Wilson Peak

The San Juan Wilderness Act proposes to designate some 31,000 acres of wilderness areas near Telluride, Norwood, Ouray and Ridgway as new wilderness, including Wilson Peak. Above, Wilson Peak, seen from Wilson Mesa. (Planet file photo)

The San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act, which would blanket many areas in the Telluride region with a wilderness designation, is once again moving through the halls of Congress.

Proponents have for a decade endeavored to get some iteration of the bill passed. But while it’s been introduced a handful of times, it has yet to gain the traction it needs to become law.

This time, the bill comes packaged with three other previously introduced bills in a larger piece of legislation called The Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act.

Supporters say the resulting legislation, which offers protections for some 400,000 acres of public land across the state, will safeguard existing outdoor recreation opportunities and boost the economy for future generations. Sen. Michael Bennet (D, Colo.) and Congressman Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) introduced the bill into their respective chambers in late January.

“The CORE Act brings years of local collaborative input to the preservation of our landscapes, wildlife and recreational opportunities to ensure that Colorado’s public lands remain at the center of our economy and are preserved for generations to come,” Neguse said in a news release.

And Bennet noted the years spent hammering out the individual bills resulted in reasonable compromises with broad support of conservationists, businesses, sportsmen and outdoor interests alike.

“Colorado has waited too long for Congress to act on their earlier proposals, but the CORE Act presents a new opportunity to make real progress for our state,” Bennet said in a release.

The CORE Act combines the San Juan Wilderness Act with the Continental Divide Recreation, Wilderness and Camp Hale Legacy Act; the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act; and the Curencanti National Recreation Area Boundary Establishment Act.

All told, it creates protections for 400,000 acres — 73,000 of which represent new wilderness areas, and nearly 80,000 as new recreation and conservation management areas that preserve existing outdoor uses, such as hiking and mountain biking. The bill also includes a National Historic Landscape designation to honor Colorado’s military legacy at Camp Hale, and it prohibits new oil and gas development in certain areas.

San Miguel County Commissioner Hilary Cooper has been working on the San Juan Wilderness Act for 10 years, through the ups and downs, triumphs and disappointments. It’s involved tedious land inventories, pouring over ownership maps, outreach to every stakeholder imaginable, meetings, negotiations, amendments and compromises. She’s watched the bill get introduced into five sessions of Congress in a row and pass out of both House and Senate committees with bi-partisan support, but the small stand-alone bill never quite had the oomph it needed to make it out the other side.  

And, Cooper said, “there just never was the perfect alignment for it to be included in a broader public lands package.” Until now.

“This feels like a really good alignment, a great partnership, and I’m really excited to work with all of the communities and organizations represented,” Cooper said. “I’m very optimistic.”

The San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act portion of CORE provides permanent protections for nearly 61,000 acres of land in the San Juans. It designates 31,000 acres of wilderness areas near Telluride, Norwood, Ouray and Ridgway as new wilderness, including fourteeners Mt. Sneffels and Wilson Peak. It adds 23,000 acres to the existing Lizard Head and Mount Sneffels Wilderness areas. It also designates more than 8,000 acres surrounding McKenna Peak as a new wilderness area, designates 21,000 acres between Ophir and Silverton as the Sheep Mountain Special Management Area, and creates the 792-acre Liberty Bell East Special Management Area near Telluride. In addition, it prohibits future mineral development on some 7,000 acres in Naturita Canyon.

Sheep Mountain Alliance Executive Director Lexi Tuddenham has also been closely involved in the bill the last few years. She called this new public lands package promising.  

“These are as well-baked as land protection bills can get, and if anything has a chance in getting passed in this Congress, this could be it,” Tuddenham said. “That’s really exciting.”

The act comes with support from Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, along with commissioners from several counties, owners of Colorado companies such as Osprey Packs and Icelantic Skis, and conservation groups like Trout Unlimited, National Parks Conservation Association and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. But advocates hope to also garner the support of key Colorado Republicans, U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton and U.S. Sen. Corey Gardner.

“We are all working hard from multiple angles right now to get their support to go through the proper committees,” Cooper said.

She remains hopeful.

“I think this is a really smart new approach,” Cooper said. “The time and effort put in to the work on this bill, that’s just going to be a tiny blip in the long run if we get these lands protected.”