Udall, Bennet back San Juan wilderness, but will they support two other plans?

Colorado Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet earlier this week introduced the Senate version of U.S. Rep. John Salazar’s San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act, which would protect more than 60,000 acres of public lands in southwestern Colorado as either wilderness or a special management area.

Sens Mark Udall and Michael Bennet
Sens Mark Udall and Michael Bennet

The act, if passed by both houses of Congress, would designate 33,383 acres as wilderness – mostly expanding existing wilderness areas – and 21,697 acres as a special management area. It would also take 6,596 acres of the Naturita Canyon area out consideration for mineral exploration or extraction.

Overall, more than 61,000 acres would be protected in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, San Juan and Gunnison national forests and the San Juan Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Resource Area in San Juan, Ouray and San Miguel counties.

Senate support is seen as critical to the passage of wilderness protection, and the San Juan bill is said to also have widespread local support, but before proponents of two other wilderness proposals in Colorado – Hidden Gems and Colorado’s Canyon Country Wilderness Area – get too excited, they should consider Udall’s support for recreation access.

Udall last spring introduced a bill that would make possible more activities on public lands leased by ski areas, where the current definition of what can take place under ski-area special use permits is pretty narrow. But environmentalists worry that opening the door to more mountain biking, concerts and alpine coasters could lead to the wholesale Disney-fication of public lands.

Off-road enthusiasts and mountain bikers are concerned they would be shut out of public lands, especially in the extremely popular White River National Forest, where Hidden Gems would designate up to 400,000 as wilderness and therefore block wheeled access. Backcountry conservationists argue the White River, home to the state’s most popular ski areas, is being used to death.

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