Wilderness advocates size up a changed political landscape
When Jeff Widen considers what special place he particularly would love to see protected in a San Juan Mountains wilderness bill, an area west of Silverton immediately springs to mind.
Widen, the Durango-based associate director of the Wilderness Society’s Wilderness Support Center, has climbed peaks in that region, such as Vermilion and Pilot Knob, but he remembers being particularly captivated by his first look at the adjoining Ice Lake Basin, with its brilliant-blue namesake lake.
“I’ve been in love with it ever since,” Widen says of the area.
Notably, though, the working version of the San Juan Mountains wilderness initiative wouldn’t protect that area as wilderness, per se. Rather, what’s proposed as the Sheep Mountain Special Management Area (named for another mountain in the area) would receive wilderness-like protections with the exception of a helicopter-based ski operation continuing to be allowed.
The accommodation reflects the kind of give-and-take negotiations that helped measures get introduced in the U.S. House and Senate in the previous Congress to protect more than 61,000 acres in the San Juan Mountains as wilderness and special-management areas.
“I think what makes wilderness bills successful is a lot more about the work that’s done on the ground, the amount of collaboration and cooperation,” Widen said.
Even so, the San Juan Mountains measure failed to get passed by Congress last year. Companion bills had been sponsored by Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet and former U.S. Rep. John Salazar, all Democrats from Colorado.
Another measure sought by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., for lands in Eagle and Summit counties failed to make it through the last Congress, as did the latest in a long line of sweeping Colorado wilderness bills introduced by U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo.
Now, proponents of those and other measures are sizing up their chances in a new Congress that features a Republican-controlled House, with Republican Scott Tipton of Cortez now occupying Salazar’s 3rd Congressional District seat after defeating him in November.
Also taking note of the changed political landscape are critics of some wilderness proposals, such as Jack Albright, vice president of the White River Forest Alliance. His recreation-oriented group has taken issue with the efforts of the Hidden Gems wilderness campaign, which is promoting new wilderness areas in Pitkin, Summit, Eagle, Garfield and Gunnison counties. The alliance is concerned because motorized vehicles are prohibited in wilderness.
Said Albright, “I absolutely think that Scott Tipton will at the very minimum listen and act on what he hears from the recreation community. I feel like in my conversations with Mr. Tipton he has been very clear that he supports the multiple use of our public lands as intended when they were created and designated as such and that wilderness isn’t the only answer for land-conservation efforts, that there can be other ways that are potentially more suitable than wilderness for those conservation efforts.”
Not a partisan issue?
Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, which is helping promote Hidden Gems, acknowledges the new challenges wilderness proponents face politically. Polis, for example, plans to reintroduce his measure, but this time he’ll have to try to convince the Republican House leadership to grant it a hearing.
“That is an issue, and that’s something he’s going to have to sort out. Getting a hearing is a big deal; it’s a necessary step along the way,” Shoemaker said.
That said, he added, “Based on historical precedent, wilderness has never been a partisan issue. … It’s really about what local communities are asking for.”
Under Republican President Ronald Reagan, legislation creating 11 million acres of wilderness became law, Shoemaker said. That’s despite the fact that at one point Reagan’s Interior secretary was James Watt, who was considered far from a friend to environmentalists.
Likewise, wilderness measures in the early 2000s were approved by the Republican-controlled House, even though they had to pass through a House committee chaired by Richard Pombo, who also was considered an environmental foe.
Republican Scott McInnis got several wilderness bills passed when he represented Colorado’s 3rd District, both Shoemaker and Widen point out.
Now wilderness advocates’ eyes are on Tipton. His spokesman, Josh Green, said the new congressman is open to the idea of more wilderness areas, but Tipton wants to hear from the various interest groups involved.
“We just want to make sure we consider everything before we act,” he said.
Tipton will want to strike a balance between conservation and other considerations, such as what economic opportunities might be shut out by wilderness designation, Green said.
High hopes for San Juan measure
Green said the San Juan Mountains proposal is “kind of at the top of the list” of wilderness initiatives Tipton is considering.
“It’s one that has been kind of at the forefront of the discussion for a while,” he said.
Widen is encouraged to hear of Tipton’s willingness to consider the measure.
“We feel like the bill’s good to go,” Widen said.
He said so much work has gone into negotiations that the bill has widespread support from counties, communities, ranchers, water interests and others.
“There was very little formal opposition to the bill at all, and that makes everything easier in Congress,” he said.
Widen said similar collaborative efforts hold promise for seeking protections for 150,000 acres in the Hermosa Creek area, primarily in La Plata County, and for an area in the Dolores River Basin. Salazar’s office was drafting a Hermosa Creek bill before his election defeat, Widen said.
In an e-mailed statement, Udall said, “Wilderness has the best chance for success when all the stakeholders and members of the community have an opportunity to get involved. John Salazar did important work to develop a proposal to expand the San Juan Wilderness, and we worked together on it and many other projects quite well.
“I hope to have a similar working relationship with Representative Tipton on the San Juan and other initiatives important to his district, from Pueblo and the San Luis Valley to the Western Slope.”
Shoemaker said he’s glad Tipton has indicated he wants to engage in a dialogue on initiatives such as Hidden Gems.
“We’re anxious to dig into the details with Mr. Tipton and let him know how much (addressing concerns) we’ve already done and how little impact the proposal already has on existing recreational activities.”
Likewise, Albright said he wants to be able to further discuss with Tipton his contention that Hidden Gems advocates continue to seek wilderness protection for lands important to the motorized-recreation community.
Meanwhile, DeGette is bending Tipton’s ear in hopes of getting support for her measure as she considers how to proceed with her 12-year-old effort to get it passed.
“I think she’s still in conversations with Mr. Tipton and his staff,” said DeGette’s spokeswoman, Juliet Johnson.
Widen said the fact DeGette is pushing for protection of lands not in her district always has worked against her, and she appears so far to have been unable to reach an agreement with whoever has represented the 3rd District, which is the bill’s focus.
Johnson said DeGette is acting as the senior member of Colorado’s congressional delegation and as someone who represents all Coloradans and has traveled to proposed wilderness areas and spoken to local interests to gather support for her bill.
Widen said with a larger proposal — DeGette’s covers 850,000 acres — it’s harder to work through the ground-level issues and reach consensus.
The America’s Red Rock Wilderness proposal in Utah is another example of a big wilderness bill that’s proving hard to get passed these days, he said.
Mike McCandless, economic development director and county planner in Emery County, Utah, agrees.
“These big bills like the (9-million-acre) Red Rock are just too politically charged,” he said.
His county, home to scenic marvels such as the slot canyons of the San Rafael Swell, hopes to present a wilderness bill of its own this year.
He said the Republican takeover of the House majority further hurts the chances of a Red Rock bill that has gone nowhere over the years. Emery and other rural Utah counties oppose the measure, McCandless said.
“It would have the potential of literally devastating some segments of our economy,” he said.
Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, takes issue with McCandless’ contention that the Red Rock bill would cut off access to oil and gas and coal development in Emery County.
Rather, he said, “It would prevent off-road-vehicle use in areas where it’s inappropriate.”
Still, while he said his group will continue to work toward passage of the bill, he thinks conservationists will have better chances of success this year in achieving wilderness protection through administrative means.
Late last year, the Department of Interior announced a national initiative under which Bureau of Land Management acreage would be considered for protection as “wild lands.” The initiative came in response to a 2003 settlement between parties including former Interior Secretary Gale Norton and the state of Utah, under which the BLM stopped recommending new areas for wilderness designation.
Said Groene, “I think we’re seeing balance restored in Utah. We had those days where the oil and gas industry was calling the shots, and this administration is trying to restore balance.”
Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert has said the Obama administration initiative locks up additional lands, appears to violate the 2003 deal and could undermine the trust needed to successfully conclude ongoing negotiations on wilderness in Utah.