The House on Friday passed conservation legislation to protect more than 1 million acres of public lands in Colorado over objections by the state's Republican lawmakers that the bill amounts to a partisan "land grab" that threatens local economies and could raise the risk of wildfires.
The legislative package passed by a mostly party-line vote of 227-200, with eight Republicans voting for it and one Democrat voting against it.
Sponsored by U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act combined eight public lands bills approved by the House last year, including DeGette's Colorado Wilderness Act, covering 660,000 acres in Colorado, and the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act — known as the CORE Act — sponsored by U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Lafayette, which covers an additional 400,000 acres in the state.
President Joe Biden has indicated his support for the bill, a step toward a goal set by his administration to set aside at least 30% of U.S. land and coastal waters by 2030, part of an effort to curb climate change while conserving land for future generations. But the bill faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, where at least 10 Republicans would have to support it to overcome a filibuster.
The package also includes bills covering an additional 2 million acres in California, Washington and Arizona.
“Protecting our public lands shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” DeGette said. “For those of us who have been lucky enough to visit the lands that will be protected under this bill, we know how special they are. And we will never stop fighting to protect these majestic places for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.”
Neguse cheered the legislation's passage, drawing attention to the CORE Act, a component he first introduced in 2019 that included proposals in the works for close to 10 years.
“The CORE Act was crafted by Coloradans over the last decade, and has support from local communities, conservationists, ranchers and anglers throughout our state. Last Congress, we were able to pass this legislation out of the House twice, and with the support of Sen. (Michael) Bennet and Sen. (John) Hickenlooper in the Senate, we look forward to getting it over the finish line this Congress," he said in a statement.
Colorado's Republican House members raised alarms about potential effects of the legislation and complained it was rammed through without committee hearings.
U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Silt, said the resolution, which affects more than half a million acres in the 3rd Congressional District she represents, "is an extreme package that will kill jobs, limit outdoor recreation, prevent public access, exacerbate wildfire challenges, stifle responsible energy production and lock up 3 million acres of public land."
Noting that she wasn't consulted before the bills were reintroduced this year, Boebert added, "After a year of overly restrictive lockdowns and regulations on our daily lives, the last thing communities in my district need is further restrictions imposed by government limiting what they can do on public lands. Denver politicians should focus on their own district and stay out of mine."
“This lands package would be the largest land grab in Colorado’s history," said U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, in a statement. "These proposed bills work against local economies. Our forests are already suffering from poor health, beetle infestations and wildfires, and these bills would further deprive the Forest Service of much needed flexibility for forest management. If this legislation were to become law, we would certainly face hotter, more widespread, and more dangerous fires."
Lamborn, who opposed the package's Colorado components both times they passed out of the House last year before stalling in the Senate, said communities in the 5th Congressional District he represents have complained about restrictions on access and some uses of lands under the legislation. He also raised concerns about the bill's effects on high-altitude military training and access to minerals that could increase U.S. reliance on hostile powers.
He also warned that increased land use restrictions could prevent forest management practices meant to reduce wildfire risks, though supporters of the bill say existing wilderness law allows the Forest Service to take measures to protect against fires, insects and disease.
The House adopted a Lamborn amendment setting a study to determine the designations won't harm military preparedness.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.