Move San Juan Wilderness bill across finish line

The election – and all its associated name-calling, character-assassinating and general poor behavior – is thankfully behind us after what seemed an endless lead-up to a significant day at the local, state and federal level.

The losing and winning candidates have had 10 days to lick their wounds or pass around high-fives, respectively, and the time is fast approaching for everyone to get down to business.

For Congress, business time will begin Monday when the lame duck session will convene. Though there is arguably more to do than time – or political will – allows, there is an opportunity now to make the last days of the 111th Congress very significant ones for wilderness in Southwest Colorado.

Since Rep. John Salazar introduced the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act last November, it has been slowly making its way along the requisite tour through committees and subcommittees in both chambers. The measure is currently awaiting action in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where Sen. Mark Udall and his colleagues can and should seize the chance to move the measure along, and catalyze its final passage. Doing so would be a deserved acknowledgement of the widespread – near universal, really – support the bill enjoys.

This is no small feat when wilderness is involved. The measure would protect 61,600 acres of pristine Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land in San Miguel, San Juan and Ouray counties. All three counties support the measure, as do citizens across the region. The measure reflects the values shared by most in Southwest Colorado.

That is most true because of the thorough and inclusive process that led to the bill’s creation. By gathering input from all the stakeholders potentially affected by wilderness legislation, addressing the concerns raised and crafting a measure that honors those issues while still protecting these important wild treasures of the San Juan Mountains, the bill’s proponents, and Salazar and his staff, engaged in robust and productive wilderness conversation. The resulting bill is something that a diverse group of communities can and do collectively embrace.

The lands in the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act are a cross-section of Southwest Colorado iconography. Ranging from the high-alpine splendor of the Ice Lakes Basin – which will be designated a Special Management Area – to the desert badlands of McKenna Peak, the landscape is as diverse as the communities it surrounds. Many of the areas in the measure are additions to existing wilderness; their protection enriches an already robust system of wild places. There is no question that the acreage that comprises the bill warrants protection.

So now with a lengthy to-do list, Congress will reconvene for its final days of the session. When prioritizing that list, Colorado’s delegation should move the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act to the top. Southwest Colorado has indicated its regionwide desire to see the measure enacted. Honoring that, and getting the measure across the finish line and to President Obama’s desk is something that all our representatives and senators can and should support.

meg@sanjuancitizens.org. Megan Graham is director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.