“This may be the year”: Colorado legislators push to protect 1 million acres as wilderness through 2 bills in Congress
Faced with population growth and a booming tourism and recreation industry, Colorado congressional leaders are pushing to protect more than 1 million acres of land as wilderness with the help of legislation to be introduced Tuesday that would cover 33 parcels, from high desert plateaus to river canyons in the western half of the state.
The lawmakers’ efforts reflect rising concerns about the dwindling land where nature remains relatively unimpaired — shielded from development and machinery — after the past 25 years that saw Colorado’s population surge from 3.7 million to 5.7 million.
U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, on Monday unveiled legislation to protect 741,000 acres — and said she’s received assurances it will receive a swift hearing and advance to the House floor. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Boulder, recently introduced legislation to protect 400,000 acres of land, including some overlap with areas covered by DeGette’s bill.
State government and the private-sector promotion of tourism and outdoor recreation, which generates an estimated $28 billion annually in consumer spending, has compelled action to address the degradation of land. National parks in Colorado, and other public open space, increasingly are overrun.
“This may be the year we actually get this done,” said DeGette, who since 1999 has been trying to push wilderness protection bills through Congress to no avail. “The impact on our economy of outdoor recreation is stunning. … Everybody realizes that this business they are promoting is dependent on protecting wilderness.”
Colorado cities have a role to play by creating more green space inside municipal boundaries, DeGette said in an interview. Too many visitors seeking outdoor experiences drive to the mountains and, with more green-space acres inside cities, residents could connect with nature near where they live without feeling the need to escape, she said.
“In Colorado, we need it all because our population is increasing,” DeGette said. “There’s pressure on all our open space. We need more green areas inside cities. We need more mountain areas. We need more wilderness.”
The 2019 Colorado Wilderness Act — the new bill to protect 741,000 acres — is the latest of many efforts to designate land for protection under the 1964 Wilderness Act. That law set up a system for saving wilderness, in contrast to land “where man and his own works dominate the landscape,” as areas “where the Earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Colorado currently contains 3.5 million acres protected as wilderness, mostly high mountain terrain, out of 109 million acres nationwide in all but six states. DeGette’s legislation would protect mid-elevation ecosystems providing habitat for a variety of wildlife and plants. The federal Bureau of Land Management previously designated much of this land as “wilderness study areas” — deemed suitable and appropriate for wilderness, though some have been leased for oil and gas development.
The legislation launched by Bennet and Neguse — called the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act — would protect 400,000 acres along the Continental Divide in the White River National Forest, peaks in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, and the Thompson Divide area west of Carbondale.
Colorado last gained significant wilderness in 1993, when about 600,000 acres of land were designated.
A Colorado College State of the Rockies Poll over the last decade has found consistent public support for protecting wilderness, wildlife habitat and other public land.
Yet opponents have argued that wilderness protection inhibits the ability to use public land. Motorized recreational vehicle groups have led the opposition, along with fossil-fuel groups such as the Western Energy Alliance, as well as mountain bikers.
The recreation industry’s Outdoor Industry Association lobbying group on Monday was uncertain about supporting the DeGette legislation. “We are taking a look at it and trying to understand its impact on recreational use,” OIA executive director Amy Roberts said.
But Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship backed leaders’ push for wilderness protection, as did the Sierra Club, Colorado Mountain Club, Conservation Colorado and other environmental groups.
“You can do so many things in wilderness. You just can’t take a motorized vehicle in,” said Steve Bonowski, president of the Colorado chapter of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship. “There are certainly people in the motorized community who will remain against wilderness.”