After two years of negotiating and coalition-building, Congress finally has passed a package of 170 lands bills that, combined, protect 2 million acres of wilderness throughout the country, in addition to other land measures. It is a significant victory for conservationists and the land they work to protect. President Obama is expected to sign the measure, and generations to come will benefit from the act.
The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 won House approval Wednesday after it was rejected two weeks ago because of a gun-rights debate that divided Democrats and Republicans. It is the culmination of broad and deep efforts across the country to identify, inventory and advocate for pristine public lands that, once developed, cannot be returned to their original status. That is an important value to embrace legislatively, particularly in a climate of growing calls for energy exploration on any and all public lands available. Wilderness protection is an essential counterpoint.
There was much in the bill for Colorado - most significantly 316,000 acres of new wilderness in Rocky Mountain National Park and Dominguez Canyon near Grand Junction. It is the first new wilderness designated in the state since 2002, and both areas have been proposed for the status since long before that. Almost 240,000 acres of remote areas in Rocky Mountain National Park first were recommended for wilderness protection by President Richard Nixon in 1974. In the ensuing decades, that protection was championed by a series of U.S. representatives and senators who built on the momentum of grass-roots support. The bill's passage, which calls for nearly 250,000 acres of new wilderness, is a long-due accomplishment.
The 60,000-acre Dominguez Canyon Wilderness is part of a 210,000-acre national conservation area that the lands bill also establishes. The effort to protect the area has been in the works for many years, with the support of Rep. John Salazar and former Sen. Wayne Allard. It is a welcome addition to Colorado's wilderness system that reflects local support.
In addition to the wilderness measures, the lands bill included a range of protections and funding for places closer to home. Rep. Salazar included in the legislation a funding request for $8.4 million to repair the irrigation system that distributes water from Jackson Gulch Reservoir near Mancos. This rehabilitation is needed to ensure water users do not face diminished delivery because of irrigation canals' decreased capacity, owed to years of deterioration. The funding will be of significant help to the farmers, ranchers and other water rights holders who rely on Jackson Gulch.
Salazar also included measures that clearly articulate the function of the Baca Wildlife Refuge in the San Luis Valley, which was created along with the Great Sand Dunes National Park without a clear management direction. Establishing the refuge's purpose is an important bit of housekeeping that will more effectively protect it.
With Wednesday's passage of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act comes a message from Congress that America's wild places are of great intrinsic value worth preserving in perpetuity, regardless of the day's pressures for higher-impact access to these lands. It is a strong statement and a public policy manifestation of a collective love of the land. The nation can only benefit from such acts.