Udall to test communities’ reaction to more wilderness

In an effort to hear from a wide range of interests before proposing legislation, Sen. Mark Udall has launched a “collaborative, community-driven process” through which he hopes to hear citizens’ opinions on seeking wilderness designation for parts of the central mountains of Colorado and the Arkansas River Canyon.

Under consideration are almost 236,000 acres of possible wilderness in Pitkin, Summit and Eagle counties, including almost 43,000 acres off state Highway 133 south of Carbondale. Another 20,000 acres of possible national monument and wilderness lands along the Arkansas River are also on the table.

Before any of those plans are finalized and proposed in Congress, though, Udall said he hopes to encourage a “bottom-up approach” to wilderness proposals. “Before we do anything, it’s important to me to hear from as many Coloradans as possible about how the land is used today and their vision for the future of these special places,” he said in announcing the input process Sunday in Frisco.

Udall’s office emphasized Monday that the areas and acreage ultimately proposed to be set aside will depend on the community’s reaction. “There is a lot of flexibility —­ all ideas are on the table.  Based on what he hears from the community, he will develop a legislative proposal,” said Udall spokeswoman Tara Trujillo. She said the public-input process will take at least several months and hopefully result in a proposal that a “diverse majority of the community agrees will support their interests and the state’s economy.”

This reliance on community input is nothing new when it comes to wilderness proposals, said Will Rausch, a conservation advocate with the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop. “I think wilderness is inherently a localized process, and the senator has been hearing over the past four, five, even 10 years that people in these areas want more wilderness,” he said, emphasizing that wilderness legislation typically stems from public calls for wilderness protection. “So I think this public-input process is generally in line with how things have been done in the past.”

In the past several years, several bills seeking wilderness protection for parts of Pitkin, Eagle and Summit counties, including that proposed by Representatives Diana DeGette and Jared Polis, have fallen short. Those past proposals have been opposed by interests worried by how wilderness designation would bar motorized and mechanical activities on the protected lands, such as snowmobiling and mountain biking.

But proponents of new wilderness areas point to the recreation activities that would be allowed, including hunting, hiking and wildlife viewing — as well as their benefits as watersheds and key wildlife habitat. Udall’s office pointed out that outdoor recreation in Colorado is a $10 billion-a-year industry and generates $500 million in state tax revenue and 100,000 Colorado jobs.

The deliberate community-input process is meant to allow diverse interests on both sides of the issue to make their voice heard and help shape legislation down the road — and ideally avoid the objections that have doomed many past proposals.

“But there are some people who just object to wilderness in general, almost ideologically, so there are probably always going to be objections,” Rausch said.


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