wild lands

Kelly Wolf gazes out toward Silverton, on a trail above Ophir Pass. (Photo by Sophie Stuber/The Watch)

Colorado is known for open spaces, from sharp, craggy peaks to the deep slots of southwestern canyons. The beauty of Colorado’s public lands is impossible to refute — but which legal protections should be afforded open spaces is a subject of controversy.

Two recent Congressional proposals offer different takes on the matter: In January, Senator Michael Bennet and Representative Joe Neguse proposed the Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy (CORE) Act, which is co-sponsored by Representatives Jason Crow, Diana DeGette and Ed Perlmutter. The CORE Act is the first major public lands bill in over a decade. In June, the CORE Act cleared the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee. If enacted, the CORE Act would protect 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado; 73,000 of which would be declared wilderness areas.

On July 24, Colorado Representative Scott Tipton proposed a different legislative measure to extend federal protections to certain wilderness areas. The released proposal is currently a “discussion draft” with the working name Colorado Recreation Enhancement and Conservation Act (Colorado REC Act). The REC Act offers new wilderness designation for certain areas, including the Rio Grande National Forest. The introduction of the Colorado REC Act marks the second time that Tipton has sponsored wildlands legislation since his election in 2011. Along with Colorado Senators Bennet and Udall, he sponsored the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act, which was signed into law in 2014.

One difference between the two Congressional acts is the amount of space required around trails in wildlands. The Colorado REC Act buffers trails by 150 feet, while the CORE Act only requires 50 feet. The increased buffer space outlined in Tipton’s REC Act shrinks the protected areas in the public lands bill.

“Functionally, what that does is that it reduces the acreage,” Sheep Mountain Alliance Executive Director Lexi Tuddenham explained.

Tuddenham estimated that under Tipton’s REC Act, the loss of protected areas would amount to between 500 and 1,500 acres. Tuddenham has difficulty understanding why the Colorado REC Act requires trails be buffered by 150 feet.

LOCAL EFFECTS

Around Telluride, the CORE Act would offer protections to nearly 61,000 acres in and near the San Juan Mountains. These are landscapes that local groups have being trying to protect for a long time.

“It’s a result of a lot of consensus and a tremendous amount of effort and people meeting over the past decade. I think it’s the best bill for this region,” Tuddenham said.

Regional officials, recreation and conservation groups, and local residents have studied the area intensely in order to decide what to protect and how.

“There are locals in the area who have literally walked hundreds of miles in the area to assess (the lands),” Tuddenham said. “When you look at the borders of these bills there are no straight lines.”

Decades of regional collaboration produced the San Juan Wilderness Act, which became part of the CORE Act.

“The San Juan Wilderness Act, which is part of the CORE Act, has been fostered by Sheep Mountain Alliance and the Board of County Commissioners for years,” Telluride Mayor Pro Tem Todd Brown explained. “We’re supportive of maintaining the wilderness and the wilderness study protections that enhance the entire Western Slope.”

Under this legislation, there would be “Liberty Bell” and “Last Dollar” additions to the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness Area and a “Sunshine” addition to the Lizard Head Wilderness Area (see the map at sanjuanwilderness.org). In addition, the Sheep Mountain Special Management Area would receive protection as a wilderness management area. These new designations are important for preserving natural landscapes in their wild state.

“It adds those (areas) into wilderness protection so that they can’t be later withdrawn for mineral exploration, particularly,” Brown said.

Although portions of Tipton’s proposal are similar to the CORE Act, the discussion draft of the REC Act decreases some of the current conservation protections afforded to wilderness in southwest Colorado. Several local organizations expressed concern that the Colorado REC Act would not be sufficient in the San Juans.

For example, Tipton’s draft measure would not permit the addition of the Blaine Basin trail to the new Whitehouse extension of the Mount Sneffels Wilderness area.

“If it’s cherry-stemmed” — a BLM term for a spur of unprotected land through a wilderness area — “then over time it could be open to mechanized and motorized use,” said Robyn Cascade, who represents the local chapter of Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a national nonprofit dedicated to wilderness protection and preservation.

In its current iteration, the REC act would also modify certain existing trail use designations in the San Juans. In the Sheep Mountain Special Management Area, Ice Lake Basin would be opened to mountain bikes, as well as another disconnected section in Swamp Canyon. The area from Grant-Swamp Pass into Island Lake is not wilderness under Tipton’s proposal. It is cut off from the rest of the designated wilderness area.

“He has plugged this bike trail through what goes from Ophir up through Swamp Canyon Pass,” Tuddenham said, “ignoring the compromise that created a bike zone for trails in Swamp Canyon.”

This region is part of the Hardrock 100 Endurance Run course. Cutting through a scree field, the terrain is steep and rocky. According to Cascade, the mountain bike community has never asked that this area be opened to bike trails.

CONCERNS FROM LOCALS

Consultations with municipal governments and public land organizations about the CORE act are ongoing, according to Tipton’s spokesperson Matthew Atwood. Yet as it stands, both Tuddenham and Cascade noted that the discussion draft of the Colorado REC Act mislabeled areas of national forest in the San Juan region.  

For example, Paradise Basin near Ophir is miscategorized in the current draft. Tipton references the area as the Uncompahgre Forest, when in reality Paradise Basin is in the San Juan National Forest.

“He’s confusing the two different districts, the two different forests,” Cascade noted. “And in the same way, there appears to be inconsistency between his map and the text. The staffers working on his bill are not familiar enough with the landscape.”

Tuddenham agreed. “If you read the language in his draft, he just doesn’t get it,” she said.

“You are correct, the Paradise Basin was mislabeled in the draft legislation,” Atwood replied. “Congressman Tipton is still meeting with folks about the Colorado REC Act, and should Paradise Basin be included in the introduced legislation, we will be sure to have it labeled correctly.”

Under the Colorado REC Act, Paradise Basin would be opened to snowmobiles. Ophir residents have long opposed this initiative, Tuddenham said.

Away from the mountains, in southwest Colorado, Tipton’s draft would remove Wilderness Study Area status from five areas in Montezuma County.

According to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a Wilderness Study Area (WSA) is a place with “wilderness characteristics” that include “a minimum size, naturalness, and outstanding opportunities for recreation which make them eligible for designation as wilderness.” In 1976, Congress introduced legislation that allowed the BLM to designate certain regions as WSAs, and thus deserving of national protection. Today, these areas comprise 12.6 million acres of public land in the United States. The BLM manages all WSA public lands.

An act of Congress is required to give or eliminate WSA status. Thus, if approved, the REC Act could withdraw protections from about 40,000 acres of land. The bill would affect the mountain ridges outside of Mesa Verde National Park and certain canyons in Canyons of the Ancients, according to Mark Pearson, executive director of San Juans Citizen Alliance.

If these lands lost their WSA status, they could be opened to future oil and gas development. The Montezuma County commissioners are advocating for the removal of the WSA designation, according to Pearson. These areas in southwest Colorado have been protected since the 1980s by virtue of their WSA status.

“Removing that designation would remove their protection under the law,” Pearson explained. “That’s the concern that we have as wilderness advocates.”

When asked about the removal of the WSA designation for these lands, Atwood said the decision was the result of a BLM study and opinions from the Montezuma County Commissioner, as well as others.

“It was a mutual understanding,” Atwood said. “They’ve been sitting stagnant, and it takes an act of Congress to release them.”

Despite Atwood’s reasoning, Cascade does not believe local interests were adequately consulted when Tipton drafted the REC Act.

“We have worked for decades with local representatives. Representative Tipton’s staffers need to be in touch with local municipalities,” Cascade said. “We have not seen Representative Tipton in this area, though he’s been invited.”

When asked about Tipton’s communication with local entities, Atwood maintained that Tipton had consulted with some residents in the 3rd Congressional district.

“The majority of the language (in the bill) includes support from third district people,” he said.

Many of the wilderness advocates who work with Pearson live near wilderness areas in Mancos and other southwestern towns. According to Pearson, none of these individuals were consulted before Tipton introduced his proposal.

“The biggest concern we have is that there hasn’t been any local constituent involvement in his proposal,” Pearson said. “If anyone had come to Mancos and asked for their opinion, they would have heard pretty loudly that people don’t want those areas developed.”

Pearson acknowledged that the REC Act is a working draft, and that there is time for modifications and local consultations, if  Tipton chooses.

Atwood emphasized that the REC Act is still in its early stages, and that Tipton hopes to improve the bill during this month’s work session in Congress.

“We really want to reiterate that this is a draft discussion. We did this intentionally to draft a better bill,” he said.

BEYOND THE SAN JUANS

The biggest difference between the CORE Act and the Colorado REC Act pertains to the Thompson Divide near Carbondale.

The CORE Act would ban oil and gas development on the Thompson Divide, whereas Tipton’s REC Act would not. The new protections for the Thompson Divide consist of half of the acreage of the CORE Act. Elected officials in Gunnison, Garfield and Pitkin counties all support closing the Thompson Divide area to oil and gas development. Ranchers in the region have been in favor of the closure for decades, according to Tuddenham.

The measure would ban new mineral withdrawal. Current leases could continue to operate, according to Cascade. In the future, oil and gas companies would have buy-out options to earn financial buyback for their leases.

Recent public opinion data supports banning oil and gas development in wilderness areas such as the Thompson Divide. According to a 2019 poll by Conservation in the West — a bipartisan initiative by the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project — only 24 percent of survey respondents prioritized “producing more domestic energy by maximizing the amount of national public lands available for responsible oil and gas drilling and mining.”

In addition to wilderness protections, the passage of the CORE Act would have historical significance for areas near the Continental Divide in Summit and Eagle counties. Under the legislation, Camp Hale would become the first National Historic Landscape.

“Camp Hale is really important for the 10th Mountain Division and shaping the history of our state,” Cascade said.

Because the REC Act mainly focuses on the 3rd congressional district that Tipton represents, it does not include the Continental Divide. Tipton prefers to sponsor legislation that only affects his district.

“The congressman felt that there was a need to focus on the 3rd district,” Atwood emphasized.

Although Cascade understands Tipton’s position, she believes that public lands bills need to extend beyond district lines to be effective.

“The reality is that he’s a representative from Colorado, and these lands belong to all the people in our nation,” she said.

Ultimately, the CORE Act offers environmental protections that the Colorado REC Act does not, including improvements for waterways and measures to combat climate change. The act establishes a network of landscapes and protects essential wildlife corridors.

“Especially with climate change, it’s important that wildlife have corridors to move through and move up in elevation,” Tuddenham explained.

The act also introduces a proposal to develop a coalmine methane capture pilot project near Carbondale.

Protecting waterways ensures better access to clean drinking water and air. In the 2019 Conservation in the West Poll, 65 percent of surveyed Coloradans prioritized congressional protections for “sources of clean water, our air quality and wildlife habitat while providing opportunities to visit and recreate on our national public lands.”

The San Juan region benefits from getting its water from natural sources.

Without these springs, people would have to pump water to Telluride. The groundwater and microclimate preserved through natural waterways benefits the local community.

“When we have good snow years, we have year-round flow. That’s so important to farmers and ranchers,” Tuddenham pointed out. In addition to benefiting animals and local crops, “There are obviously a lot of direct helps” for the wellbeing of people.

Outdoor spaces are an essential aspect of Colorado’s economy. “The public lands economy really depends on the conservation landscapes,” Tuddenham said.

In the 2019 Conservation in the West Poll, 90 percent of participants voted that the outdoor recreation economy is “important for the future of their state and the Western U.S.” Many of Colorado’s ski areas are located in wilderness areas or on land loaned from the Forest Service. Telluride relies on tourism for its economic survival. The CORE Act helps protect the outdoor recreation economy, which is one reason that the town is in favor of the bill.

“We’re interested in maintaining the environment around us because that’s what keeps bringing people here,” Brown said. “It’s vital to our survival.”

The bottom line: Wilderness advocates interviewed by The Watch would have preferred it if Tipton had signed onto the CORE Act, rather than introducing his own bill.

 “We would hope Tipton would be open to collaborating on one comprehensive bill rather than introducing a competing bill,” Cascade said.

Tuddenham agreed. “Really, I would love to see my elected officials work across party lines on this,” she said. “Rather than coming up with a bunch of different bills, I think we can work together. There’s a lot of room for agreement.”

Although it requires an act of Congress to approve a public lands bill, there are plenty of actions that citizens can take. Cascade encourages those who are concerned to call their congressional representatives. People can also write letters or emails to express their support for a specific public lands bill, or to offer suggestions for improvement.

These are simple steps that are “easy for the public to do,” Cascade pointed out.

In addition, Tipton recently sent out an invitation for citizens to respond to his draft release. “There’s a formal avenue available for people to comment,” Cascade noted.