Spring is usually an exciting time for ranchers. Baby calves hop around and the land begins to thaw with the promise of food for the cattle we have cared for and fed all winter. Soon, it will be time to move those cattle out to graze.
In western Colorado, many ranchers rely on some of the most rugged land in some of the wildest areas to feed their cattle and sheep. Access to grazing supports their livelihood, but it’s a two-way street. Ranchers maintain these areas and sustain access trails and other natural resources. It’s a partnership where both the land and ranchers benefit and this process keeps the forests clean and healthy.
This mutual benefit isn’t just for the agriculture industry. Local economies rely on tourism, hunting, energy development and other recreation activities that bolster rural communities, many of which may not have other forms of economic development. Keeping these lands healthy and maintained are important for everyone.
The Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, is a package of bills that was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last month and now faces Senate action.
Supporters claim that designating nearly 2 million acres of Colorado’s land as wilderness will protect these lands. But the truth is, the system for preserving and maintaining these areas was already established when the federal government created the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and other designations.
Unfortunately, this system doesn’t provide adequate land management, and this legislation doesn’t provide a solution. There is a lack of outcome and science-based management decisions and no clear direction on pre-existing uses like grazing.
For example, those using the lands for grazing aren’t able to provide for important improvements such as water infrastructure, fencing for grazing management or maintenance of infrastructure — all of which mutually benefit the grazer and the land. Adding more wilderness designations will only contribute to further backlog and added strain on already limited resources.
Limiting access isn’t protection; it’s recklessness. We all see what happens when forests are not managed to be healthy.
Last year, Colorado faced record-breaking wildfires that spread across the western part of the state, decimating huge areas of these lands Coloradans love so much and highlighting the importance of diversified forest management.
We in agriculture know the importance of using sound science to manage our private land and we have improved this precious resource by doing so. Wilderness and similar designations that exist in this bill do not allow proper management based on sound science; instead; they limit the land to only single uses, often under the guise of recreation.
Many of the proponents of this legislation say that these new designations protect agriculture on the West Slope. Nothing could be further from the truth. A healthy agriculture economy is dependent upon multiple use of the public lands in the area. Those uses also depend on local needs.
Individually, there could be support for smaller projects located in this package of bills, but by packing eight major bills into one massive piece of legislation, the impacts become too broad and risk severe unintended consequences.
If there is a need for some designation in a localized area, such as the Camp Hale area, it should be done in stand-alone legislation that is unique and responsive to the input and needs of local communities.
Together, our families have eight generations of combined experience ranching on the Western Slope. We know how important it is to protect the livelihoods of those living here and conserve the land for the future. We have also seen each time the federal government chips away at local management, we not only risk negative impacts like catastrophic wildfires, but also threaten the livelihoods of ranchers who rely on these resources.
There are many sponsors of this legislation that call Colorado home. However, it’s important to note that “home” is not the Western Slope, the place that will feel the negative consequences of these policies. It is one more action we are all too familiar with — urban legislators deciding the future for rural Colorado and its families.
We can all agree that preserving Colorado’s wilderness is important. Whether you are a hiker, camper, sportsman, rancher, business owner or even just enjoy the view, we want the lands that make Colorado special to be around for everyone, but they won’t be around for anyone if we don’t manage and care for them.
We urge Colorado’s U.S. senators, Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, to do what’s best for Colorado and its lands, and vote no on the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act.
Carlyle Currier, president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, is the fourth generation to raise commercial beef cattle, grazing them on National Forest permits during the summer. Janie VanWinkle, president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, is the fourth generation caring for the land and livestock that the family stewards on properties in Mesa County.
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