WASHINGTON, D.C. – The San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act received a hearing Wednesday at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee, which was attended by supporters from San Juan and San Miguel counties.
Sen. Michael Bennet spoke in support of the bill, which would protect about 61,000 acres of land as wilderness in the San Juan Mountains. The bill was first introduced in 2009, but Bennet introduced an updated version of the bill in April. He was joined at the time by San Miguel County Commissioner Hilary Cooper.
And he was joined Wednesday by San Miguel County Commissioner Joan May and San Juan County Commissioner Pete McKay.
Bennet called his bill a “balanced piece of legislation” that brings together local businesses, ranchers, landowners and outdoor enthusiasts to reflect the diverse interests of the region.
“This bill is a credit to the diligence and vision of the people of Southwest Colorado, who care deeply about the future of our public lands and the San Juan Mountains,” Bennet said. “I look forward to working with members of the committee to advance it in the weeks ahead.”
The wilderness designation would extend some of the strictest federal conservation protections to the range’s most prominent peaks, including two Fourteeners, Mount Sneffels and Wilson Peak.
Additionally, the bill would designate 11 areas in the San Juan National Forest as wilderness or special management areas and would prevent mining in Naturita Canyon.
May and McKay spoke to The Durango Herald after Wednesday’s hearing.
“It’s fascinating to be in a Senate hearing,” May said. “We heard what we expected to hear, and it’s great to see this bill moving forward.”
May said it was special to help draft the bill and travel to Washington to join the hearing.
“It was really worthwhile to come here so we could meet with Sen. (Cory) Gardner and Sen. Bennet about this bill and relay to them the importance of this from their constituents back at home,” May said.
McKay said the bill helps protect Southwest Colorado’s economic viability. Tourism and recreation help ensure economic stability for Southwest Colorado.
“The one constant that continues to grow is visitation by tourists and recreation into these areas we want to preserve,” McKay said. “We’re looking for certainty and preservation so that our economic viability can continue to grow.”
McKay said he looks forward to seeing this bill move forward.
“(This bill) is so important for us. Both Joan and I recreate in these areas and we know them well,” McKay said. “And it’s worth it to our treasury and our counties to come back here and talk to the interested parties about how to preserve these areas. We think we’ve had a success with this trip, and we look forward to the collaborative effort that will continue to move this bill forward.”
Supporters of the bill include the San Juan Citizens Alliance, an advocacy group that fights for clean air, pure water and healthy lands in the San Juan Basin. In a statement, the group said the bill is an “effort to protect these public lands that are a key component to their local economic well-being.”
“We are hopeful that Sen. Gardner and Rep. (Scott) Tipton can bolster this regional effort to safeguard our public lands by becoming enthusiastic sponsors of Sen. Bennet’s bill in this legislative session,” said Jimbo Buickerood with the San Juan Citizens Alliance.
Tipton, R-Colo., said he has heard concerns about the bill from residents of San Juan County.
“This legislation has been in the works for quite a few years now, and in that time, our office has been frequently communicating with the communities that would be impacted by this bill,” said Kelsey Mix, communication director for Tipton, in an email to the Herald. “While some would claim that there is broad consensus for this legislation, we have heard many people raise concerns that it would interfere with water rights and recreation access.”
Maria Carrasco is an intern for The Durango Herald and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.