U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) will introduce her omnibus Colorado Wilderness Bill next week to designate 62 areas of the state covering 1.65 million acres of public land as congressionally protected wilderness.
The proposal would protect about 40,500 acres on the top and walls of the Roan Plateau, which is currently the focus of controversial oil and gas development.
DeGette has been promoting a version of this proposal, which includes mostly lower elevation canyon lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management since 1999. But while the bill has languished, DeGette says that with the increased support within Colorado, along with the Democratic control of Congress, chances for passage are better now.
“I have talked to all of the (Colorado) House members,” DeGette said at a press conference at Confluence Park on the Platte River in Denver. “The fact that 70 percent of Coloradans statewide support more wilderness, all of our constituents support more wilderness, certainly is quite persuasive. the rest of the delegation are continuing to look at the bill, to talk to me about the bill, and we’ve had some great discussions
“The reason I’m more optimistic about the bill moving forward is with the new Democratic-led Congress, the new chairman of the Resources Committee, Congressman Nick Rahall from West Virginia is a strong conservationist. I’ve already met with Congressman Rahall. He’s quite interested in the bill and he has agreed to start hearings — I’m hoping sometime this year — on the legislation.
“In the past, the chairman of the Resources Committee never supported wilderness, so even though we continued to work on the bill and continued to build public support, we could never even get a hearing in previous Congresses.”
Colorado currently has about 3.4 million acres of federally designated wilderness, primarily high elevation peaks on U.S. Forest Service land. The current proposed legislation would protect primarily low lying BLM lands identified as having wilderness potential. These lands have long been managed as “multiple use” lands and many have a high potential for conflict with oil and gas development, water development, mining, grazing and other uses. In fact since the lands were first identified as being suitable for wilderness and proposed in the 1999 legislation, BLM has issued new oil and gas leases on 85,000 of these acres.
DeGette said that these leases, as well as existing mining leases and permits, would be grandfathered into the legislation, but no new leases and permits would be issued.
The legislation would protect 62 areas, mostly in western Colorado near the Utah border. The largest single area, though, is the 120,000 acre Troublesome area between Kremmling and Steamboat Springs. Other large areas are: Vermillion Basin, 86,600 acres, west of Craig; Handies Peak near Telluride, 72,400 acres; Sewemup Mesa, 65,400 acres, southwest of Grand Junction; and the 63,500 acre Dinosaur Additions near Dinosaur National Park. The smallest acreage is a 316 acre designation in the Maroon Bells near Aspen.