Optimism for Congress to Break Stalemate, Protect New Public Lands

May 6, 2013

By Center for Western Priorities

As the 112th Congress gaveled to a close last January, many wondered if Washington D.C.’s toxic political environment would continue to compromise popular land conservation bills. Setting aside lands for hunters and anglers, hikers and backpackers, mountain bikers and horseback riders is a uniquely American phenomenon that has remained a bipartisan endeavor for more than a century.

But that came to a halt during the 112th, which was the first Congress since World War II not to protect a single new acre of public lands.

Now, only a few months into the 113th Congress, we’re beginning to see potential signs of a thaw as elected officials from both sides of the aisle have begun to introduce legislation to protect America’s most prized landscapes.

Just last week Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) introduced the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act of 2013. The bill would protect 108,000 acres of the San Juan National Forest, while also preserving all historic uses of the forest, including mountain biking, motorized recreation, selective timber harvesting and grazing.

“This bill will protect this land for our outdoor recreation economy and for future generations of Coloradans and Americans to enjoy. It is the result of a local effort that took into account the varied interests of the community, and that cooperation helped us put together a strong bill with the community’s input.”—Senator Michael Bennet

The bill mirrors a piece of legislation introduced by Senator Bennet during the previous Congress with one exception: This time around, Representative Scott Tipton (R-CO) joined the effort by introducing companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

“Senator Bennet and I have joined together to put forward legislation to, without any additional cost to taxpayers, protect and preserve this special place, and ensure that Coloradans as well as visitors to our great state have the opportunity to experience Hermosa Creek’s abundant natural beauty for generations to come.” —Representative Scott Tipton

Protecting the Hermosa Creek Watershed took roots as a local effort supported by a diverse set of stakeholders. Snowmobilers, anglers, hunters, other outdoor enthusiasts, elected officials, miners, and Southwest Colorado residents have all voiced their support to preserve the Hermosa Creek watershed and the multiple use recreation opportunities it provides.

The bipartisan effort by members of Colorado’s Congressional Delegation comes on the heels of a similar bipartisan push in Montana. There, Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) and Representative Steve Daines (R-MT) are working together to protect the pristine North Fork of the Flathead River near Glacier National Park from new oil and gas development and mining.

“Efforts to protect the North Fork Watershed and ensure that future generations can enjoy camping, fishing, and hiking in this area for years to come are a good example of how we can work together to put Montana first.”—Representative Steve Daines

The partisan environment in Congress continues to be toxic on many issues. But conserving public lands has a long history of bipartisanship. It’s an area where lawmakers with divergent values can find areas of common ground to improve life for current and future constituents. Hopefully this session of Congress will see a return of cooperation to protect treasured lands.

(Feature photo: John B. Kalla, Flickr)