Now local environmentalists have put forth a proposal to permanently protect that very mountain as well as its neighbors to the east. While part of the Sneffels Range is currently protected as wilderness, the wilderness boundary bisects Mount Sneffels itself and leaves unprotected the entire east end of the range north of Camp Bird Road.
A new proposal sponsored by the Ridgway-Ouray Community Council would add almost 13,000 acres to the existing Sneffels Wilderness Area. The new wilderness would include the Sneffels Range from the Blue Lakes Trail all the way east to where the range drops off into the Highway 550 corridor. It includes Mount Sneffels, Blaine Basin, Cirque, Teakettle, Ridgway, Whitehouse, and Corbett mountains, as well as the high basins that connect them, except for the heavily roaded Yankee Boy. It also includes the headwaters of the Dallas Creek drainage and other tributaries of the Uncompahgre.
The proposed wilderness addition includes high alpine tundra, wildflower-strewn meadows and large forests of Douglas fir, aspen, Engelmann spruce, and subalpine fir. It includes habitat for such charismatic species as bighorn sheep, white-tailed ptarmigan and the recently reintroduced lynx. According to ROCC, the Whitehouse area may have been home to the last grizzlies in the Sneffels Range, last seen in the 1930s. Unconfirmed sightings of wolverine, a species thought to be extirpated long ago, lend the area an air of mystery and ruggedness backed up by a severe topography studded with permanent snowfields and ancient rock glaciers.
What the proposal does not include are those elements that might make it controversial, such as active or potentially reopened mining areas and trails used by mountain bikers. In fact, the proposal has garnered support from a broad cross section of the county populace: ranchers, mountain bikers, hikers, hunters, and mountaineers. The Town of Ridgway, the City of Ouray and Ouray County have all come out in support of the proposal. The only group to express opposition is the Colorado Snowmobile Association, which takes an official position of “No New Wilderness.”
However, ROCC President Sheelagh Williams points out that the area under consideration is already managed as wilderness, and that the new designation would not change things on the ground. It would not take away areas already enjoyed by snowmobilers or by mountain bikers, who are also forbidden from wilderness trails. Since grazing is allowed in wilderness areas, it would not impact ranching. Same goes for hunting.
So why do we need new wilderness then? For one thing, it’s good for the economy. While much of the county’s land is locked up in ranching, much of its economy is driven by tourism, as well as by the residential and recreational needs of a community that wants to live in close proximity to nature as God made it.
Therein lies the second good reason for wilderness: it lets nature do its thing without interference from humans. Larger areas of wilderness have a better chance at functioning as ecologically viable units. They provide a greater diversity of habitat. They are more resilient to environmental catastrophes, from blow-downs to climate change.
The Teakettle Expansion, in particular, offers yet another benefit: connectivity. It would narrow the gap between the Sneffels Wilderness and the nearby Big Blue Wilderness, thus helping create a more or less unbroken chain of wildlife habitat for those species that need to move freely over large areas – and many of them do.
Even with expanded wilderness, even with good migratory corridors, the fact remains that America’s unroaded, untrammeled wildlands, touched not by the blight of human works, are just islands in a sea of growing human encroachment and environmental change. We’ve got a lot of acres dedicated to human activity. The least we can do is dedicate a few more acres to the other species on the planet.