Organizers are revamping efforts to pass a bill that would place protections on 61,000-acres in Southwest Colorado – known as the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act.
The bill, last seriously considered four years ago, has been widely regarded as a success in public involvement and compromise.
As a result, it has the backing of the county commissions in Ouray, San Juan and San Miguel counties, and the town councils in Mountain Village, Norwood, Ophir, Ridgway and Telluride.
It has endorsements from more than 150 invested businesses, most notably Telluride Ski Resort, a long list of ranchers and grazers in the region, as well as adjacent landowners, homeowners associations and environmental groups.
And, throughout the process, it has received little opposition, save for a few mining interests that were addressed early in the planning stage, supporters say.
So why nearly a decade after the bill was introduced in Congress, has the wilderness act not been passed?
“Congress is in rough shape these days, and has been for a while,” said Jeff Widen, with the Wilderness Society. “So it’s been lost in the congressional morass, like so many other initiatives with partisan bickering in Washington.”
The San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act was introduced to Congress in 2009 by former Colorado Congressman John Salazar.
Unlike other proposals for wilderness protections around the country, the San Juan Mountains plan was not a point of contention for locals, but a product of extensive community outreach and compromise, said Jimbo Buickerood, with the San Juan Citizens Alliance.
For years, planners met with a wide range of interests, tweaking the designation’s boundaries to allow access for snowmobiles and leaving out numerous jeep roads and mountain bike trails.
In one instance, Telluride Helitrax, a company that offers heli-skiing, said it favored increased protections on Sheep Mountain, but did not want a wilderness designation, which would not allow them to operate there. So instead, an agreement was reached to place the area under a “special management” listing.
And the same special management compromise was reached with residents near Naturita, who wanted protections against mining on 6,595 acres within nearby Naturita Canyon, but did not want a wilderness label.
“The homework was done in a very diverse and in-depth manner to make sure all interests and their concerns were addressed,” Buickerood said. “Hours and hours and hours were spent talking to them, looking at maps.”
The wilderness act crossed an important threshold in 2010 when it passed the House Natural Resource Committee and again in 2013 when it passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee with strong bipartisan votes. By that time, the bill was sponsored by former Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado, and co-sponsored by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado.
However, before the wilderness act could be adopted, the Congressional session ended, and for the next four years, the wilderness act has laid dormant on the Senate floor.
Until this spring, said Buickerood, when supporters plan to re-energize momentum behind the act, led by Bennet, who said via email he is working to re-introduce the bill, hopefully with continued bipartisan support.
“I proudly support the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act, which understandably also has broad support from Coloradans,” Bennet said. “This important legislation protects some of Colorado’s most iconic peaks, including two fourteeners: Mt. Sneffels and Wilson Peak.”
While the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act enjoys local support, the increasingly threatening rhetoric toward public lands, as well as the idea of wilderness-designated areas in general, adds a sense of uncertainty, supporters say.
Organizers know they will need bipartisan backing from Colorado’s other congressional delegates, including Congressman Scott Tipton and Sen. Cory Gardner, to make headway at the U.S. Capitol.
Tipton’s spokeswoman, Liz Payne, disagreed last week with the idea that locals support the designation, saying via email “conversations our office has had at public meetings and with various groups have shown there isn’t public consensus on designating the wilderness area.”
“Congressman Tipton’s stance has been and always will be that land designations need to be driven from the local level,” Payne wrote.
The Wilderness Society’s Widen contends that Tipton attended only the first public meeting about the project, and concerns raised at that time – which mostly surrounded a few areas that held the potential for mining – have been addressed.
Gardner’s office did not respond to The Durango Herald after two weeks seeking comment.
Regardless, Scott Fetchenheir, a San Juan County commissioner and former miner, said the act is essential to preserving both the economical draw of tourism and delicate ecological resources in the high country.
“With pressures on the land, you need to set aside some land that can be enjoyed and is still pristine,” Fetchenheir said. “And as far as opposition – I don’t see how it’s going to affect anybody.”
The San Juan Mountains plan would designate additions to the existing Mount Sneffels and Lizard Head wilderness areas, establish a new Bureau of Land Management wilderness area at McKenna Peak, and place more than 21,000 acres at Sheep Mountain in a special management area.
In a recent letter to the editor written by six regional leaders, they told Colorado delegates the “message is clear.”
“Set partisanship aside and work together to pass the SJMW bill. The bill represents our interests as a community, it preserves our way of life and ensures economic stability through hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars that come from the outdoor recreation economy and people’s desire to live and own businesses here,” the letter said.
The Wilderness Act was signed into law in 1964 to preserve and protect areas in their natural condition, typically allowing only foot and horse travel, and prohibiting further construction of roads of structures.
Colorado has about 3.7 million acres in a wilderness designation, sixth among U.S. states. Most recently in Southwest Colorado, in 2015 Congress passed the Hermosa Creek Wilderness, protecting 37,236-acres north of Durango.
This article has been updated to correct the year the bill passed the House Natural Resource Committee.firstname.lastname@example.org