DeGette’s latest wilderness bill includes Mesa County areas

Persisting with an effort that dates back to 1999, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette has reintroduced legislation seeking to protect lower-elevation public land in western Colorado as wilderness, including several parcels in Mesa County.

The measure DeGette is rolling out this week would cover about 750,000 acres of primarily Bureau of Land Management land, and proposes to protect 31 areas and potentially two others as well.

Mesa County additions would include South Shale Ridge and the Little Bookcliffs outside De Beque, Bangs Canyon south of Grand Junction, and Granite Creek, The Palisade, Unaweep and Sewemup Mesa in the southwestern part of the county.

The Denver Democrat and fourth-generation Coloradan said Monday in a teleconference that protecting certain areas in the state is important “both so we could have those special wild places preserved for eternity but also because it’s important to our state’s economy.”

Protected areas are an important tourist draw, she said.

“Colorado’s economy more and more is reliant on tourist dollars, from outfitters to gear manufacturers,” DeGette said.

But protected areas also are important to people living in the state and for protecting wildlife habitat and ecological processes, she said.

DeGette first pursued a wilderness bill nearly 15 years ago. At one point it covered 1.6 million acres. More recent versions have been significantly smaller in size as DeGette has tailored it in response to local feedback and concerns. Still, it’s much more sweeping than some measures, such as the 61,000-acre San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act, which is sponsored by U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and cleared the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week.

DeGette has been interested in wilderness protection for the Roan Plateau outside Rifle. She has left it out of versions including her latest one because of the ongoing litigation regarding oil and gas leases there. A ruling forcing the BLM to address deficiencies in the plan leading to those leases being issued is on appeal.

DeGette said any existing oil and gas leases in areas within her bill would be grandfathered in, but she doesn’t believe development of those leases is occurring now.

Her bill proposes protecting the Deep Creek area in eastern Garfield County and Pisgah Mountain in Eagle County, but only if the Colorado Army National Guard’s High-Altitude Army Aviation Training Site in Gypsum no longer needs those areas for helicopter landings

Participating in Monday’s teleconference, Colorado College economist Walt Hecox cited high levels of support for public land and its preservation in the college’s recent State of the Rockies Project polling. He endorsed DeGette’s efforts to create wilderness in non-alpine areas.

“We don’t have the kind of protection that we have on the rock and ice at higher elevations,” he said.

The public can comment on DeGette’s bill at http://www.degette.house.gov.


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