Rep. Diana DeGette

Rep. Diana DeGette unveils the Colorado Wilderness Act during a May press conference. (Photo courtesy of Rep. Diana DeGette’s office)

If Congress approves, Colorado could gain just under 1 million additional acres of protected wild lands. At the beginning of November, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Colorado Wilderness Act and The Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy (CORE) Act, which would protect 400,000 acres of public lands in Colorado, including 61,000 in the local San Juan Mountains. Now, the House of Representatives could decide to take up a new piece of wilderness legislation

On Wednesday, the U.S House Natural Resources Committee approved the Colorado Wilderness Act by a vote of 21 to 13. Rep. Diana DeGette, who introduced the bill, has been working to get the Colorado Wilderness Act through Congress for more than 20 years. Although DeGette has proposed some iteration of the bill during every year, 2019 is the first time the Natural Resources Committee agreed to discuss the Colorado Wilderness Act, according to a statement from DeGette’s office.

“Protecting our public lands is not only essential to our state’s overall economy, it’s essential to preserving our renowned way of life,” DeGette said.

If enacted, the legislation would be the most extensive land protection bill that Colorado has seen in 25 years. The Colorado Wilderness Act would protect 600,000 acres of land across 32 different regions in Colorado, including the Grand Hogback vistas, the Little Book Cliffs, the Dolores River Canyon and Browns Canyon.

The addition of 600,000 acres of wilderness would increase Colorado’s protected lands by almost 20 percent, bringing the total acreage from 3.5 million to 4.1 million. The protected land under DeGette’s bill would be designated as federally protected wilderness, as oil and gas drilling would be banned in these designated wilderness areas.

The majority — two-thirds — of this acreage is “already treated as wilderness,” according to a news release from DeGette’s office. With the Colorado Wilderness Act, these practices would become permanently protected.

The Colorado Wilderness Act adds an extra layer of protection to wild lands in Colorado that are sometimes overlooked, according to Robyn Cascade, leader of the local chapter of Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a national nonprofit dedicated to wilderness protection and preservation.

“The landscapes proposed for wilderness in the act are mid-level elevation BLM lands, which are underrepresented in Colorado's designated wilderness areas and within the nation's wilderness system,” Cascade explained.

DeGette’s bill would protect essential wildlife habitats, “sensitive” plant varieties and water resources, according to Cascade. The legislation also offers protections to sites for paleontological and archeological research. Many of Colorado’s current wilderness protections focus on “high-elevation wilderness.”

Earlier this month, Cascade joined other advocates from Great Old Broads to lobby in Washington D.C. for several public land bills, including the CORE Act.

Both DeGette’s Wilderness Act and the CORE Act, sponsored by Michael Bennet in the Senate and Joe Neguse in the House, began as local citizen initiatives.

The House Resource Committee’s approval of the Wilderness Act comes just weeks after the House of Representatives passed the CORE Act.

In her remarks prior to the vote, DeGette emphasized the time she spent with community members, business owners and local officials to draft the bill. DeGette noted that she has gotten over 14,000 letters of support from Coloradans, while 350 businesses endorsed the legislation.

“The maps you have before you are the product of countless hours spent by a dedicated group of citizens who have been on the ground conducting inventories, mapping boundaries, and exploring some of the most remote areas of Colorado,” DeGette said.

As part of the Colorado Wilderness Act, DeGette focuses on the economic benefits of wilderness areas in Colorado. Consumers spend approximately $28 billion in the outdoor recreation industry in Colorado annually, according to the Colorado Office of Economic Development. The sector also employs 229,000 people in the state.

Following the recent approval by the House Natural Resources Committee, the Colorado Wilderness Act should head to the full House of Representatives soon.