Colorado is blessed with an abundance of wild and remote public lands, free for the exploration and enjoyment by any and all. Among these are some of the most spectacular and undeveloped canyons and mesas of the Colorado Plateau, the lesser-known cousins of Utah’s famously renowned canyonlands.
Now, after decades awaiting congressional scrutiny and action, lasting protection looms for these crown jewels of Colorado’s arid wildlands.
The Colorado Wilderness Act would grant permanent wilderness designation to 36 areas spanning the wildest corners of Colorado. The legislation is halfway through Congress, adopted by the House in February, and now awaiting support from Colorado’s senators.
Having lived in western Colorado the past 40 years, I’ve had the great fortune to ramble around, through and over these delightful and invigorating landscapes. I’ve bumped into sprawling lion cubs on Menefee Mountain, marveled at sweeping vistas atop the rim of Sewemup Mesa, and heard the stamping hooves of wild horse herds around McKenna Peak.
Few if any of these places are well known, but their wilderness qualities have been long identified by the Bureau of Land Management. Back in 1980, at the request of Congress, the BLM systematically inventoried its landholdings across Colorado, and established as Wilderness Study Areas those lands most qualified for inclusion as wilderness.
Since only Congress can formally designate an area as wilderness, those recommendations were forwarded to Congress, where they have gathered dust during the decades since.
The agency’s study found just 10% of the arid landscapes under its management still worthy of wilderness protection back in 1980. The pending Colorado Wilderness Act addresses most of those recommendations, and applies wilderness designation to about 660,000 acres of the over 8 million acres the BLM administers in Colorado.
Almost 30 years ago, proponents of conserving these remnant undeveloped mesas and canyons, including some of the most dramatic landforms in the Dolores River basin of southwest Colorado and the Arkansas River canyonlands of southern Colorado, put forth a proposal for rounding out the system of mostly higher elevation forested and mountain wilderness units across the state.
Twenty years ago, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, a Denver Democrat, first unveiled legislation in Congress to secure this lasting protection, and was recently joined by her colleagues Reps. Joe Neguse, Jason Crow, and Ed Perlmutter.
Now, today, it awaits positive support from Colorado’s senators, John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, as a key step toward finally bringing to a close this decades-long process.
In 2020, the Senate failed to pass similar legislation because of a lack of interest by then-Sen. Cory Gardner. This year, senators will be looking for guidance from Sens. Bennet and Hickenlooper. The first step is for the Colorado senators to request a hearing and put it on the agenda, so the ball is in their court.
The Colorado Wilderness Act is included along with a half-dozen other conservation bills for Washington, Arizona, and California in the now-pending Protecting America’s Wilderness Act.
Over the decades that these remote lands have awaited their final fate in Congress, they’ve retained their anonymity. But there is no better way to gauge wilderness values than up close and personal.
To her great credit, Rep. DeGette has saddled up in Cross Canyon and along Roubideau Creek, moseyed through American Basin, and strolled next to Grape Creek. She has personified the passion and enthusiasm of her constituents and conservation advocates statewide, broadly expressed by public opinion polls that routinely show two-thirds support among western Colorado voters.
The time has come. After decades of analysis, public discussion, and congressional scrutiny, let’s close the loop on guaranteeing these remote landscapes will forever retain their wild appeal. For all of us who experienced the crush of public recreation washing across western Colorado last summer, the need has never been greater to ensure the undeveloped future of our desert wildlands.
Mark Pearson is the executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance in Durango, and has authored several guidebooks on Colorado wilderness. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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