A plan to protect more than 60,000 acres in southwestern Colorado reached the Public Lands and Forests Subcommittee last week where U.S. Sen. Mark Udall emphasized how public lands can be a boon to the economy
“Wilderness is one of our state’s great economic engines,” Udall, D-Colorado, said at a hearing on Friday. “This region — in fact I would say much of my state — depends on our surrounding public lands not only for recreational opportunities, hunting and fishing, and scenic vistas, all of which are vital to our local economies; but also for protecting municipal water supplies and clean air.”
The San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act would designate 33,000 acres as wilderness — mostly as expansions of the existing Lizard Head and Mount Sneffels wilderness areas — in addition to adding mid-elevation lands to the system with a new area around 7,933-foot McKenna Peak, where imposing sandstone cliffs jut out of the plain. The bill would additionally designate about 22,000 acres as a special management area allowing some outdoor recreation activities such as hiking, hunting and fishing. Over 6,000 acres within Naturita Canyon would also be withdrawn from oil and gas development under the legislation.
“The bill protects existing water rights, allows continued grazing, does not affect the continued operation of a hydroelectric plant, continues to allow established heli-skiing on Sheep Mountain, and does not interfere with an important and popular footrace, called the Hardrock 100. It does not affect any current legal motorized or mechanical access,” Udall said.
The San Juan Wilderness Act was first introduced in 2009 by former U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colorado, and has since been championed by Udall and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, who co-sponsored its reintroduction last fall. U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colorado, has discussed the bill with stakeholders in the area but he has not taken a clear position on the bill.
In the past, Tipton has favored rolling back wilderness protections for public lands.
Leslie Weldon, deputy chief of the national forest system, said her agency supports the proposal and recognized “the wide support in Colorado for this bill.” But she also recommended softening language in the bill that would limit water projects so that it wouldn’t contradict existing laws.
Supporters of the bill include Ouray, San Miguel and San Juan county commissions, the city of Ouray and the towns of Ophir, Ridgway, Mountain Village, Telluride and Norwood as well as a number of local homeowners’ associations and landowners. The Bull Moose Sportsmen’s Alliance, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Trout Unlimited and many businesses also back it.
“Colorado’s population is expected to double by 2050, and we need to be proactive so that future generations can experience the beauty, clean air and water, and wildlife that we have today,” Udall said. “I’m proud of my successful past work to designate wilderness at James Peak and in Rocky Mountain National Park, and I look forward to this bill and to my new collaborative, community-driven processes that I hope will ultimately lead to additional legislation to protect two other very special places in my state — the Central Mountains and the Arkansas River and Browns Canyon.”
The San Juan Wilderness Act now awaits a committee markup where its fate could be determined. Udall maintains he will do whatever he can to get the legislation approved in this Congress.