San Juan Wilderness Act gets congressional support

DURANGO — A federal proposal to turn portions of the San Juan Mountains into a wilderness area is drawing support in the U.S. Senate, while carving out some areas for special treatment.

The San Juan Wilderness Act passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday and now goes to the full Senate.

The bill would designate 61,000 acres as wilderness in the San Juan Mountains in San Juan, Ouray and San Miguel counties. A wilderness designation prohibits permanent roads, commercial buildings, mining and timber cutting.

Jeff Widen, an associate director of the Wilderness Society in Colorado, who collaborated on the bill, said unlike the Wilderness Act of 1964, the San Juan Wilderness Act was able to make compromises.

Areas such as Lizard Head and Mount Sneffels are designated as wilderness areas in the bill, meaning they’re untouched by roads and commercial activity, while other areas are designated as special management areas.

On Sheep Mountain, groups such as the Wilderness Society originally wanted it under the highest protection. However, existing commercial activity from Helitrax, a heli-skiing company in Telluride, already operated in the area. Heli-skiing involves a helicopter dropping skiers onto a mountain rather than arriving by lift onto a trail. The Wilderness Act prohibits aircraft landing, except in emergency situations.

“Helitrax, as a company, wanted it to be preserved but not labeled as wilderness because they wouldn’t have been able to operate,” said Hilary White, executive director of the Sheep Mountain Alliance in Telluride. Instead of designating the land as wilderness, the San Juan bill designated Sheep Mountain as special management to allow Helitrax to continue operations.

According to the Durango Herald ( ), the bill’s drafters made a similar compromise with Naturita Canyon. Widen said the community near Naturita didn’t want it designated as wilderness but did want mining protections. The canyon will not be wilderness, but mining and leasable minerals, such as uranium, would be off-limits.

The San Juan Wilderness Act crossed an important threshold Tuesday, in passing the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The bill will make its way to the Senate floor next, after special interests and community leaders in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District spent years debating the land-use stipulations.

Sponsored by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and co-sponsored by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., the bill would expand the existing Lizard Head and Mount Sneffels wilderness areas. Another area, McKenna Peak in San Miguel County, also would be added as a wilderness area.

“Some people don’t want wilderness because it’s too restrictive. There are misconceptions that you can’t hunt or can’t build a fire line to prevent fires. You can bring in a bulldozer if it means fighting a wildfire,” Widen said.


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