BLM and asking federal officials to reject the enormous expansion of a limestone quarry that would threaten the iconic hot springs and surrounding environment. Local leaders are sounding the alarm about the mine’s threat to clean air and water, as well as the economy of Glenwood Springs and neighboring communities. Yet Sen. Gardner has been near silent. Although the BLM has delayed environmental review until next year, we need elected officials committed to protecting our public lands and mountain economies for the long haul.

Colorado has seen tough times before, but we have always been resilient and emerged stronger. We will rebuild our outdoor recreation economy better than it was before. But we need our leadership in Washington to lend a hand. That means electing a new President, and electing a new U.S. Senator who believes in the long-term value of our public lands — and will fight to enhance that value.

John Hickenlooper is a geologist, brewer, small business owner, former mayor of Denver and governor of Colorado. He is running for U.S. Senate.


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