U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette’s 20-year effort to get a Colorado wilderness bill passed achieved a milestone Wednesday when it was approved by the House Natural Resources Committee.
The bill includes 32 areas and more than 600,000 acres, some of it in and around Mesa County. This was the first time that DeGette, D-Denver, has had her Colorado Wilderness Act called up for a vote by committee since she began introducing versions of it in 1999. It is expected to soon head to the full, Democrat-controlled House for consideration.
But Natural Resources Committee member John Curtis, R-Utah, said during Wednesday’s proceedings that it will be nearly impossible to get the measure through the Senate and signed by President Trump into law without the support of U.S. Reps. Scott Tipton and Doug Lamborn, whose districts contain the land covered by the bill. Lamborn voted Wednesday against the measure, which was approved by a 21-13 vote with only Democrats voting for it and only Republicans against it.
DeGette told Curtis that she has consulted with Tipton, Lamborn and their predecessors on the bill over the years, as well as with U.S. senators from Colorado.
But she added, “It’s not just one person who controls all the public land in their district. Public lands belong to everyone.”
Among acreage included in the bill is 25,624 acres in Demaree Canyon northwest of Grand Junction near the Utah border, 28,279 acres in the Little Bookcliffs area north of Palisade, more than 18,000 acres in Bangs Canyon south of Grand Junction, and more than 26,000 acres making up The Palisade and nearly 20,000 acres in Unaweep Canyon, both southwest of Grand Junction.
DeGette’s office describes the bill as the largest land-protection measure in Colorado in 25 years.
Another bill, the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, or CORE, would provide wilderness or other forms of protections to some 400,000 acres of public lands in areas including the San Juan Mountains, Thompson Divide southwest of Glenwood Springs and along the Colorado Divide. It recently passed the House but faces tougher passage in the Republican-controlled Senate, especially if it can’t win support from Tipton, whose 3rd Congressional District includes much of the affected acreage.
He similarly has reservations about DeGette’s bill. In a statement Wednesday, Tipton, R-Cortez, said that “any changes to federal management of public lands must be done … with broad community support. I appreciate Congresswoman DeGette reaching out to some of the constituents in Colorado’s Third Congressional District and having discussions with my office, but her bill as written does not incorporate the necessary adjustments to garner more community support.”
Among concerns he has raised are potential impacts on the operational area for the Department of Defense’s High-Altitude Aviation Training Site based in Eagle County, challenges wilderness areas pose to healthy forest management, “and a general sentiment that some of the communities most affected by this bill simply do not want any more wilderness designations,” he said.
DeGette spokesman Ryan Brown said a proposal to include the Deep Creek area west of the HAATS site was removed from the original bill in part out of “an abundance of caution” related to the HAATS concerns.
Mesa, Garfield, Montezuma and Dolores counties all have objected to DeGette’s bill. Lamborn cited some of that opposition and his own concerns in opposing the measure Wednesday. He worried about the restrictions imposed in wilderness areas, such as the ban on motorized vehicles.
“I just want the most people to have the most access for the most uses,” he said.
DeGette says about two-thirds of the areas in the bill already have been wilderness study areas for more than 30 years.
“Providing these majestic landscapes the permanent protection they deserve will ensure they remain available for many years to come,” DeGette said.
Her measure focuses largely on mid-elevation lands that provide benefits including important plant and wildlife habitat and wide-ranging recreational use, whereas many of Colorado’s current wilderness areas are at higher elevations.
Entities including the Outdoor Alliance, Outdoor Industry Association, Colorado Mountain Club and San Juan Citizens Alliance have endorsed the bill.