WESTERN SAN JUANS – Wilderness supporters across the region on Thursday applauded Sen. Mark Udall’s reintroduction of the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Bill, piece of grassroots legislation that would federally preserve a patchwork of public lands in southwestern Colorado.
"Colorado's scenic mountains and open spaces create jobs and form the very foundation of our thriving outdoor recreation economy. We need to support these job creators by protecting and preserving the public lands that are critical to their businesses and our quality of life in Colorado," Udall said. "This legislation is an example of how wilderness should be done — from the bottom up and with the support of local businesses, leaders and residents."
The bill seeks to preserve 61,000 acres in San Miguel, Ouray and San Juan counties. It would achieve this by expanding some existing wilderness areas, designating one new one, and extending new protections to certain other wild lands in the area. Specific provisions include:
• 3,170 acres added to the existing Lizard Head Wilderness Area in San Miguel County;
• 21,606 acres added to the existing Mt. Sneffels Wilderness Area in San Miguel and
• 8,614 acres of the McKenna Peak Wilderness Study Area in San Miguel County,
located in the Disappointment Valley, designated as wilderness.
It would also extend new protections to other wild lands in the region:
• 21,697 acres in San Juan and San Miguel County including Ice Lakes Basin outside of
Silverton and the high alpine peaks near Ophir designated as the Sheep Mountain
Special Management Area. Existing uses including heliskiing would be allowed to
continue, but no new roads or other development will be permitted. The area would
automatically become wilderness should the heliski company cease to operate in the
• 6,595 acres withdrawn from eligibility for mineral leasing in Naturita Canyon, near
Norwood in San Miguel County.
The bill was originally sponsored in the House by John Salazar and in the Senate by Mark Udall in 2009, but failed to pass Congress.
Wilderness advocates managed to revive the legislation in 2011; Udall and co-sponsor Michael Bennet reintroduced the bill in September of that year. Constituents on both sides of the Wilderness issue spent much of the remainder of 2011 trying to influence Representative Scott Tipton’s decision whether to pick up the Wilderness Act where the ousted Salazar had left off by introducing companion legislation in the House.
Supporters pointed to broad grassroots support for the wilderness expansion, and its potential benefits for tourism in the area. Opponents, including then newly elected Ouray County Commissioner Mike Fedel, argued that wilderness designation would negatively impact mining in the region, including mining for so-called rare earth minerals.
Wilderness designation “would eliminate the possibility of developing these forever,” Fedel said, when he cast the lone dissenting vote among Ouray County Commissioners against two in favor of continuing the county’s support for the wilderness expansion.
Tipton attended a listening session in Ouray in September 2011 that drew over 400 wilderness advocates and opponents from throughout the region. His staff then conducted two more open house events in Silverton and Telluride to meet with concerned constituents on the matter.
Wilderness advocates turned up the heat, putting ads in regional papers and sending a letter to congressman urging him to make up his mind one way or the other, and to let the community know where he stands on the matter. But so far, he has not tipped his hand.
Udall, meanwhile has never stopped championing the bill. In March of 2012, he spoke to his colleagues at a Public Lands and Forests Subcommittee hearing about the merits of the legislation.
Hilary White, Executive Director of Sheep Mountain Alliance, was among those who praised Udall for once again reintroducing the bill today.
"Senator Udall believes, along with the majority of Colorado residents, in the vital importance of preserving our remaining wild lands and we are eager to see this incredible area in Southwest Colorado move closer to protection” said White. “There is strong regional support to see the clean air and clean water resources in these areas protected and we hope there will be support in Congress as well."