With Democrats newly in control of the White House and the U.S. Senate, a legislative package that includes two long-anticipated Colorado public lands bills appears headed for swift passage in the House of Representatives — over the objections of the congresswoman who represents the Western Slope district where much of the affected land is located.
First-term Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert told members of a key House committee on Tuesday that she hadn’t been consulted on H.R. 803, the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act. Introduced by Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Denver, the latest version of H.R. 803 is a package of eight public lands proposals including the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Economy Act and the Colorado Wilderness Act.
Together, the two bills would establish new or permanent protections for more than 1 million acres of federally-owned land across Colorado, the vast majority of it in Boebert’s 3rd Congressional District. Boebert has consistently opposed both proposals.
“This bill is being rushed through with no committee hearing, no committee markup, no witness testimony,” she said while testifying as a witness in a virtual hearing of the House Rules Committee on Tuesday. “Public land decisions should be made with local collaboration and input, or at the very least the member who represents the affected district.”
Boebert criticized DeGette for moving forward with the bill, and sparred with Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter, a Democrat from Arvada and a member of the Rules Committee.
“I was elected to Congress because the people in my district felt under-represented,” Boebert added. “They are tired of having their voices drowned out by elected officials in Denver.”
But Perlmutter argued that views on the legislation among local officials on the Western Slope aren’t “universal one way or the other,” pointing to support from many county commissioners for the CORE Act and the Colorado Wilderness Act. Both bills were passed multiple times by the Democratic-controlled House in 2020, before stalling in the Senate.
“We heard this bill three times last year alone,” Perlmutter said. “These are public lands. … This is something that has been in the eye of preservation for years, and the effort is just to finalize it.”
Perlmutter joined six other Democrats on the Rules Committee in a party-line vote to refer H.R. 803 to the House floor, with a final vote expected later this week.
Boebert, however, rejected Perlmutter’s argument that polling shows strong support for conservation efforts among Coloradans, including in the 3rd Congressional District.
“I believe that my election shows the polling in my district,” Boebert said.
‘Massive federal land grab’
President Joe Biden’s administration endorsed DeGette’s legislation in a statement issued Tuesday, saying that it aligned with the administration’s goals of “restoring balance” to public-lands management.
“The Administration strongly supports House passage of H.R. 803,” the statement read. “The legislation contains provisions that protect important public lands, including public lands in Colorado, through community-supported land use designations that limit inappropriate development and maintain recreational access.”
All three Republican members of Colorado’s congressional delegation, however, joined the GOP’s Western Caucus in denouncing the bill as a “massive federal land grab.”
“Coloradans should have more control over our lands, not less,” Rep. Ken Buck, a Republican from Windsor, said in a statement. “This public lands package gives more power to bureaucrats in Washington to enforce onerous restrictions and kill energy jobs.”
Democrats say that their legislation incorporates many years’ worth of collaboration with and feedback from local stakeholders. DeGette introduced the first version of the Colorado Wilderness Act nearly 22 years ago; the bill would establish permanent protections for more than 600,000 acres that were granted preliminary “wilderness study area” status in the 1980s.
“This bill is the result of many, many years (of work), not just by myself, but by advocates and community activists to make sure that we protect these very special areas,” DeGette told members of the Rules Committee on Tuesday.
The CORE Act, sponsored in the House by Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse of Boulder, would establish a variety of protections for more than 400,000 acres of Colorado public lands. It would withdraw more than 200,000 acres in the Thompson Divide area from future oil and gas development, create several new wilderness areas and establish a first-of-its-kind “National Historic Landscape” designation at the site of World War II training facility Camp Hale.
“I’m thrilled that we are able to bring the CORE Act to the House floor for a vote so early in the 117th Congress,” Neguse said in a statement. “The CORE Act was crafted by Coloradans over the last decade, and has support from local communities, conservationists, ranchers and anglers throughout our state.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 8:14 a.m., Feb. 24, 2021, to correct a quote from Rep. Lauren Boebert. Words had inadvertently been omitted from the quote.