Colorado is poised for its most significant wilderness additions in more than 15 years.
The "Omnibus Public Land Management Act" pending in Congress includes wilderness designation for Dominguez Canyons near Grand Junction along with Rocky Mountain National Park. The more than 300,000 acres thus protected is the largest addition to the National Wilderness Protection System in Colorado since 1993.
Big and Little Dominguez canyons are exquisite, classic Colorado Plateau canyonlands. Gunnison River floaters between Delta and Grand Junction routinely partake of the delights of Big Dominquez Canyon, which offers thundering waterfalls beneath redrock canyon walls, scoured black Precambrian bedrock pools, magnificent petroglyph panels and predictable sightings of desert bighorn sheep. On a typical hot June afternoon, the creek's pools and spray offer an enticement impossible to forego.
I've been fortunate to spend weeklong adventures backpacking in Big and Little Dominquez Canyons on two occasions. Despite its proximity to Grand Junction, most of the area is far from the beaten path. The Bureau of Land Management recently replaced a footbridge across the Gunnison River that offers access for hikers to the pools and petroglyphs near the canyon's confluence with the Gunnison, but beyond those easily reached and desirable destinations, hikers are infrequently encountered.
Colorado is fortunately blessed with an abundance of wild and primitive high country. Previous wilderness designation efforts have understandably focused on the dramatic alpine scenery, classic lakes and tundra, and soaring high peaks of the Rockies so wonderfully encapsulated by the Weminuche. But among the 41 designated wilderness areas in Colorado, just two portray the canyons, mesas and plateaus of the Colorado Plateau. Dominguez Canyons would be the third such canyonland wilderness protected in western Colorado. Combined with Gunnison Gorge and Black Ridge Canyons, the areas total just 150,000 acres of the 3.4 million wilderness acres in the state. These are a wonderful start to expanding wilderness to incorporate nonalpine areas, but much remains to be done.
The pending Omnibus Lands Bill gets its name from the amalgamation of 160 individually pending lands bill into one massive legislative package. Each bill has wended its way through Congress, each awaiting its turn at a final vote on the floor of the House and Senate. However, one cantankerous crank senator from Oklahoma has held all 160 bills hostage, threatening an extended filibuster. So-called "Dr. No" (Sen. Tom Coburn) has no positive legislative agenda of his own, so he can stymie his colleagues without fear of retribution. Breaking a filibuster requires a 60-vote majority in the Senate, and consumes many days of scarce legislative time. Hence, Senate managers compiled all 160 into one overwhelming bill, needing to maneuver through Dr. No's legislative minefield just one time.
The Senate passed the Omnibus Lands Bill 73-21 in January. Congressional observers expect a House vote next week, after which the canyons is a signature away from becoming Colorado's newest wilderness area.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Mark Pearson is director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.