Federal CORE Act that protects Red Lady another step closer to reality

Includes Mt. Emmons Mine mineral withdrawal language

[  By Katherine Nettles  ]

After more than a decade of effort, a major public lands protection bill that would cover significant portions of Gunnison County and withdraw the mineral extraction rights of Mt. Emmons Mining Company on Red Lady reached the U.S. Senate for consideration this week. On Tuesday, May 3 the U.S. Senate considered its first-ever committee vote on the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act. This is the first Senate vote on the bill, but the House of Representatives has passed the bill four separate times. 

The CORE Act would protect more than 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado and establish new wilderness, recreation, and conservation areas and safeguard existing outdoor recreation opportunities, which its proponents say would also boost the state’s economy for generations. This week one final provision was added to include thousands of acres near Crested Butte in Thompson Divide protections, because of recent talks between Freeport McMoRan (of which Mt. Emmons Mining Company is a subsidiary) and various community members and local officials. The CORE Act would also establish Camp Hale in Pitkin County as a National Historic Landscape. 

The U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held its first-ever mark-up of the bill on Tuesday, and in advance of the markup, U.S. senators Michael Bennett, (D), John Hickenlooper (D) and Colorado U.S. Representative Joe Neguse (D) held a virtual press conference on Monday, May 2 to express their support for it. Bennet, who drafted the bill and has championed it for years, spoke first.

“This afternoon I am pleased to share an important change to the title of that particular bill,” said Bennet. “For decades there has been controversy surrounding a proposed mine outside of Crested Butte. And I am pleased to share that the community has reached an agreement with Freeport McMoRan. And under the agreement, which we have enshrined in the bill, about 19,000 acres will be added to the Thompson Divide to prevent any future mine in the area. In return the community will coordinate with Freeport McMoRan to expedite a mutually beneficial land exchange,” continued Bennet. “This is exactly the kind of local, carefully constructed agreement that you’ll find throughout the CORE Act…every line in this bill reflects local values and local interests.” 

The senators were joined by Gunnison County commissioner chairperson Jonathan Houck, San Miguel County commissioner Hilary Cooper, Pitkin County commissioner Greg Poschman and rancher Bill Fales from the Thompson Divide. Bennett and Hickenlooper personally thanked each of them for helping carry the legislative effort forward. 

Local impacts

Houck spoke to the importance of the CORE Act for both ends of the valley as well as all who live in or visit the state and appreciate its public lands. 

“We never tire in Gunnison County of talking about the CORE Act,” said Houck, “It’s something folks in Gunnison County are deeply connected to because we are deeply connected to these public lands and the landscape that really makes up what we like to call our backyard.”

 He reviewed that Northern Gunnison County connects to the Thompson Divide and the southern part of the county connects to the Curecanti National Recreation Area. 

“And in acreage over half of the CORE Act is in Gunnison County,” noted Houck. “We’re really proud of the efforts that started literally at coffee shops and kitchen tables,” between ranchers, recreationalists and conservationists. He called these public lands major economic drivers in the entire geographic area that the CORE Act represents. 

The CORE Act would formalize a 43,000 acre boundary around the Curecanti National Recreation Areas, making it an official unit of the National Park Service. “Although it was congressionally designated the boundary was never clearly established,” said Houck. Blue Mesa Reservoir is part of the area. 

The Thompson Divide, where several counties come together, would involve the newly added mineral withdrawal language for the Mt. Emmons Mining Company.

“The CORE Act aims to protect the upper watershed of the Gunnison River, a large tributary to the Colorado [River] but also to the benefit of ranching, recreation and the livelihood of the folks of the town of Crested Butte and the Upper Gunnison Valley,” he concluded.

The party-line committee vote allows the Senate to proceed with consideration of the bill for a final vote, which would then send it to President Biden to become law. 

“This is the furthest that our bill has made it in the Senate so far, and even though we still have a lot of work ahead of us to get it over the finish line tomorrow is going to be an important step,” said Bennet.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis, Gunnison, San Miguel, Eagle, San Juan, Summit, Pitkin, and Ouray counties and the cities of Crested Butte, Ouray, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, Telluride, Basalt, Breckenridge, Ophir, Ridgway, Mountain Village, Vail, Snowmass, Town of Frisco, and the Town of Dillon have expressed their support for the bill as well. 

Senator John Hickenlooper, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, advocated on behalf of the bill at Tuesday’s committee markup.

At the markup, Hickenlooper objected to Senator Mike Lee’s amendment to remove the Thompson Divide provision from the bill. The Lee amendment failed.

“As a rancher who relies on the Thompson Divide for our summer grazing, I am hoping for the passage of the CORE Act. It will bring needed protection to this area which is so important to myself and fellow ranchers and also for the entire community, who utilizes these amazing lands for hunting and year-round recreation,” said Bill Fales of Cold Mountain Ranch. “The pandemic makes protection even more vital as our USFS lands are seeing unprecedented levels of use by the public.”

“The CORE Act was written for Coloradans, by Coloradans who’ve worked really hard to make sure it reflects local interests and local values,” said Bennet. “After over a decade of work, we’re now one step closer to passing this legislation to protect more than 400,000 acres of public land and support our state’s economy. Coloradans have waited a long time for this moment, and I look forward to getting the CORE Act over the finish line.”

The bill’s progression can be followed at www.energy.senate.gov/hearings/2022/5/business-meeting-to-consider-pending-legislation-and-a-pending-doe-nomination.

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