SILVERTON – Still officially “undecided,” U.S. Representative Scott Tipton did not attend his second “listening session” on the proposed San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act of 2011. He instead sent four staffers to be his eyes and ears at an informal open house Thursday, Nov. 10, in Silverton.
About 70 of Tipton’s constituents traveled to Silverton from as far afield as Durango, Crested Butte and Delta, hoping to influence the Republican congressman’s decision on whether or not to support the wilderness bill.
Throughout the evening, a broad spectrum of regional pro-and-anti-wilderness voices clamored to be heard, mounting both general philosophical arguments and specific concerns across an ever-shifting canvas of contention.
Senator Mark Udall (D. Colo.) introduced the legislation in late September. Co-sponsored in the Senate by Michael Bennet (D. Colo.), SB 1635 is one of 19 wilderness bills currently being considered by Congress. It would preserve a patchwork of more than 61,000 acres of mostly mountainous terrain in Ouray, San Miguel and San Juan Counties through the expansion of existing wilderness areas (Lizard Head and Mt. Sneffels), and the creation of a new one (McKenna Peak). It would also establish the Sheep Mountain Special Management Area in the mountains between Silverton and Telluride, to be largely managed as wilderness while still permitting heli-skiing and the annual Hard Rock 100 endurance run, and would withdraw over 6,000 acres within the steep walls of Naturita Canyon from mineral entry.
This is the bill’s second incarnation. Udall and Bennet previously introduced it in 2009 with former Congressman John Salazar. Now, Tipton is being urged by many of his constituents to sponsor companion legislation in the House, picking up where Salazar left off when his reelection bid fell short last year.
Tipton has thus far been noncommittal about whether he will follow through with companion legislation, a source of frustration for key players in regional conservation organizations such as the Sheep Mountain Alliance, San Juan Citizens Alliance and the Ridgway-Ouray Community Council, who have been deeply invested in crafting the wilderness proposal at the grassroots level over the past several years.
“We’re doing everything we can to convince the congressman to support it,” emphasized Dan Randolph, executive director with the San Juan Citizens Alliance, who traveled to Silverton with other wilderness supporters from the Durango area to attend the listening session.
Hilary White of Sheep Mountain Alliance, meanwhile, declined to comment on whether Tipton has been receptive to efforts to win his support, but did say, after a long pause, “It’s hard to say....”
“It’s a positive sign that he’s out listening to constituents, allowing folks to give feedback,” offered Amber Kelley of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, putting a positive spin on an obviously frustrating situation.
White said that Tipton has had to tackle a “steep learning curve” regarding wilderness legislation. “At this point, it’s an education effort for the congressman and his staff,” she reflected. “They’ve never had this type of experience with wilderness designation before, and we’ve been working for several years on this with people [from the Salazar era] that are entrenched in the history of wilderness and the law of wilderness.”
Topping that list is former Salazar aide John Whitney of Durango, now a field representative for Sen. Bennet, and one of Bennet’s key advisors on the San Juans proposal. Whitney, who has made the trip over the mountains to attend both of Tipton’s listening sessions thus far, has heard all kinds of arguments against wilderness expansion during his tenure on the project, but perhaps none as unique as that posed to him in Silverton during a heated conversation with Olathe resident Barb Hulet.
Hulet asserted that the San Juan Mountains Wilderness expansion is linked to the so-called Agenda 21, which she described as a United Nations agenda promoting socialism and extreme environmentalism brushed with anti-American, anti-capitalist overtones.
Elsewhere in the room, theories of a different sort were being discussed – namely, that Tipton and his staff were at the helm of an effort to stir up grassroots opposition to wilderness expansion, with talk of one report (that went viral in late September) alleging that Tipton’s first listening session in Ouray was planned well in advance, but publicized only to local Republicans intending to “jam the hall with conservatives,” and that, more recently, a Tipton aide allegedly influenced a split among the San Juan County Board of Commissioners regarding their formerly unanimous support of the wilderness expansion.
Longtime Ouray geologist Bob Larson didn’t pay much heed to the gossip, sticking to his message that wilderness expansion is incompatible with efforts to revive mining in the region, and thus is not good for the economy, and that because he and others in the mining industry were not properly consulted about the boundaries for the current wilderness expansion proposal, it could, as written, adversely affect mining.
Mining law expert John Wright, whose mining roots in Silverton go back nearly four decades, echoed Larson’s concerns, particularly in light of the recent 2-1 vote by the San Juan County Commissioners supporting the wilderness expansion “so long as it doesn’t adversely affect mining.”
The problem is not so much the numbers of current miners who would be put out of work by the proposed new wilderness, Wright suggested, as the nullification of future mineral discoveries in the district, and the impact on future jobs. “A wilderness designation, by its very nature, means mineral entry is excluded,” Wright stated. “You will not go into an area that has been withdrawn from mineral entry to look for locatable minerals, because you can’t claim them by right of discovery. So the question is, why even bother looking?”
Tipton will hold a third listening session in Telluride in January 2012, and is expected to make an announcement shortly thereafter on whether he will introduce companion legislation to SB 1635. In the meantime, comments on the proposed San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act can be sent to him at email@example.com.