Visitors returning to the backcountry of Rocky Mountain National Park next summer probably won’t notice any sweeping changes–but that’s one of the points to wilderness designation. More than three decades after park managers identified about 250,000 acres of high-country lakes and forests as worthy of additional protection, those areas are on the verge of being permanently preserved as wilderness.
The new wilderness areas are among several pieces of legislation that are rolled into a public-lands bill awaiting a vote from Congress. The legislation combines more than 150 bills that will create and expand two million acres of wilderness areas in eight states and enable a number of public-private land trades.
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Colorado’s West Slope is among those slated to become wilder. The Dominguez Canyon Wilderness, between Delta and Grand Junction, will include 66,000 acres of sandstone desert and waterfalls, and scores of petroglyphs. Dam builders have talked about flooding the canyon as a reservoir site, and wilderness designation will ensure the increasingly popular canyon is never inundated.
The package also includes bills to create new national heritage areas in the Sangre de Cristo and South Park regions and along the Cache la Poudre River. Heritage areas are recognized for historical, natural and cultural values, and the designated areas will be eligible for federal funds to protect and promote those resources, which could lead to increased tourism.
Wilderness advocates had hoped the measures would have been voted on during the Senate’s lame-duck session that started November 17, but it was knocked off the agenda, partly because of the pressing business of rescuing the economy and the auto industry. “We’re disappointed we didn’t get to clear these off the plate,” says Brian Geiger, of the Campaign for America’s Wilderness. “Many of these [wilderness proposals] have been in the works at the local levels for years.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has pledged that the Senate will take up the lands bill first thing in January.
Congressman John Salazar, who sponsored several of the Colorado measures lumped into the lands bill, says he’ll make them a priority in the next session.
“I will join with the other members of the Colorado Congressional delegation to reintroduce this legislation and move it expeditiously early in the 111th Congress,” he says.
The economy isn’t entirely to blame for the holdup: Oklahoma Republican Congressman Tom Coburn has threatened to filibuster the legislation, which would suck up precious time that senators want to dedicate to economic stimulus. Coburn claims the measures would slow down oil-and-gas drilling on public lands and add to the nation’s financial woes.
The combined costs of proposals within the bill would be $3.4 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Coburn’s reasoning sounds ironic here in Colorado, where energy development has run into few obstacles and heightened the push to protect wildlands.
“I laugh and cry at the same time when I hear groups say the bill is going to shut down the public lands,” says Jeff Widen, of The Wilderness Society’s Wilderness Support Center in Durango. “Senator Coburn claims he wants to see fiscal responsibility from Congress, but there’s very, very little fiscal responsibility relating to wilderness.”
The bill will have positive financial impacts, Widen says, because it will protect popular recreation areas for hiking and hunting and fishing. The package will also permanently establish the National Landscape Conservation System, which includes several Colorado conservation areas, such as the McInnis Canyons outside Grand Junction and the Gunnison Gorge, near Delta.
“We’re chronically under-funded on maintenance and recreation, and the cachet of the system could attract more money for visitor services and to adequately address oil and gas impacts,” Widen says.
More wilderness proposals could likely follow in the next Congress, including bills for new areas around Aspen on the White River National Forest and in Brown’s Canyon, near Buena Vista. Legislation has typically relied on bipartisan support to get moving, but Democrats’ enhanced control of Congress and the Obama White House will likely have a different scale than the Bush administration when it comes to weighing oil-and-gas development versus recreation and public-lands protection.
“I hope to see an increase in the scale of wilderness,” Widen says, referring to initiatives that would target the mosaic of landscapes that make up Colorado.