Conservation areas lauded to protect land

When it comes to protecting Colorado’s public lands and still allowing the public to recreate there, arguably no one has accomplished that goal better than the Western Slope.

For that reason alone, Colorado leaders and conservationists said, other communities likely will look to Mesa County and its regional peers when they try to negotiate ways to protect other parts of the state.

Former Congressman Scott McInnis said the Western Slope has succeeded in balancing the
use of public lands, particularly mountain biking and horseback riding, with land protections through the establishment of national conservation areas.

“It’s a model that’s worked very well,” he said.

The Western Slope, according to the Bureau of Land Management, is home to the 122,300-acre McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area and the 62,844-acre Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area.

To set up these areas, McInnis said local leaders and stakeholders negotiated for months how best to protect the areas while letting the public use the land.

“For this particular problem, which seems to me is going to be the emerging problem of the future, management of recreational uses … this is a model that can work,” McInnis said.

McInnis represented the Western Slope in Congress when McInnis Canyons and the Gunnison Gorge received federal protection.

The looming approval of a plan to designate nearly 210,000 acres in Mesa, Delta and Montrose counties as the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area underlines the appeal of the stakeholder process.

Charlie Kerr, a member of the BLM’s Northwest Resource Advisory Council and a former president of the Western Colorado Congress, said the yearslong process of working with the federal government, local leaders, ranchers and conservationists has ensured minimal controversy.

“It’s a wonderful way to move from conflict to cooperation, which allows the BLM to develop multiple use and quality uses for all of the recreation users while at the same time protecting the resources, protecting what’s there,” Kerr said.

Steve Smith, assistant regional director for The Wilderness Society, said the Western Slope’s uses of National Conservation Area designations shows how mixed-use is a better way to protect land, reach compromises and maintain traditional uses of public lands, such as grazing.

“I think that you’re going to see this, frankly, in almost every package that comes along now, because it works so well,” Smith said.

He cited possible future designations in the White River National Forest and in a series of Front Range and Western Slope waterways.

The Dominguez-Escalante proposal is to receive its final vote by the end of the month.


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