A view of the Dolores River in Colorado. (Bob Wick/BLM/Public domain 1.0)
Two bills that would establish or expand protections for nearly half a million acres of public lands across Colorado received a hearing in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday — though only one appears to have a clear path to passage in a divided Congress.
U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, both Colorado Democrats, are sponsors of the Dolores River National Conservation Area and Special Management Area Act, the product of more than 15 years of discussions among governments and interest groups in southwest Colorado. The bill would protect more than 68,000 acres of land along a 70-mile stretch of the Dolores River through Montezuma, Dolores and San Miguel counties.
Bennet urged his fellow senators to support the bill, along with the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, a package of protections for more than 420,000 acres of Colorado public lands that has repeatedly failed to make it through the upper chamber in recent years.
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“Coloradans crafted these bills on kitchen tables and at trailheads across our state,” Bennet told members of the Public Lands, Forests and Mining Subcommittee of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday. “They reflect thoughtful, bipartisan collaboration among Tribes, county commissioners, businesses, ranchers, sportsmen and conservationists.”
The areas protected by the legislation would largely be designated as a national conservation area overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, with a smaller portion on U.S. Forest Service land designated as a special management area. The agencies would be required to manage the area to protect fish habitat and recreation; existing uses like livestock grazing would be unaffected, but new mining claims, dams and other forms of development would be prohibited.
Representatives from both agencies testified in support of the Dolores River bill at Wednesday’s hearing. The bill is also supported by local county governments, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Southwestern Water Conservation District and a wide range of conservation and outdoor-recreation groups.
“I would never have even been able to introduce this bill without the bipartisan support of people living near the river, who might not agree on anything else, but have come to an agreement on this river,” said Bennet.
Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert of Silt, who represents southwest Colorado, is the lead sponsor of an identical Dolores River conservation bill in the House. Colorado’s two other GOP House members, Reps. Ken Buck of Windsor and Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs, have signed on as cosponsors.
Republicans promote the bill as a way to prevent a more restrictive designation for the Dolores River under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, which bill sponsors say would “negatively impact existing private water rights.” The BLM first identified the Dolores as a candidate for a Wild and Scenic River designation in the 1970s.
“So many other public lands bills in Congress trample on the rights and liberties of the American people, but this legislation is good for conservation, good for private property rights, and good for local communities,” Boebert said in a statement earlier this year.
CORE Act stalled
In his comments to the Public Lands subcommittee, Bennet also delivered the latest in a long series of pitches for the CORE Act, which he introduced earlier this year for the third time since 2019. The bill would establish new wilderness protections for over 100,000 acres of Colorado public lands and withdraw hundreds of thousands more from mineral leasing.
“The CORE Act, like the Dolores River bill, reflect the kind of bipartisan consensus that should be honored by the Senate,” Bennet said.
But the CORE Act has repeatedly failed to attract support from Colorado Republican lawmakers — Boebert has called it a “400,000-acre land grab” — or to overcome steadfast GOP opposition in the Senate, where the bill needs 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.
Though the CORE Act won approval from Democratic majorities in the House in recent Congresses, the GOP’s takeover of the lower chamber means it’s even less likely to reach President Joe Biden’s desk in the foreseeable future.
But Bennet and Hickenlooper, touting the unanimous support of Colorado’s GOP House delegation, expressed hopes that the Senate would advance the legislation to protect the Dolores River and resolve what Bennet called “generations-long community disagreements” over the river’s future.
“I think it really is a bill that strikes a balance,” Hickenlooper said, “protecting close to 70,000 acres of public lands in Colorado, including some of that beautiful red rock country that is all along the Dolores River, (but) also respects and protects historic water rights and other historic uses.”
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