GOP boys put primary preservation before environmental preservation

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Last week, a long-awaited bill to set aside more than 2 million acres in nine states as protected wilderness was rejected by the U.S. House of Representatives.

The bill would have designated Rocky Mountain National Park as a protected wilderness, and would have expanded the Indian Peaks Wilderness. The vote was 282-144, two votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to pass the bill as written, shutting off all further amendments.

As written, the bill enjoyed bipartisan support and offered many benefits to Colorado. It was supported by the entire Colorado congressional delegation — excepting only the delegation’s two Republicans. Doug Lamborn, whose district includes all of El Paso and Teller counties, and Mike Coffman, who represents much of the northern Front Range, joined with other Republicans to torpedo the bill.

Environmental groups had a field day, filling the blogosphere with righteous attacks on the Terrible Two, who clearly care nothing about our undefiled mountain landscapes blah, blah, blah.

Coffman lamely complained that this “massive public lands bill” was “irresponsibly moved to the House floor,” while Lamborn said that the bill, although it had some good features, would “do more harm than good.”

Inventively, if disingenuously, he even cited his concern that innocent fossil and rock collectors might be prosecuted for pursuing their hobby on public lands.

Cynics — not to mention those pesky environmentalists! — accused the GOP of hypocritical posturing.

“They (Republican leaders in the House) want to obstruct anything and everything, apparently,” said Mike Matz, executive director of the Campaign for America’s Wilderness. “They don’t care that some of their members want to get something done on wilderness.”

Whatever the merits of the bill — or lack thereof — Lamborn and Coffman have just done the Dems a favor. They’ve cheerfully reinforced a key Democratic message, and have made the Colorado GOP even less relevant to moderate and independent voters.

Here’s the message.

“We Democrats are here in Colorado for the same reason that you are — we prize our natural environment, our wildlife, our free-flowing streams, our crystalline skies, our sparkling lakes, our majestic 14’ers, our wonderful ski areas and every other natural (and man-made) wonder in our state. We want to join hands with you and protect this precious heritage, to partner with businesses large and small, and make sure that we pass on what is most precious to us to our children and grandchildren … (insert several more paragraphs of feel-good rhetoric).

“But the Republicans don’t agree (crocodile tears!). They don’t care about hikers, or hunters, or fishermen, or wilderness or crystalline skies … (insert everything else that any reasonable person would care about). They only care about the oil companies, the National Rifle Association, the polluters, the people who want to steal your water and destroy wildlife habitat, not to mention (list every organization/position that any reasonable person would oppose).”

That’s not true of Lamborn and Coff-man. They’re smart, engaging men who prize our state’s natural beauty as much as anyone. But they’ve fallen into a trap, one that has swallowed many a pol.

Both represent solidly Republican districts. Lamborn’s in his second term, Coffman is in his first. Neither has reason to feel particularly safe from a primary challenge. So they’re making sure that they represent the most powerful people in their districts — the Republican primary voters who might decide their fates every two years.

Of the five Dems that represent Colorado in the House, three (Ed Perlmutter, Betsy Markey and John Salazar) come from swing districts. They don’t have to worry about primary challenges — rather, they need to craft positions that will appeal to moderate Republicans and unaffiliated voters. The loony left can’t tell ’em what to do. They’re free to vote as they please, even stray from the party line.

During the early 1970s, the country endured a long recession, as well as the painful process of exiting from a divisive war. The nation turned inward and supported far-reaching legislation to protect the environment and to curb the perceived excesses of big business.

In Colorado, voters rejected the 1976 Winter Olympics, endorsing the position taken by a coalition of environmental groups.

If you still have your fabulous ’70s eight-track, hit the replay button — it’s déjà vu all over again. War, recession, environmentalism. But this time the Repubs have no Ronald Reagan — and no Hank Brown and no Bill Armstrong — to save them.

We might be entering an era when the Republican Party literally vanishes, representing only a handful of southern states and a few isolated, quirky redoubts like our own little burg.

John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.