Old Wilderness, New Politics

Wilderness politics has changed over the years as the obvious candidates for Congressional protection have been protected and less prominent places come under consideration. Most of the lands protected first were mountainous areas in national forests, many of which were hard to get to and had relatively few resource conflicts.

Now the focus has turned to lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which have been used and reused for decades for grazing, oil and gas development, cool mining, hard rock mining and so on. On most of these lands, recreation or wildlife management have been an unwelcome stepchild.

Despite this long history of resource exploitation, some of these BLM lands have miraculously retained wilderness characteristics — “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” according to the 1964 Wilderness Act — and have been inventoried and recommended by one survey or another for inclusion in the National Wilderness System.To date, four wilderness areas have been carved out of BLM lands in Colorado — Black Ridge Canyon, Gunnison Gorge, Powderhorn and Uncompahgre — totaling about 140,000 acres. The legislation to be introduced by U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette next week, if passed, would increase that total dramatically. DeGette is proposing 62 new wilderness areas totaling 1.65 million acres.

Despite the fact that wilderness designation “locks up” land for most other uses, it has proven surprisingly popular in the West. According to a survey of Coloradans performed by the firm Talmey-Drake for several environmental groups, released in May, 64 percent of the state’s residents support wilderness designation for the lands that meet the appropriate criteria.

On the West Slope, where most of the new wilderness would be, wilderness designation is even more popular than it is generally. According to the survey:

“Seventy percent of West Slope respondents favor designation of wilderness-quality Forest Service or BLM lands in or near the county where they live … Only 23 percent of those surveyed on the West Slope were in opposition.”

The wilderness legislation DeGette’s proposing is not nearly as restrictive on development as wilderness legislation has historically been. It will grandfather in existing oil and gas leases, existing mining leases and make federal water rights subsidiary to state water courts.

With all those exceptions, this new BLM wilderness will not enjoy nearly as much protection as traditional wilderness designations. The fact that environmentalists will enthusiastically buy in to these lesser safeguards speaks volumes about the state of wild lands protection in the 21st century.

Not everyone is enthusiastic, of course. U.S. Rep. John Salazar (D-Colo.), in whose congressional district most of the proposed wilderness areas are located, has managed to restrain his enthusiasm so far.

Salazar spokesman Rick Palacio said blandly in an email:

“John doesn’t have a position on the proposal at this time.  He will be soliciting feedback from the local communities and elected officials in these areas and looks forward to taking an in depth look at the legislation.”

A bill that isn’t supported by the member whose district it impacts is not likely to pass the Congress. That much has not changed in wilderness politics.

The oil and gas industry is also likely to be unenthusiastic. But calls to Colorado Oil and Gas Association President Meg Collins requesting comment were not returned.

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Dan Whipple

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