A longtime effort to protect some 61,000 acres in the San Juan Mountains — including portions of Mount Sneffels and Wilson Peak, both 14,000-foot-mountains — has been revived thanks to a bill introduced this week by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.
Bennet’s measure is along the lines of what former Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., proposed in a bill in 2009, and was considered in Congress in subsequent years.
The protections proposed in Bennet’s measure originally were sought by Ouray, San Miguel and San Juan counties, home to the lands in question. The bill would include about 23,000 acres in addition to the existing Lizard Head and Mount Sneffels wilderness areas, and a new, 8,600-acre wilderness area surrounding McKenna Peak in San Miguel County.
The Lizard Head expansion would add the west face of Wilson Peak into the wilderness area. The bill would place all of Mount Sneffels inside wilderness, whereas now the boundary is on the peak’s summit.
The bill also would create the 21,675-acre Sheep Mountain Special Management Area between Ophir and Silverton, which would include Hope Lake and the Ice Lakes Basin, and the 792-acre Liberty Bell East Special Management Area near Telluride. And it would include a 6,590acre mineral withdrawal area in Naturita Canyon near Norwood, prohibiting future mineral development.
“We must do our part in Washington to push this bill across the finish line,” Bennet said in a news release. “Not only are these iconic landscapes vital to outdoor recreation and local economies, but they also stand as a symbol of our public lands legacy in Colorado — a legacy we must pass onto our kids and grandkids.”
Scott Braden with Conservation Colorado said in an email, “We thank Senator Bennet for his commitment to proactively conserving public lands, and we urge Representative Scott Tipton and Senator Cory Gardner (both Republicans from Colorado) to step forward and sponsor a bill that their constituents so wholeheartedly support.'
Tipton spokesperson Kelsey Mix said his office has frequently communicated over the years “with the communities, groups, and other stakeholders that would be impacted by the wilderness designations. While vetting the latest version of the bill, our office determined there is still not broad consensus.”
Scott Jones, president of the Colorado Snowmobile Association, said many of the areas proposed for wilderness in the current bill were kept out of the 1980 Colorado Wilderness Act due to their high recreational values. He said that followed a process to reach consensus and balance on what lands should and shouldn’t be included in the 1980 bill.
“We would essentially be going back and changing all that consensus,” he said.
Chris Treese, external affairs manager for the Colorado River District, said the district is concerned the bill could jeopardize the ability of people to make use of their water rights, such as by prohibiting motorized access to headgates, and could make it hard for those with conditional rights to get them converted into absolute rights.
But he credited Bennet for his efforts to address district concerns. These include his decision to make the bill an amendment to a 1993 Colorado wilderness bill that specifies the federal government can’t reserve water rights for protected lands but would have to seek those rights through the state water right process.