Lands bill suffers setback in House

Pair of wilderness areas left in limbo after narrow defeat

A waterfall flows freely in Dominguez Canyon.

A bill that enjoyed some bipartisan support and seemed set for approval, setting aside nearly 276,000 acres in Mesa County as wilderness and conservation areas, was narrowly defeated Wednesday in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The measure, S.22, would have created a 209,610-acre Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area and a 66,280-acre Dominguez Canyon Wilderness Area in addition to protecting other areas in Colorado and nine other states.

The bill failed by two votes, but the Omnibus Public Lands Act Package of 2009 is expected to be amended and voted on again within the next couple of weeks, said Eric Wortman, spokesman for Congressman John Salazar, D-Colo.

“We were very close,” said Wortman, whose boss voted in favor of the measure. “It’s a bill that is very important to him.”

The bill was defeated 282-144, two votes shy of the necessary two-thirds of the representatives who were present.

Wednesday’s failure of the bill is frustrating, because it leaves the thousands of acres in limbo without directions for federal land managers on how to protect it, said Kate Graham, public lands organizer of Colorado Environmental Coalition. It also could have a negative effect on recreational-based tourism in the area southeast of Grand Junction, she said.

“It’s really a shame,” Graham said. “There was a huge amount of support. You feel like you do your groundwork and you run into these roadblocks.”

The bill would have designated 240,000 acres as wilderness area in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Graham said it’s nerve-wracking knowing the bill would have passed if two other Colorado representatives, Mike Coffman and Doug Lamborn, both Republicans, had voted for the bill.

Graham said members of her environmental organization had reached out to the Colorado lawmakers, but they seemed “on the fence” about how they would vote. All of the state’s Democratic representatives voted in favor of the bill.

The bill’s opponents have said the added protections may block oil and gas development.

“I can’t reiterate enough how important it is to have these two national conservation areas in such close proximity,” Graham said. “If anything, the lopsided vote, 282-144, shows us that Congress is overwhelmingly in favor of protecting these special places and that this isn’t the end of the story.” 


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