“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” said rancher Ramon Snyder, of Mex and Sons Ranch, who decades ago certainly wasn’t a member of Sheep Mountain Alliance, but actually grazed his sheep around Sheep Mountain. “It’s such a small area, with a lot of private land around there (Naturita Canyon). This little thing here? What would it cost to administrate?”
In the rambling grouse over lunch about wilderness areas in general, as well as about so-and-so Art Goodtimes and the rest of the San Miguel County Commissioners, Snyder said, “There’s getting to be quite a bit of dissatisfaction with the county commissioners and his in-house environmental group. If you don’t utilize this country, it dies. We can’t lock it up that way.”
Listening to this, Lyman Campbell, another long-time rancher in Norwood, let loose a soft-spoken yep, confirming what Snyder had said. Referring to the Burn Canyon fire in 2002, just west of Naturita Canyon, a lightning cause fire that destroyed the forests just northwest of the canyon, he said, believing federal land managers should have done more cutting, clearing and controlled burns in the area behorehand: “To me, they burn us out on one side, and now they are trying to shut down the other. If we don’t take care of the land, there are going to be fewer and fewer of us around here.”
Indeed, in looking how the 11,000-acre Naturita Canyon area fits in as past of a larger, 100,000 wilderness area bill under study by U.S. Rep John Salazar, D-Colo., for San Miguel County, as well as a much larger package for other areas in the state, the supporters of the plan, including Goodtimes and Hilary White, director of Sheep Mountain Alliance, that part of the proposal is one to be approached with caution.
“The intention is we don’t want to hurt people,” Goodtimes said. “There’s no bill before Congress yet. It’s still in concept. Right now, we are just hoping to get some input from the snowmobile, ATV, hunting and ranching people.”
As a candidate for wilderness area proposals that might fly at the national political level, San Miguel County is ripe for exploitation. Certainly, in Telluride, getting letters of support for the plan from local elected officials and environmental groups, activists and so on is a slam dunk.
But dealing with Wrights Mesa residents to sign off and write up supporting documents on Naturita Canyon is trickier.
In order to educate local residents to the proposal here, as well as to take the temperature on where the resistance might be, White has scheduled a meeting, or what Goodtimes called an “open house,” on the Naturita Canyon portion, and how it fits in with the rest of the 100,000 package for San Miguel County, for 5:30 p.m. Thursday, at the Norwood Town Hall.
They have spent the past several months drumming up support for a plan to extend the wilderness areas near Mount Sneffles, Lizard Head, Sheep Mountain and to propose entirely new wilderness areas for Naturita Canyon and McKenna Peak. If all were approved, it would add 100,000 acres of protected wilderness areas to San Miguel County.
“We thought we could get a proposal through pretty fast that would be non-confrontational and free of issues you might find in other areas,” White said, adding, though, that various land-use issues made Naturita Canyon more problematic. Nevertheless, “We have now decided to move ahead and approach people in the community to get support for this parcel.”
The overall strategy has been to map out areas with so few conflicts, it would be difficult to complain about locally, and fairly easy to get passed in Congress. White said the same has now been planned for Naturita Canyon. For example, to reduce the complications due to water rights, the southern headwaters of the canyon have been eliminated, she said, and for the rest, as it runs north before it crosses the first county road, “We can come up with some neutral water language so nothing will change on the ground.”
White said managers for Norwood’s water boards have been approached, and the Norwood Board of Trustees will soon follow. Those who may speak for ATV, recreational vehicle and snowmobile uses have also been contacted. But White and Goodtimes said some concern has been raised about the latter, but they were unsure why: All of the designated trails for motorized uses have been eliminated from the 11,000-acre proposal area.
“We are whittling away the conflicts because there’s a lot of misinformation out there,” she said. “We want to get the facts out to get rid of those misperceptions.”
For the 11,030 acres bordering BLM lands, private lands, and county roads to the north, the portion of the canyon being planned for the proposal is remote, hard to get to and rugged once you get there. There are no roads or trails. Just canyon walls and Naturita Creek running through it.
The San Miguel County Commissioners and the Telluride Town Council have already approved letters in support of the general areas being recommended. In addition, White is campaigning for interested parties to send letters to Salazar in support as well: everyone from mountain bikers to hikers, backcountry skiers and so on.
“I’m doing my best to show a well-rounded outpouring of support for this proposal so Congressman Salazar can see it’s a good thing,” White said. “We need a drum beat of letters.”
(His address is Honorable John Salazar, 813 Main Street, Suite 300, Durango, CO 81301)
The areas in the proposal include extending the Mount Sneffles wilderness area by 8,800 acres, which involves the Liberty Bell and Last Dollar areas. Running from the west side of Marshall Basin and around Whipple Mountain, the headwaters of many of the creeks north of Telluride would be included: Deep, Alder, Eider, Mill and Cornet Creeks.
The Lizard Head Wilderness Area would be extended by 3,000 acres, including a portion of Silver Pick Basin, Sunshine Mesa, areas adjacent to and above the community of San Bernardo and Lizard Head Pass.
While all of the proposed areas would protect wildlife habitat and migration corridors, the Sheep Mountain “potential wilderness area,” adding another 12,000 acres, and the Lizard Head area would both protect the Canadian Lynx habitats, White said.
“The Mount Sneffles and Lizard Head Wilderness Areas,” White stated in a letter to the town council before its unanimous endorsement of the plan, “are considered core reserves; protected areas that are ecologically viable and function in their natural state. The Sheep Mountain Area is considered important for its connectivity function. Conservation biology points to the need for core reserves that are large in size and diverse in habitat.
“Science demonstrates that a larger core reserve is likely to sustain more habitats and species than smaller ones. Climate change science predicts that as the earth warms, northern wildlife migrations will be necessary for survival. Wilderness protection groups are calling for the importance of establishing larger protected core reserves and migration corridors.
“In addition, protection of tributaries to the San Miguel River is important because the San Miguel River is free of major dams and diversions, making it one of the three major river systems left in Colorado where natural hydrological processes are intact.”
The 30,000 acre McKenna Peak wilderness, once considered to have a tougher chance to get approved, is looking good now, Goodtimes said after he and White visited with Salazar and his aides in Washington, D.C. last month.
However, if Naturita Canyon is approved, it will need the support from some people who seem to have a dislike for anything running downhill both from Telluride or Washington D.C. For the ranchers at the Maverick, setting aside land for wilderness area is the wrong way to go.
“I’m an environmentalist, too,” Snyder said. “We got to live and let live. This thing can be administrated by the BLM, so more people can use it. We need to utilize the western part of our country. If we don’t harvest and maintain our forests, they will die. Take a tree and plant a tree, ya know.”