Sen. Michael Bennet on Tuesday urged the U.S. Senate leadership to include the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act in the end-of-year public lands legislation currently being negotiated.
In a letter made public Tuesday, Bennet said the act is a product of years of collaboration among local stakeholders in San Miguel, San Juan and Ouray counties in Southwest Colorado.
“The bipartisan county commissions who represent these communities have been asking Congress to pass this bill for over a decade,” Bennet wrote. “It is time for Congress to do its job and move this bill across the finish line.”
The San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act, which would place protections on about 52,000 acres in Southwest Colorado, was first introduced to Congress in 2009, receiving bipartisan support at the time.
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-Colo., and co-sponsored by Bennet.
However, before the wilderness act could be adopted, the congressional session ended, and for the next five years, the wilderness act has laid dormant on the Senate floor.
Efforts to revamp the wilderness act were revived in spring 2017, culminating in Bennet’s letter to senators Tuesday.
“Southwest Colorado cannot wait any longer for Washington to act,” Bennet wrote. “The time is now to pass this bill.”
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.
When Telluride Helitrax, which operates in the region, said it favored land protections but did not want a wilderness designation, an agreement was reached to place the area under a “special management” listing.
The same 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 only active hardrock mine in the area – Ouray Silver Mines – has supported the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act, Bennet said.
As a result of this public planning process, the act 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.
With virtual across-the-board support, Buickerood said the biggest obstacle for the wilderness act is ideology in Congress. He said for the act to pass, it needs the support of Sen. Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton, both Republicans.
Representatives with Tipton’s offices did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
Casey Contres, a spokesman for Gardner, said, “Gardner is supportive of the San Juan Wilderness Act and what it’s trying to achieve and hopes the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and impacted parties in Western Colorado can get an agreement on tweaks so it’s able to move forward soon.
“The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has asked for a couple of clarifications to the legislation to resolve some trail access issues for outdoor recreation enthusiasts. This is standard with all pieces of legislation. It is sent to a committee and is then marked up and sent to the floor. Sen. Gardner hopes this gets done soon.”
Contres said some additional changes have been worked out on a few matters including water rights, “so we are hopeful any further changes can be made to ensure this bill moves forward and can become law.
“There’s no reason why a solution can’t be found like one was for the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act between wilderness advocates and trail groups,” he said. “Compromise is the way it’s supposed to work on legislation.”