Lame duck business

Congress should look beyond fiscal cliff to find other opportunities for action

Since the election, it has been difficult for readers and opinion writers to get through a sentence without consuming or producing the words “fiscal cliff.” After all, it has been the primary order of business for lawmakers at both ends of the National Mall, and with the Dec. 31 deadline looming, speculation and rhetoric is at its height. Publicly, though, action thus far has been elusive. That is not altogether – or even a little bit – unexpected, but in the shadow of these discussions, many items ripe for action are languishing unaddressed.

It need not be the case, and Colorado’s delegation has an opportunity to move some noncontroversial measures that would add to the state’s collection of protected landscapes. By taking late-session action on the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act and the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act, Congress could turn the lame-duck session into one of significance for Southwest Colorado. There is little to lose and much to gain in doing so.

The San Juan bill would protect more than 33,000 acres of pristine landscapes in San Juan, San Miguel and Ouray counties, extending wilderness designation to such icons as McKenna Peak in the Disappointment Valley northeast of Dove Creek, and additions to the existing Lizard Head Wilderness Area. It also would add a special management designation to the Sheep Mountain area that spans San Miguel and San Juan counties, giving increased protection to 21,000 acres of high alpine terrain while still allowing for activities not allowed in wilderness, such has helicopter-accessed skiing. The measure was crafted after several years of local input and received near universal support from stakeholders. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet are co-sponsoring the legislation, and it has long been worthy of movement.

So, too, is the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act. The measure would protect more than 100,000 acres with a trio of management prescriptions ranging from wilderness designation to higher-impact uses that allow for mountain biking, off-road-vehicle use in designated areas as well as logging. This innovative bill resulted from an exhaustive collaborative, consensus-based stakeholder process held through two years to discuss shared values and methods available for protecting them. It is an excellent example of public involvement in policymaking, and Sens. Bennet and Udall again are co-sponsors of the Senate bill encompassing the local groups’ efforts.

While both measures are small, targeted and have relatively isolated effect, there is significance in moving them. Doing so would protect in perpetuity some iconic wildlands that make up the heart of Southwest Colorado’s landscape. The values – economic, environmental, scenic, recreational and otherwise – inherent in that landscape are critical to the region’s identity to residents and visitors. Recognizing that through legislative action is the sign of an involved and responsive lawmaker who understands the physical, political and economic landscape of the region he represents.

By moving the San Juan Mountain Wilderness Act and the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act – and myriad other land-related protection bills being carried by lawmakers across the country – Congress has an opportunity to demonstrate that it is capable of such involvement and responsiveness. For too long during the 112th, doubt has been building. How refreshing it would be to see it wane in the final days of the year.

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