Guest opinion: Colorado has opportunity, challenge to balance demands and values of public lands
May 18 was the third anniversary of Colorado Public Lands Day, and we can’t help but reflect on the bounty of beautiful and diverse landscapes, endless backcountry recreation adventures, and economic opportunities that our public lands provide.
With an increasing population and millions of tourists flocking to our state annually to enjoy the outdoors, Colorado has both an opportunity and challenge to balance the myriad demands on and values of public lands.
By-and-large, our state sets an example among western states for thoughtful, well-balanced stewardship and management of public lands. Perhaps the best vindication of this thoughtful approach and commitment to keep our public lands in public hands and open for all to visit, use, and enjoy is the Outdoor Retailer Show’s 2018 decision to relocate to Colorado in response to decidedly un-thoughtful public lands policies in Utah.
One of the best opportunities for Colorado to continue this balanced, thoughtful approach is Congressional approval of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act.
The CORE Act would protect more than 400,000 acres of land across western Colorado through a series of designations and mineral withdrawals, the specifics of which are just as diverse and varied as the stakeholders who worked to create them. The bill adds 73,000 acres of new Wilderness, without closing any roads or motorized and mechanized trails. In fact it explicity creates 17,000 acres of new recreation management areas in places with existing mountain bike trails and dirt roads and maintains existing recreation.
Importantly for us in the Roaring Fork Valley, the CORE Act would protect the Thompson Divide and its amazing recreational and agricultural values through a permanent mineral withdrawal.
Perhaps as important, as the landscapes it protects, is the collaborative and inclusive origins of the CORE Act. Introduced by Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse, the CORE Act unifies four different land protection efforts, each of which has been in the making for at least a decade and all of which have incorporated the voices, concerns and values of a diverse set of stakeholders.
Across the West Slope of Colorado, communities, local governments, businesses, veterans, ranchers, hunters, recreationists and conservationists living in or near the San Juan, White River and Gunnison National Forests have worked together on individual pieces of legislation to protect their public lands and their economies. Folks who don’t often see eye to eye like ranchers and mountain bikers have led these efforts. Our own recreation pursuits span dirt biking to solo wilderness trips and everything in between.
The processes and conversations haven’t always been easy, but compromises have been made and middle ground found. Even the interests of oil and gas companies with leases in the Thompson Divide are accounted for with language in the bill that both protects valid existing rights and allows them to receive credits if they wish to relinquish those leases.
One would be hard-pressed to find a local issue that has united a community more than the collective efforts to protect the Thompson Divide. It’s a testament to the unifying power of a place and what can be accomplished when we set aside preconceived notions of folks who use public lands in different ways. And it’s not just that the place is important from an ecological perspective, the landscape is integral to our local agricultural, tourism and recreation-based economy.
The Thompson Divide supports an estimated 300 jobs locally and generates $30 million in annual economic impact. It is home to some of the most sought-after hunting units in the state (generating more than 20,000 big game hunting licenses every year) as well as federal grazing allotments that have supported generations of ranching operations.
The 250-mile Sunlight-to-Powderhorn snowmobile trail, epic bike-packing opportunities, rock and ice climbing and likely the best fall colors in the Roaring Fork Valley all attract visitors and drive customers to local gear stores, restaurants and guide-outfitting operations.
Sen. Bennet and Rep. Neguse, deserve credit for listening to and responding to local communities’ wishes to protect places like the Thompson Divide. We encourage Sen. Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton to join the spirit of collaboration and compromise and support the CORE Act.
Not only is it about as common-sense and well-balanced a piece of public lands legislation as exists, it’s a direct response to their constituents wishes to protect and celebrate public lands.
John Charters is the co-owner of local outdoor retailer, Bristlecone Mountain Sports, and is an avid recreationist who enjoys skiing, camping, dirt biking and mountain biking on landscapes across Colorado. Will Roush is the executive director for Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, and enjoys skiing, mountain biking, and camping on public lands. Both are committed to advocating for the protection of the places where they play.
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