Commentary

This is what Gardner says he’s accomplished. Impressed?

The Great American Outdoors Act on its own constitutes a weak record

July 10, 2020 3:02 pm

Sen. Cory Gardner speaks before the arrival of President Donald Trump at a Keep America Great rally on Feb. 20, 2020, in Colorado Springs. (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

Only rarely do Coloradans get to enjoy a Cory Gardner sighting, so when one occurs it’s notable, whatever other news the junior senator makes by what he says, or doesn’t say.

Gardner spoke with CPR’s Ryan Warner in an interview that was broadcast July 1, the day after former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper won the Democratic primary contest to become Gardner’s challenger in the November election. The appearance mostly demonstrated the senator’s mastery of shameless, if obvious, evasion. As The Denver Post’s Justin Wingerter noted, Warner asked Gardner six times whether he supported President Donald Trump’s efforts to eliminate the Affordable Care Act, and each time Gardner avoided the question. It’s as if he treats an awkward line of inquiry as an opportunity to exhibit Olympic-caliber feats of sidestepping, but the greater the senator’s skills in such sport the deeper the cause for disappointment among spectators.

A moment of substance, easy to overlook, arrived roughly halfway through the segment, however, when Gardner enumerated three accomplishments from his first term that he hoped would recommend him for a second. These were “bringing the Bureau of Land Management to Colorado, opening up Space Command in Colorado, (and) passage of the most significant conservation bill in over 50 years.”

If these are the items on which Gardner himself wants to be judged, let’s indulge him.

Last July, Gardner announced that the Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency that manages a vast quantity of public lands, would relocate its headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, and he touted the move, for which he had lobbied, as a way to bring federal land managers closer to the properties they oversee. To be sure, the move won bipartisan support. The state’s senior senator, Democrat Michael Bennet, and Gov. Jared Polis, also a Democrat, were on board.

But it turns out the relocation was less a method by which to bolster the agency’s efficacy than a cunning plan to undercut it. It scattered scores of BLM positions across the West as part of the efforts of an administration that takes a dim view of public land regulations, particularly when energy development is at issue. 

“This isn’t an effort to move the Bureau of Land Management headquarters, it’s an attempt to dismantle it altogether,” Center for Western Priorities Executive Director Jennifer Rokala wrote at the time. 

A view of the Colorado River in Colorado. (blm.gov)

Then, later last year, The Hill reported that Interior Department documents related to the BLM move “show the extent to which roles traditionally placed in the nation’s capital are being shotgunned across the county.” And a letter from former BLM employees asserted that the move would “functionally dismantle” the Bureau.

The move might bring jobs to Colorado. But not many. CPR reported last year that the Bureau would fill 27 positions in the Grand Junction headquarters. A couple dozen jobs for the state are not worth a diminished Bureau for the nation.

What about Space Command? Gardner has long tried to make it appear like his cheerleading had anything to do with Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs being selected as the home base, for at least the next six years, of U.S. Space Command. Crediting Gardner for Space Command’s Colorado siting is like giving props to Mayor Eric Garcetti if a new movie studio opens in Los Angeles. Boosterism didn’t win the day. Benefits did.

To begin with, Space Command is the reestablishment of a command that was developed in the 1980s during the Cold War, and the original Space Command was located in Colorado. In April 2019, CNN published the contents of a memo it had obtained that identified six military bases as possible locations for Space Command. Four of the sites were in Colorado, and the criteria the Air Force used to weigh the sites included “cost, co-location with an existing military organization that will become a component of the future Space Command, access to a C-17 aircraft capable airfield, communications connectivity” and other operational considerations, according to the report. Nowhere did it mention the approval of the Colorado senator — or, for that matter, the lobbying of other elected leaders from the state, both Republican and Democratic. 

So, about that conservation bill. This is where we give credit where credit is due. The Great American Outdoors Act, the advancement in the Senate of which Gardner really can claim credit for, will mean billions of dollars for a backlog of national park projects, and it will permanently fund the long-neglected Land and Water Conservation Fund. The House is expected to pass the bill and Trump is expected to sign it.

It’s a laudable accomplishment. But alone it constitutes a weak record, especially considering that, while the bill has thrilled conservationists, Gardner has a history of antipathy toward the environment. The League of Conservation Voters gives him an 11% lifetime voting score. The Bureau of Land Management relocation, of which Gardner calls himself the “chief architect,” itself counteracts what good the Great American Outdoors Act might do for the environment.

And there is the uncomfortable fact that Gardner seems to sense that the Act is about all he has going for him. During the Black Lives Matter protests, when a history-changing conversation about police and racism overtook even the coronavirus pandemic as a national priority, Gardner was having a conversation of his own. Between May 25, the day police killed the unarmed George Floyd in Minneapolis, through June, when protests materialized in big cities and small towns across America, Gardner tweeted 92 times. More than a third of those tweets were related to the Great American Outdoors Act, by far the single subject to which he devoted the most attention.

And police reform? Three tweets.

In six years as a senator, Gardner has been up to other things in the nation’s capital. But if we’re gauging him by his own standards, we’re left to ask: Is that all you’ve got?

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