CORE Act Gets Stymied in Senate

We’ve discussed the CORE Act before here.  and in Patrick McKay’s guest post.Here’s a story from CPR yesterday. Hopefully Patrick has been following the details and can bring us up to date.

I wonder whether this is the time to put more acres into Wilderness. It seems to me that this bill has gone forward for years-  and perhaps Covid-enhanced recreation, and the changes due to AGW (anthropogenic global warming), plus the need for domestically produced energy, plus attention to Native American burning,  might cause people to rethink what goes in to Wilderness designation and the other designations in the bill.  There might be opportunities for renewable energy infrastructure foregone.  And what about the motorized community, who seems to be missing from this coverage (but not from TSW)?

For example, designating an area as Wilderness can lead to different fire management strategies.. if AGW is indeed leading to climate-induced holocausts, then would we want to reduce/make more difficult suppression and pre-suppression strategies (put fewer tools in the toolkit, or make it harder to get them out)?  Here’s what Greg Aplet of The Wilderness Society has to say what activities are OK in Wilderness.  I generally trust what Greg has to say, but I’d be interested in what other people think.

It makes me wonder if this Wilderness bill is more about symbolism or political solidarity-signalling, or perhaps backscratching in some form, than on-the-ground reality, or whether the concept of Wilderness perhaps needs to be rethought in light of the above changes in our understanding, and the science we’re finding out about everything (fire, fuels, climate change, recreation impacts,  traditional ecological knowledge, and so on).

The pieces I’ve read sound a bit like a press release from the Senators.

Sen. John Hickenlooper, a member of the committee and a sponsor of the bill, stressed throughout the debate the community-driven nature of the bill, saying it could serve as a model for how public land should be crafted.

“The entire local community, a large part of the state of Colorado, supports these designations and recognize that this is the future and best use for these lands,” he said.

“This is exactly the kind of local, carefully constructed agreement that you’ll find throughout the CORE Act,” Bennet said. “And it’s more evidence, I think, to our Senate colleagues that this bill wasn’t written in Washington. It was written in Colorado from the ground up to ensure that every line in this bill reflects local values and local interest.”

It seems like from our previous discussions that there have also been concerns from the motorized community, but that was not reflected in the article. It’s almost as if  some writers think that what (some) politicians say must be true and not worthy of some skepticism.  I’m pretty skeptical of what any politician says, myself.

It would be pretty impressive if everyone in those areas agrees.

.. but in an earlier story in Colorado Politics, the local Congressperson claimed:

After the hearing, U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Silt Republican who opposes the CORE Act, released a statement saying she hasn’t been consulted about the bill even though roughly two-thirds of the land it affects are in her 3rd Congressional District, which covers most of Colorado’s Western Slope.

“The CORE Act is a partisan land-grab promoted by big-city Democrats who aren’t affected by the land-use bureaucracy that they are shoving down rural Colorado’s throat,” she said.

“While locking up land may sound good to the swamp, it doesn’t work for the people who actually live there.”

Now I get that Boebert is fringy and prone to excessive partisan vitriol, but still I think it is a bit of an overstatement to think that “the entire local community” doesn’t include their elected representative- and she hadn’t been consulted (?) but “everyone agrees”.  And here’s another one:

Over a decade ago, rancher Bill Fales was one of many Coloradans who gathered and talked about how to protect the lands outside his backdoor. He said he was discouraged by the tie vote.

“That’s exactly what we have been doing for 13 years,” he said. “We’ve adjusted the boundaries, we’ve adjusted the language, we’ve worked as hard as possible to make to work for our community. It’s why it has virtually unanimous support in our community.”

If you read this story, wouldn’t you want to hear from someone with concerns (besides the aforementioned Congressperson)?  After all, there is a quote from someone who agrees (Bill Fales).  I’m not sure from this news coverage we get both sides of the issue fairly explained.  But what I’m really curious about is why that has been the case for this issue so consistently, even pre-Boebert.

9 thoughts on “CORE Act Gets Stymied in Senate”

  1. Sharon hit the nail on the head. The media always accepts at face value statements from wilderness advocates that they have some kind of overwhelming community consensus on their side. The facts that the congressional rep from the affected area opposes it and it deadlocked in committee on a party line vote should be an indicator that the CORE Act is much more controversial than its supporters admit.

    But I’ve seen the same thing over and over again with these kinds of things. You get these allegedly “community driven” proposals that are really just astroturfed top-down proposals written by big environmental groups, claiming a broad consensus that they only reached by excluding every group that would have a reason to oppose it from their so-called “collaborative” process. The GPLI in Gunnison County and the new “Recreation in Balance” plan from Envision Chaffee County are two other current examples in Colorado. When they can’t achieve an actual consensus in favor of their proposals, they simply lie and pretend no opposition exists.

    With the CORE Act, a big factor in why it is so controversial is because the lands at issue simply aren’t suitable for wilderness. Many of the parcels they are adding to existing wilderness areas were expressly left out of previous wilderness bills, either because they were simply deemed unsuitable or because of a deliberate political compromise that the wilderness groups are now trying to overturn. Most of these areas a not recommended wilderness under the relevant forest plans, and most are not even considered upper tier roadless areas. Some like the area north of Vail are crisscrossed with old logging roads that were only recently closed through travel management and are still present on the ground and regularly driven because the Forest Service never bothered to block them off or sign them as closed.

    While the CORE Act would not directly close any currently open roads or motorized trials, it puts wilderness boundaries immediately adjacent to numerous important roads which will inevitably result in pressure to close those roads to avoid impacts to the adjacent wilderness or “complete” the wilderness by closing off cherry-stems. That has happened with many other wilderness proposals in the past, and the motorized community simply doesn’t trust wilderness advocates to honor any compromises made in this bill such as cherry-stemming existing routes. Having wilderness immediately adjacent to roads will also make maintaining the roads difficult as the setbacks are not wide enough to permit any kind of re-routing in the event of a washout, rockslide, or similar event, and they would even make it difficult to do hazard mitigation along the roads such as hazard tree removal or rock scaling. Motorized groups have repeatedly asked Bennet for wider setbacks from roads and been ignored on even that minor point. Neither does the bill offer anything of value that could actually expand recreation opportunities, such as releasing some wilderness study areas or mandating reopening some closed roads.

    Another big concern is that many of these areas in the urban-wildland interface in areas with extremely poor tree health. Designating them as wilderness or these almost-wilderness special management areas will prevent any kind of active management of the forest to mitigate fire risk to the surrounding communities. Lots of different groups have serious concerns about that.

    So yeah, there is still a lot of opposition to this bill that the media will never cover because they only ever tell one side of the story. But it is certainly there. Glad to see it hasn’t made it out of committee. Even more telling is the fact that Degette’s “Colorado Wilderness Act” didn’t even make it as far as the CORE Act did. That one is even more controversial as it will directly close many roads and has given even less consideration to other stakeholders than the CORE Act has.

    • Patrick- can you cite specific proposals in which groups made a deal and later appeared to go back on it? I can see how a lack of trust would lead to difficulties in making future agreements.

      • Lots of examples. One of the most recent was the wilderness areas designated in the San Rafael Swell in Utah in the 2019 Dingell Act. All the parties involved in the negotiations agreed to cherry-stem certain roads which are high value motorized trails that were previously cherry-stemmed out of the WSAs in the area, and both of Utah’s senators put statements in the Congressional record that the bill was not intended to close any roads. It also was meant to permanently settle the issue of wilderness designations in the San Rafael Swell and designated all non-wilderness land in the Swell as part of the San Rafael Swell Recreation Area.

        Wilderness groups including SUWA agreed to this compromise and supported the bill. Then only a year later, SUWA introduced a new version of its perennial America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act, which was updated to designate most of the remaining land in the San Rafael Swell, including the cherry-stemmed road corridors specifically excluded from wilderness in the Dingell Act, as wilderness. Since then they have continued to advocate for the updated version of ARRWA and have also submitted comments on the RMP amendments to implement the San Rafael Recreation Area from the Dingell Act asking the BLM to close all the cherry-stemmed roads based on impacts to the surrounding wilderness area.

        Another example in Colorado is the 4×4 road to Clohesy Lake near Leadville. It was expressly cherry-stemmed out of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness back when that was designated because it was a popular 4×4 road accessing a popular fishing lake. In the Pike San Isabel NF travel management process, wilderness groups have been pushing super hard to get it closed, complaining of impacts to the surrounding wilderness character and such. Their PR campaigns have disingenuously referred to it as being in the wilderness area when it most certainly is not, ginning up outrage about roads in wilderness areas. Fortunately as of the draft decision the Forest Service ignored them and planned to keep the road open, but we (Colorado Off Road Enterprise, which I am an advisory board member of and which has adopted this trail) have had to fight super hard to keep it open, and it’s still an open question where the final endpoint will be.

        From these experiences and others it’s clear that wilderness groups never intend to honor the compromises they make to get wilderness legislation passed, but will immediately start pushing for more. Roads that are cherry-stemmed into wilderness areas or form the boundaries of wilderness instantly become priority targets for closure for that reason alone.

        In the CORE Act, one of the new wilderness areas north of Vail is filling in obvious cherry-stem in the boundaries of the Eagles Nest Wilderness, where a road used to be but has subsequently been closed in travel planning. If that road hadn’t been a wilderness cherry-stem, it might have been kept open, but closing cherry-stemmed roads presents such tempting opportunities to fill in “missing” areas in wilderness it’s very hard to stop. Language in wilderness legislation prohibiting buffer zones around wilderness has frequently been ignored by agencies, who will usually find some excuse to close roads near wilderness boundaries, clearing the way for the wilderness area to be expanded later. That’s why the motorized community has learned that we have to oppose all new wilderness designations, even ones that don’t directly close roads.

        • You are implying that the “compromise they make” is to never again argue for more wilderness (rather than to accept exclusion of some areas in order to get a particular wilderness designation for the rest). Even if that were true, it should be understood that it is not binding on anyone (unless they’re parties to a written contract) – and especially not on those who were not involved in the compromise.

          • Jon, I think this is a really important discussion. I’ve been thinking about trust lately (specifically with regard to fire management decisions) and how important it is. What does “agreement” really mean in this context? That would have been an important conversation to have before anyone entered into one. If it is “we will agree until the next opportunity opens to start the battle over again”, I don’t think that’s what most people mean by compromise.. so then people won’t trust those organizations, and it becomes a vicious cycle. Or so it seems to me.

            Perhaps there needs to be some kind of external institution that 1) clarifies the context of agreements and 2) follows up with some kind of accountability.

            • Jon, actually I’m saying that’s exactly what they are doing — accepting some exclusions now to get this designation while still planning to come back and ask for more later. The problem is that their public statements are deceptive and lead most people (including the politicians who vote for the wilderness bill) to believe the issue of wilderness designations in a particular area will be settled with this bill. Then the wilderness groups immediately go back and say “We never promised we’d never campaign for more wilderness in this area. Whatever gave you that idea?” I remember seeing a statement from SUWA that pretty much said exactly that in response to the Utah senators accusing them of going back on the deal made in the Dingell Act, though I can’t find it at the moment.

              Of course compromises like this are never “binding” on anyone in a legal sense. But it certainly eliminates any possibility of trust between opposing groups in these situations. It almost makes it impossible for any any wilderness designation debate to be truly settled, even in the short term.

              Sadly this only ever works one way. Wilderness opponents are expected to accept designated wilderness as final, while wilderness advocates are always free to advocate for additional wilderness. If things worked both ways and wilderness opponents immediately started campaigning to un-designate recently designated wilderness areas (and had any realistic chance of actually succeeding), I bet the wilderness groups would be just as outraged and suddenly see the value of respecting previous agreements.

            • Sharon’s question about “agreement” seems especially important. Clearly, it goes to Jon’s question about compromise and, by extension, whether those not party to an agreement are somehow bound by it. But it also may speak to the issues Patrick describes.

              As background, two main types of agreements are (1) majority rule, including so-called Super Majorities, and (2) consensus. The second is less about the strict agree/disagree of majority rule and more about an agreement among all the parties to be willing to live with the decision. In a sense, majority rule focuses on the areas of disagreement, while consensus focuses on areas of agreement.

              So, looking at consensus, it’s possible to disagree with a decision to some extent but still be willing to live with it, especially if the process has allowed you to see how your interests are addressed. Specifically, some folks who might disagree or vote “no” under a majority rule approach might be willing to live with a decision made through a consensus-building process if they become comfortable with how the decision addresses their interests.

              Similarly, some folks who vote “yes” or agree to compromise on ONE majority-rule decision still treat each subsequent decision independently, the way Patrick describes SUWA doing. That’s a one-off approach where the initial adversarial working relationship remains because no attention is given to changing it. Instead, attention is focused on a single transactional decision.

              My sense is that this pattern is more consistent with a traditional negotiation-compromise, majority rule approach to decisions than with a collaborative, consensus-oriented approach.

              The reason? Trust, which is built–often intentionally–during a consensus-building approach.

              A negotiation-compromise approach is adversarial by definition, so DISTRUST is the driver and the immediate decision is the main goal.

              A consensus-building approach, however, often has TRUST and trust-building as part of the goal, something that will extend beyond the immediate decision.

              In other words, a consensus-building approach that focuses on trust also–by definition–focuses on building an ongoing working relationship, sometimes even a community, not merely a one-off decision.

              In the situations described, if trust had been built, it would extend to subsequent decisions and issues, perhaps with more being built–a virtuous cycle. Instead, distrust seems to have been built, also with more being built down the road–a vicious cycle.

              So, how does a virtuous, trust-building cycle happen? I’m going to pick up that thread separately and offer some suggestions. My sense, as with Sharon’s, is that this thinking could be relevant to Wilderness debates and wildland fire management, to conservation and disaster recovery, to large landscapes and cross-boundary projects.

  2. I sure do wish these politicians and Wilderness advocates could lower their sights a little and try to do something to alleviate current problems like campgrounds and places to park. It’s just about impossible to put your stuff in your car and go camp somewhere. You have to make reservations months in advance and pay fees to a third party as if you were staying in a hotel. Parking lots at popular hiking trails fill up by 6 AM. If they made a point of keeping Patrick’s roads open and flattened out the land a little so people could park or camp it would be put to good use.

    Oh and thanks Patrick for making the effort.

  3. Thanks, Patrick. Your comments are informative and valuable.

    I noticed that even the moderate Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) voted no on the CORE Act. That tells me something.


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