Political battle shaping up over conflicting Colorado wilderness plans

For a decade now, Democratic U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette of Denver has been fighting an uphill battle to vastly increase the acreage of Colorado’s public lands designated as wilderness, which limits development and prohibits wheeled travel. With Democrats in control of the White House and Congress, she may actually have a realistic shot this time around.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-CO1
U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-CO1

Environmental groups are pushing hard to finally get something done on the Colorado wilderness front in the current Congress. “We’ve got an enormous political opportunity having a strong conservation-minded Congress, at least more so than in quite some time,” Denver-based Environment Colorado advocate Matthew Garrington said.

DeGette remains a big backer in the House, but U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, whose 2nd Congressional District includes much of the critical White River National Forest, and U.S. Rep. John Salazar, whose 3rd Congressional District stretches west from the Continental Divide to the Utah border, are also viewed as key to the process.

“Obviously, we’ve had a lot of great conversations with Rep. Polis, and Rep. DeGette continues to be a stand-up supporter and leader on wilderness protection,” Garrington said. “And at this point I would say Rep. Salazar has really stood up on the San Juan plan, and we’re excited to see that leadership role on wilderness.”

But Garrington last week, in conjunction with a coalition of groups working as the Colorado Wilderness Network, submitted more than 13,700 signatures of support to the offices of U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall of Colorado.

“I actually think it’s the Senate where our focus can do the most good in helping to protect wild lands everywhere,” Garrington said. “Obviously, Sens. Udall and Bennet represent the whole state of Colorado, and them weighing in to support wilderness protection can really be a game changer to help push wilderness forward.”

DeGette, purely for discussion purposes, recently floated her version of a new plan that would create 34 new wilderness areas and protect nearly 900,000 acres, according to the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.

And Salazar has already introduced the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act, which would protect 60,000 acres of public lands in San Miguel County, plus parts of Ouray and San Juan counties.

Colorado Wilderness Network supports the San Juan plan, as well as two other plans — Hidden Gems and Colorado’s Canyon Country Wilderness proposal — that would total nearly 1.9 million acres of new wilderness in Colorado.

Some, including new White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams, say the groups may be overreaching. The 2.3-million-acre White River, one of the most heavily utilized national forests in the nation for recreational purposes, has identified about 82,000 acres that would be appropriate to add to the approximate 750,000 acres already designated wilderness.

Environmental groups have proposed up to 400,000 new acres of wilderness in the White River, which includes the most popular ski resorts in the nation and is one of the most rafted, hiked, biked and hunted national forests in the nation. Some off-road vehicle enthusiasts, including mountain-biking groups, are rallying to fight the proposals in order to maintain access.

“Wilderness definitely is an economic driver in a lot of different areas,” Garrington said. “It does promote outdoor recreation. But that being said, we need to make sure that we sit down and have good conversations with all the different user groups and make sure that we come together on a proposal that makes sense for everybody and protects wilderness and wild lands in the state.”

Oil and gas industry representatives have also started saber-rattling over conflicts they see with existing leases in areas such as the Roan Plateau. According to The Aspen Times, the Hidden Gems proposal could impact 46 oil and gas leases totaling 36,584 acres. The White River’s Fitzwilliams said: “Existing oil and gas leases are essentially a binding contract — the lessor has the legal right to the oil and gas resources.”

But Sloan Shoemaker of Aspen’s Wilderness Workshop, told The Times many of those leases were granted after the Bush administration tossed out the Clinton roadless rule and may be deemed invalid once the Obama administration sorts through the legal tangle and establishes a new national roadless rule.

Shoemaker also told The Times that former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, now an oil and gas attorney running for governor in 2010, “politicized” the issue of designating public lands wilderness, and that there’s “some bias in the [Forest Service] against wilderness.”

DeGette’s plan, as currently floated, could conflict directly with Forest Service leases issued to Bill Barrett Corp., which has a 90 percent interest in about 40,000 acres of Roan leases, according to the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.

Barrett spokesman Jim Felton said, “We would vigorously protect our property rights there.” But a DeGette spokesman said the congresswoman’s plan is a work and progress and some wilderness areas could coexist with oil and gas production on the Roan.

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