County commissioner Houck goes to Washington D.C.

Topics include sage grouse, public lands multi-use philosophy, and CORE Act

By Cayla Vidmar

Gunnison County got a word in edge-wise at the U.S. capitol last week with county commissioner Jonathan Houck advocating for a balanced approach to public lands, local control and the CORE (Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy) act at the 2019 National Association of Counties (NACo) Legislative Conference.

By Houck’s estimation, approximately 50 other Colorado county commissioners were in attendance as well on the six-day trip. Houck was enthusiastic about the benefits and contacts the trip generated.

Houck met with secretary of interior nominee David Bernhardt, and discussed Gunnison sage grouse, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the National Park Service. He said he was advocating hard on funding for the National Park Service, particularly in regard to Curecanti National Park, which includes the Blue Mesa reservoir, and areas below the dam on the Gunnison River. “Curecanti is managed by the Park Service and they’re really strapped with the ability to invest in infrastructure and amenities,” Houck said.

As for the Gunnison sage grouse protection issue, Houck said he addressed the conflict between the USFWS and the BLM regarding the protected bird. Houck said what the USFWS needs to protect the bird is at odds with the BLM, since “Some of the BLM plans don’t provide enough effective protection,” he said.

Brian Steed, deputy director for the BLM, presented on the BLM’s activities, and Houck reflected, “It seemed very skewed toward extractive and industrial use of public lands.”

Houck and neighboring commissioner from Eagle County Kathy Chandler-Henry advocated for a balance of uses including recreation, which Houck feels is incredibly important to Gunnison County—a point he made clear in interactions with Steed.

“If we’re going to have a multi-use philosophy on public lands, then we have to balance that with actual funding and promotion of elements other than just extractive industries,” Houck said.

Houck, Chandler-Henry and San Miguel County commissioner Hilary Cooper sat down with Senator Cory Gardner to urge him to support the CORE Act, which was introduced by Senator Michael Bennet and Representative Joe Neguse. “We had a very frank but firm discussion about how within the communities the CORE Act touches, there’s a strong level of support,” Houck said.

The CORE Act was recently introduced, combining several popular proposals across the state that would protect 400,000 acres of land, including land in the Curecanti National Recreation Area and the Thompson Divide area, both in Gunnison County. For more information see page 21. The act has found local support from the town of Crested Butte and the Gunnison County commissioners.

“The concept of local control is meaningful and if that’s going to be a foundational base level of how we consider things, then there needs to be an understanding that the communities the CORE Act impacts strongly support it,” said Houck.

He spoke to recent reports of opposition for the CORE Act from Mesa County commissioners, who approved a letter that misrepresented the contents of the Thompson Divide portion of the act. “We have recognized that there are some other counties that don’t have land in the CORE Act but seem to have this voice of opposition,” said Houck, noting he emphasized to Gardner that “The elements of the CORE Act that are essential to Gunnison County have public support and have a wide variety of public support. So when we ask for his support, it is not political, it is for our constituents, which are also his constituents.”

Overall, Houck says he believes attending events like this 2,000 miles from the county seat are effective for the county. “When you take the time to go to D.C. and set up these meetings, and meet with the congressional delegation, I think it carries a good amount of weight, and I think especially on these public lands issues.”

Houck believes it’s important for the county to be in front of those discussions with neighboring counties, and to “support these things that reflect the values of the people that live here.”

Houck will be representing Colorado and Gunnison County in May at the NACo Western Interstate Region conference, and says “I am excited about the grassroots policy group I am part of, working with the Forest Service, BLM and Park Service to fund and address the backlog of current and anticipated needs that the growing interest in outdoor recreation has created.”

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