U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, center, stands in front of the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree, which came from Colorado. (Handout)

Every year the Capitol Christmas Tree is set on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol and stands as a majestic symbol of America’s national forests. 

This year’s tree — a towering, 55-foot-tall, 25-foot-wide Engelmann spruce — was selected from western Colorado’s Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison (GMUG) National Forest lands, an impressive expanse of the natural world containing three wilderness areas, 3,600 miles of rivers and streams, and a stretch of the Continental Divide, including five peaks over 14,000 feet. 

These lands are the source for a major outdoor recreation and hunting industry and the water supply for thousands of local families and farms, as well as many others downstream.  

Charlie Jankiewicz

We who live on the Western Slope of Colorado are proud that we share our lives with the public lands that provided this tree — a region of plateaus, canyons and mountains with some of the most remote and beautiful landscapes in the world.  As Americans gazed at the Capitol Christmas Tree with awe, in Colorado we know this tree and the public lands it came from as close friends.

Certainly, this year’s tree spotlighting the spectacular scenery of the central and southern Rocky Mountains is a perfect fit for the first family’s White House holiday theme of “America the Beautiful.”

However, as our government celebrates the beauty and bounty of the American outdoors, there is a stark disconnect between the tree as a “photo opportunity” and how the Trump administration actually regards and manages our treasured forests and public lands.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Forest Service under the Trump administration released a plan to make it easier for companies to drill for oil and gas on U.S. Forest Service lands, and the GMUG national forests are some of the nation’s most vulnerable areas. 

The new rules, which were finalized in November, largely cut the public out of the process that decides whether and which lands will be opened to oil and gas drilling, and reduce the Forest Service’s role in leasing decisions as well. In essence, the plan orders that the Forest Service relinquish its right to serve as a check on leasing in those places that deserve protections.

There must be places where drilling is simply not allowed — and national forest lands are the last place oil and gas companies should be allowed to explore. The stakes are simply too high. 

Oil and gas drilling cuts roads deep into our national forests, harms wildlife, compromises the ability of our watersheds to provide clean water, and exacerbates global warming. 

Already our region is among the most impacted in the U.S. from global warming. And our forests, farms, and families are at increasing risk from wildfires due to prolonged drought and climate change.

This administration has planned a future for the GMUG that will yield more catastrophes, and fewer majestic spruce. Our national forests, the environment and economy they protect, and we who live in these places, will pay dearly for the extreme and excessive policies in the name of energy dominance. 

I thank Sen. Michael Bennet for criticizing the intent of both the Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in proposing a plan that directly contradicts local feedback, and which lacks adequate measures to protect water supplies, vital agricultural resources, air quality, wildlife habitat and the livelihoods that depend on all these things. 

Local communities have seen that Bennet will persist until we have a plan that reflects local priorities and represents a better, balanced use of our forests and public lands that will foster strong local economies. And we are hopeful that our new senator-elect, John Hickenlooper, will as well.

This year, let us look upon the Capitol Christmas Tree as the living spirit it represents, rather than a standalone snapshot.  America the Beautiful is a living force, its purple mountains and fruited plains are real places that with foresight can remain as the irreplaceable treasure they are, as our home which we do not want despoiled, and that we love to share to be enjoyed by all now and for generations to come. 

Our national forests and public lands offer immeasurable worth to all who live here and visit. In the new year, we can look to a better direction for our public lands, where Colorado communities are fully engaged in their care and management, advocating for protection of their critical resources, and the American values they support and represent. 

Charlie Jankiewicz retired from a career in the U.S. Forest Service to devote himself to fly-fishing the streams of western Colorado, enjoying public lands, and tending to his home and garden in the North Fork Valley in Delta County.

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Charlie Jankiewicz

Special to The Colorado Sun