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U.S. House approves largest Colorado wilderness bill in 40 years. But not everyone is happy.

Rep. Diana DeGette’s wilderness package would protect 660,000 acres of wilderness in Colorado, but its future looks bleak in the Senate and White House

wild horses on a hill
A pair of wild horses graze on a hill at Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range on Aug. 28, 2018 in Grand Junction. (Seth McConnell, Special to the Colorado Sun)
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Twentieth time’s a charm for U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette. 

More than 20 years after the Denver Democrat first proposed a wilderness bill to protect low-lying, yet untrammeled, Colorado landscapes, DeGette’s bill was approved by the U.S. House on Wednesday. The Protecting America’s Wilderness Act — setting aside 660,000 acres in 36 areas in Colorado, 478,500 acres in California and 131,900 acres in Washington state as wilderness — is the largest wilderness package the House has approved in a decade and the largest for Colorado since the Colorado Wilderness Act of 1980 created more than 2 million acres of wilderness. 

DeGette took on the wilderness proposal — crafted by advocates and called the Citizens Wilderness Plan — in 1999. She’s tinkered here and there, pulling out acreage north of Gypsum’s High Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site to accommodate helicopter work and adding four parcels and 60,000 acres late last year. But the bill has remained largely the same over the congresswoman’s two-decade push, with a focus on Bureau of Land Management wilderness study projects in low-lying and mid-mountain river canyons and desert.

The study areas include the sandstone buttes of Little Book Cliffs, where wild horses roam north of Grand Junction. And the Grand Hogback Ridge that runs through Pitkin, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties. And the Arkansas River’s Browns Canyon, the San Miguel River’s Norwood Canyon and southern Colorado’s Dolores River Canyon. 

“I feel like each one of these wilderness areas is one of my little children, we have been working so long to protect these natural, wild areas,” DeGette said Wednesday following the House’s 231 to 183 vote, which fell largely along party lines with six Republicans voting in favor of the bill. “Our nation’s public lands belong to all of us, and it’s up to us to protect them. We know that better than anyone in Colorado.”

The bill arrives at a difficult time for public lands and conservation in D.C. Earlier this week President Donald Trump released his proposed budget for 2021, which slashes funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by 26% and sets aside $14.7 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was created in 1965 to spend $900 million a year in offshore oil royalties on land protection and access. (It’s not the first time Trump’s budget gutted conservation and public land protection. His budget last year pretty much eliminated funding for the LWCF but Congress — which makes the final decision on federal spending — appropriated $495 million to the fund for fiscal 2020, the highest level in the past 17 years.)

Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office director Nathan Fey paddling the Lower Dolores River in southwestern Colorado. The Dolores River Canyon is one of the features protected by the Protecting America’s Wilderness Act. (Photo courtesy Rig To Flip)

And DeGette’s Colorado colleagues in D.C. have their own wilderness plans. Democrats Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse saw the Democratic-controlled U.S. House pass their CORE Act in October

Their Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act protects 400,000 acres in four regions of Colorado and designates 73,000 acres as new wilderness. Republican Rep. Scott Tipton has his own public lands plan — the proposed Colorado Recreation, Enhancement and Conservation Act — which would set aside about 70,000 acres of new wilderness and removes 39,000 acres from BLM Wilderness Study Areas in southern Colorado. Colorado currently has 3.5 million acres of wilderness, most of it in the high alpine.  

While Bennet and Neguse heralded the passage of the CORE Act, as did DeGette for her wilderness package, it is not likely the bills will make it through the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate. Adding to the challenge is a White House policy memo from October that threatened a Trump veto of the CORE Act unless changes were made.

DeGette said “we are optimistic” about the Senate’s approval of her bill. She cited Colorado College’s annual State of the Rockies poll showing the state’s voters strongly supporting wilderness areas.  

County commissioners in Montezuma, Mesa, Dolores and Garfield counties are not fans, however.

Last year, Montezuma County Commissioner Keegan Ertel was testifying against the wilderness bill at a House committee hearing in D.C. when he asked DeGette if she had ever visited the 40-year-old BLM wilderness study area in his county that she wanted to convert to full wilderness. She said “no” and came to visit last fall. 

Read more outdoors stories from The Colorado Sun.

The commissioners showed her how hard it is to remove noxious and invasive weeds, like Canadian thistle and musk thistle, that grow thick in the Menefee Wilderness Study Area and are creeping onto neighboring private land. They described how mechanized and motorized access to Weber Mountain, Menefee Mountain and Cross Canyon could grow recreation in the Four Corners area. They applauded Rep. Tipton’s plan to remove wilderness designation from more than 30,000 acres of wilderness study area in the region. 

“She did go to the two wilderness areas, but it didn’t change her mind,” Montezuma County Commissioner Larry Don Suckla said. 

His county is bounded by wilderness study areas, and BLM, Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, National Park and National Forest land. 

“We are surrounded like a wagon train, with only 27% of the county private property. Any time you want to shrink our access even more, it hurts our economy,” Suckla said. “Listen, our community thrives on federal public lands, and we need to continue to be public. We are not opposed to wilderness in certain areas. But these areas are not good wilderness.”


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