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Bennet, Polis join for wilderness bill to protect 98,000 acres in Colorado

As the outdoor recreation world rallied in Denver, two of Colorado’s leaders in Washington offered a plan to bolster protection for more than 98,000 acres of federal land in Eagle and Summit counties.

Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Jared Polis’ Continental Divide Recreation, Wilderness, and Camp Hale Legacy Act was pretty much guaranteed a warm embrace at the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show in Denver. The Outdoor Retailer trade show bailed from its longtime home in Utah when state leaders there urged the downsizing of national monuments, which the Trump Administration supported with a plan to shave almost two million acres from the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase – Escalante monuments.

“Thank you,” said Adam Schuknecht, the owner of Leadville’s City on a Hill coffeeshop, one of several Western Colorado business owners gathered Saturday by the Continental Divide Trail Coalition to discuss the importance of public lands with Bennet. “Our county is 80 percent public lands … it’s really important that we protect them.”

The proposal, which Polis has proposed three times since 2010, creates three new wilderness areas and expands three others. The new bill includes Bennet’s two-year push to designate a first-ever National Historic Landscape for Camp Hale, which would support enhancement and protection of almost 29,000 acres where the storied 10th Mountain Division trained during World War II. The bill creates three new wilderness areas in the Tenmile Range, Hoosier Ridge and Williams Fork Mountains and expands three existing wilderness areas: Eagles Nest, Ptarmigan Peak and Holy Cross.

Over many years, Polis has visited with his constituents in Eagle and Summit counties, tweaking and adjusting his plan with input from local business owners and politicians as well as mountain bike groups, water districts and motorized users. Polis is quick to point that his plans do not take away uses. No area currently open to motorized use will be closed for snowmobiles, ATVs and motorcycles.

“We have support from a broad coalition of stakeholders,” said Polis, who on Friday announced a sweeping outdoor recreation policy as part of his campaign for Colorado governor this year. “This bill is about enhancing and protecting access for future generations.”

The well-timed proposal dovetails the outdoor industry’s increasing defense of public lands. Businesses and industry advocates see the removal of protections in Utah as an attack on public lands, which are critical to the success of the $887 billion outdoor recreation industry.

This time around, Polis worked with Bennet to include the senator’s push to layer additional federal protection and funding on the mountaintop valley of Camp Hale, where more than 14,000 10th Mountain Division soldiers honed their winter battle skills. Many of those soldiers returned to Colorado after the war and built ski areas like Vail, Arapahoe Basin, Keystone, Steamboat and Aspen, which rank among an estimated 60 ski hills founded by 10th Mountain veterans. In the late 1940s, after the war, the Army flooded the market with hundreds of thousands of 10th Mountain-tested sleeping bags, skis, backpacks and outdoor gear, seeing an industry that today ranks among the nation’s top economic engines.

In May 2016, Bennet gathered with veterans at Camp Hale and announced plans for the first-ever National Historic Landscape. Bennet envisions interpretive activities and structures mixing with recreation opportunities. He sees conservation efforts at Camp Hale including clean-up of environmental hazards, all launching with a $5 million preservation and restoration fund.

“The 10th Mountain Division, those guys were the founders of our ski industry and our ski hills and so much of the outdoor recreation ecosystem. I think Coloradans are going to look at that and say ‘Yeah we want that designation,” Bennet said Saturday, meeting the collection of business owners from South Fork, Salida, Steamboat Springs, Breckenridge, Cortez and Leadville who gathered to champion public lands surrounding the Continental Divide Trail.

“What’s important for us is to raise our own voices as advocates for public lands, for conservation, for climate,” Bennet said. “You are, I think, the most credible voices on these questions because your businesses depend on this stuff … and you understand and recognize the value of the public designations for your communities and for your state.”

Bennet and Polis announced the wilderness proposal with support from Colorado small business owners, veterans, county commissioners from Eagle, Summit and Grand counties, hunters and anglers, mountain bikers and conservationists. Bennet said bipartisan support is key to winning passage of these land bills, much like the 2014 Hermosa Creek Bill, which united Bennet with Colorado Republican Rep. Scott Tipton to protect more than 100,000 acres of the Hermosa Creek Watershed north of Durango.

But it remains to be seen if that support trickles back to Washington, where wilderness bills are increasingly rare.

After years of working with Republicans on the bill, many issues have been resolved, said Jessica Wahl, a former Interior Department administrator who now serves as recreation policy manager at the Outdoor Industry Association in Boulder.

“I think this bill has gone through many iterations and this iteration is the best,” said Wahl, who didn’t discount the bill’s chance of passage but noted that most sweeping land bills take many years to reach fruition.

Idaho’s Republican Congressman Mike Simpson spent more than a decade working his Boulder White Clouds wilderness bill before President Barack Obama signed the bill into law in 2015, creating three new wilderness areas and bolstering protection for more than 275,000 acres.

“That’s how you work through all the issues and that’s why the legislative process is good,” Wahl said. “I think the legislative process for these bills does bring in local support that’s how you craft the bill and craft the boundaries and that’s why the bill changes over time and things like Camp Hale get added. I think this is as local-support as it gets. I think putting it out there even if it’s not going to pass this Congress is important for the next Congress when maybe it could pass.”

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