Political wilderness: Amid partisan climate, bills for land protection languish
Blame congressional gridlock, at least in part. But the last few years haven’t been good ones when it comes to attempts to add acreage to the nation’s wilderness system.
Wilderness designations require congressional action, and from 2010 forward, just two wilderness areas have been designated, out of 758 total in the 50-year history of the Wilderness Act, according to http://www.wilderness.net.
“I think some of these bills are moving slower than they normally would be, just because of the larger dynamics in Washington, D.C.,” said Scott Miller, senior regional director of the Wilderness Society.
“Wilderness has never been a quick and easy process. … But added to that these days is congressional dysfunction, and land bills are getting hung up in that just like everything else,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Wilderness Workshop in Carbondale.
But some are holding out at least cautious hope for approval of some legislation designating wilderness in Colorado — among them, U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez.
Not surprisingly, the hopes appear to be highest where broad-based, bipartisan support has been procured for measures, often as a result of involvement from diverse interests in early discussions and a willingness to have a bill do more than just create wilderness.
That’s the case with the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act legislation that Tipton is sponsoring, with U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., carrying a companion measure in the Senate. The measure targets 108,000 acres north of Durango, but part of its wider support comes from the fact that only about 38,000 of those acres would be designated as wilderness.
“Hermosa Creek really is a landscape management plan. It’s not a wilderness bill. It does have wilderness in it but it’s part of a bigger picture puzzle,” said Scott Jones, who represents several motorized-use groups in Colorado that support the bill.
Their support stems from the fact that the bill also would establish a special management area of some 70,000 acres where motorized uses would be protected.
Tipton this week called the bill a “win-win” approach.
“I think we’re getting a sensible position of actual balance,” he said.
Jones contrasts that measure with the Hidden Gems wilderness proposal pushed several years ago by the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop. It focused solely on wilderness designation and didn’t propose management areas for motorized use, he said.
The success that can come from seeking broad-based, bipartisan, public buy-in and making wilderness designation part of a larger package bill was exemplified by Scott McInnis when he represented western Colorado in the U.S. House of Representatives. During the 106th Congress in 1999 and 2000, the Republican successfully sponsored three wilderness bills:
■ One created the Colorado Canyons National Conservation Area, later renamed in McInnis’ honor, and includes the Black Ridge Wilderness, covering some 75,000 acres.
■ Another changed the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument near Montrose into a national park, and designated the 17,800-acre Gunnison Gorge Wilderness within the newly created Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area.
■ The third created the Spanish Peaks Wilderness, covering some 19,000 acres near La Veta.
McInnis believes part of the success of those measures came from the fact that they only designated as wilderness acreage that actually is deserving of the designation.
The Spanish Peaks area “is very special, it’s very pristine and it fits that definition,” he said.
Part of what’s now McInnis Canyons was pristine, remote and appropriate for wilderness, but for the larger area “wilderness doesn’t fit because we didn’t want it to be that restrictive,” he said.
He believes opposition comes when advocates seek wilderness designation in inappropriate places, in an attempt to lock out other uses.
“Had we stayed true to the original intent of wilderness areas I think you would find wilderness (legislation) going though pretty easily,” he said. “… In my opinion it’s being totally manipulated for other purposes.”
Jones says the proposed Hermosa Creek wilderness “is remote, rugged, difficult to access, the whole nine yards. It fits the criteria.”
He doesn’t believe that was the case for some of the proposed Hidden Gems acreage. He also thinks if the Hidden Gems proponents had involved others in outreach from the beginning, some of the problems with some of the acreage it included would have come to light early on and conflicts could have been avoided.
Shoemaker agrees that one lesson wilderness advocates are learning is the importance of involving other stakeholders earlier and considering everyone’s needs. But he added that while Hidden Gems supporters were able to eliminate some opposition by adjusting their proposal to address specific concerns, in other cases there was no eliminating ideological opposition to wilderness.
Today, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Boulder Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., are pursuing wilderness proposals in the central Colorado mountains that include some of the Hidden Gems acreage. And for well over a decade, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Denver, has pursued a sweeping wilderness bill targeting lower-elevation lands rather than the “rock and ice” terrain typifying many Colorado wilderness areas. Her latest proposal takes in about half the acreage she initially sought to protect, but still would cover some 750,000 acres of primarily Bureau of Land Management land.
Miller, with the Wilderness Society, thinks that given their amount of public buy-in, the highest-prospect measures right now include the Hermosa Creek bill and proposals by Udall to create a national monument and wilderness at Browns Canyon in Chaffee County, and to pass a San Juan Mountains bill creating wilderness, special-management area and other designations on 61,000 acres.
Miller is hopeful for such measures in part because he has seen wilderness bills stall in Congress before, but not forever.
“That kind of logjam always breaks sooner rather than later,” he said, pointing to a major wilderness bill that passed in 2009. That year, according to http://www.wilderness.net, 52 areas covering more than 2 million acres were created.
Tipton said he is still evaluating the San Juan proposal and is undecided on whether to support it.
He called wilderness “one tool in the toolbox” for protecting lands, and said that because of the restrictions it places on land use, it needs to be used in a judicious fashion.
But he believes the proper province for protective land designations is Congress. After he unsuccessfully pushed for legislation to create Chimney Rock National Monument in southwestern Colorado, President Obama created the monument using the Antiquities Act. Tipton said the act was intended for lands facing immediate threats, which didn’t apply to Chimney Rock.
“There needs to be a thoughtful process, and that’s what Congress is actually for,” he said.
That being the case, while Tipton is hopeful his Hermosa Creek measure will pass in the House, he added, “We can only do it on the House side. The Senate has to act as well.”