Poll shows western Colorado voters fond of wilderness, see outdoors as economic key
Conservation groups contend that if public opinion holds sway, a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to add protections to about 400,000 acres of public lands in Colorado should earn approval next week.
The House is scheduled to vote on the Colorado Outdoor and Recreation Economy Act, also known as the CORE Act. One area included in CORE is Thompson Divide, west of Carbondale. About 200,000 acres would be withdrawn from leasing for oil and gas development in the proposal (see factbox).
In addition, the act would establish Camp Hale as a national historic landscape. Camp Hale, near Tennessee Pass, is where the famed 10th Mountain Division trained for mountain warfare during World War II.
A consortium of conservation groups, including Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, teamed up to commission a poll of western Colorado residents on wilderness-related issues. They held a teleconference Friday to share the results of the poll.
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“Colorado needs this legislation to protect some of our most treasured landscapes and this poll shows that voters stand behind the idea that we can and should be doing more,” said Mark Pearson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.
A company called New Bridge Strategy surveyed 400 registered voters from the 3rd Congressional District as well as Chaffee and Fremont counties in September. All of the lands in the CORE Act are located within the areas included in the survey.
The results show 63% of respondents strongly or somewhat support dedicating additional public lands as wilderness, while 35% strongly or somewhat oppose. The poll has a margin of error of 5%.
The poll also showed people believe there is a positive economic impact from public lands: 84% of respondents said it helps the economy, while only 6% said it hurts the economy and 8% said it has little impact.
Public lands hold value for people across the political spectrum. About 93% of Democrats and 85% of Republicans in the survey said public lands help rather than hurt the economy. The opinion was shared by 76% of unaffiliated voters.
When asked if more lands should be designated as wilderness, 93% of Democrats and 56% of Republicans were in support. It was evenly split among unaffiliated voters — with 49% in support and 48% opposed.
The proposal for more wilderness even tallied support from the majority of people identifying themselves as mountain bikers, off-road vehicle enthusiasts or snowmobilers. Their uses would be excluded because wilderness doesn’t allow motorized or mechanized uses.
Mountain bikers supported more wilderness by a 73% to 25% margin. Off-roaders and sledders supported the concept 52% to 48%.
Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman was one of the speakers in the teleconference. He said the bill has widespread support in Pitkin County. He said he personally hopes to see the special protection for Camp Hale before the last of the soldiers who trained there pass on.
The CORE Act earned a vote of approval from the House Natural Resources Committee. If it proceeds to a full House vote and is passed, it would be the first statewide Colorado wilderness legislation to pass Congress in over a decade. It also would need approval from the U.S. Senate and President Donald Trump.
Scott Tipton, the Cortez Republican who represents the 3rd District, hasn’t taken a position on the bill. Pearson said he hoped the poll results of the congressman’s constituents would persuade him to support the measure.
In addition to providing protections in Thompson Divide for 200,000 acres, the act also would create a national historic landscape on 28,728 acres around Camp Hale, add 73,000 acres of wilderness, create two wildlife conservation areas of 11,668 acres, create a recreation management area in the Tenmile Range totaling 16,966 acres, and establish a boundary around the 43,000-acre Curecanti National Recreation Area.
A poll conducted for conservation groups provided specific evidence that western Colorado residents support protection of the Thompson Divide over developing it for oil and gas.
The poll (see related story) asked, “Oil and gas companies would like to develop an area in the White River National Forest between Carbondale and Paonia known as the Thompson Divide. Ranchers prefer to see the area managed for livestock grazing and for hunting and fishing. Which is closer to your opinion?”
Results showed 60 percent of respondents said Thompson Divide should be off-limits to oil and gas drilling and managed for wildlife and grazing, while 29 percent it is important to open the area for oil and gas drilling.
Another 6 percent suggested both could be accomplished, while 1 percent said neither. Four percent had no opinion.
The CORE Act includes the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act. It would withdraw 200,000 acres from future oil and gas development while preserving existing private property rights for leaseholders and landowners. It also creates a program to lease excess methane from nearby coal mines.
For more on the CORE Act, go to https://coreact.org.
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