On a sunny mesa overlooking expansive green hills of the Weber and Menefee Mountain Wilderness Study Areas, Montezuma County officials tried to persuade U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, to drop the local lands from her proposed wilderness bill.
But after a spirited debate, DeGette stood firm in her commitment to protect the federal public lands south of Mancos from development, along with 31 other parcels as part of her Colorado Wilderness Act of 2019.
“I have not heard a persuasive reason to drop them,” she said Wednesday. “It’s important to preserve the last few remaining wild places. If we don’t, the worry is that they will be overrun with all kinds of uses.”
Her Colorado wilderness bill proposes to add 740,000 acres to the 109 million acres of wilderness area nationwide, which is less than 5% of the total U.S. land base. Colorado has 3.5 million acres of wilderness, a little more than 5% of Colorado’s total land base.
DeGette emphasized that if the three WSAs in the county became official wilderness areas, there would be no additional protections.
“The management would be the same,” DeGette said.
WSAs already restrict new roads, new trails, oil and gas leases, mining and motorized access. They would continue to have public access for hiking, skiing, horse travel, hunting and for existing grazing allotments.
It was pointed out that telecommunication towers and existing BLM roads near the Menefee Mountain WSA, are outside its boundaries and are therefore not impacted by the restrictions.
Montezuma County commissioners and staff pushed back on DeGette’s proposed wilderness.
They want Congress to release the four wilderness study area designations in the county so they can be managed by the BLM with less restrictions, potentially allowing for more recreation trails and more efficient weed control.
They cite a 1991 BLM review of the WSAs that states “the wilderness values in this area were not of an overall quality and significance to warrant inclusion into the national wilderness preservation system.”
Commissioner Keenan Ertel said he hoped DeGette would consider dropping local WSAs from her wilderness bill, but since that is not the case, he does not support the measure.
“Precluding people from using their public lands steps outside of their multiple-use intent,” he said.
If the BLM says it does not warrant inclusion as wilderness, “why not let it go?” added Commissioner Jim Candelaria.
About 20 listened or joined in the conversation – a mix of environmentalists, recreationists, landowners, BLM managers and elected officials.
The concept of wilderness is a point of contention, in part because it limits what activities can occur.
“The federal government wants to take this away from local people,” said one landowner. “Wilderness may be appropriate in some places, but not here.”
On the other hand, the WSA protects open space, wildlife habitat and solitude, said Mark Pearson of the San Juan Citizen’s Alliance. If it were lifted, the area could potentially be opened up to oil and gas leasing, he said, and more trails put pressure on wildlife.
“You can see it’s an important corridor for elk and deer to migrate from the lower elevations up to the La Plata Mountains,” he said.
DeGette believes undeveloped wilderness attracts people and helps the economy.
“People from Mancos tell me the reason they moved there was for the solitude of these wilderness study areas,” she said.
A local resident asked how neighbors would feel about natural gas leases and ATV “in their backyard” if the WSAs were dropped.
“I don’t think the BLM is going to start bulldozing roads just because it came out of a wilderness study area,” Ertel said.
Menefee has a musk thistle and cheat grass infestation, in part as a result of a 2012 wildfire, said county noxious weed manager Bonnie Loving. The concern is the weeds could spread to nearby farmland and fire-prone cheat grass could trigger more frequent, destructive fires.
If the WSA were released, it would be easier for the BLM to address the invasive weed problem by using ATVs instead of less cost-effective backpack spot spraying, Loving said.
Use of ATVs is not the ideal choice for BLM managers because the area has WSA restrictions on the use of motorized vehicles and equipment.
DeGette pointed out that the BLM may use ATVs in wilderness areas during emergency situations or for critical management purposes such as treating weeds to protect wilderness values including wildlife and native plant habitat.
“There is flexibility in wilderness – helicopters and motorized uses are permitted in emergency situations and for rescues,” she said.
The Tres Rios region stretches across five counties and operates on a limited weed management budget, BLM officials said. They plan to continue spot treatments methods of noxious weeds on Menefee and are not considering aerial spraying.
DeGette framed the weed management issue as a federal funding problem.
“We need to do a better job of funding the BLM and Forest Service so they can better manage federal lands, especially in Colorado, where there is growing population pressure,” she said. “I’m committed to make sure we get management budgets raised.”
DeGette visited the Cortez area for three days to pitch her Wilderness Act of 2019. She toured the Cross Canyon Wilderness Study Area by horseback, held a well-attended community meeting at Cortez City Hall and drove up a four-wheel drive road to meet with county officials at Menefee Mountain.
A show of hands at the Cortez City Hall meeting on Aug. 26 showed about 75% support for DeGette’s Wilderness bill.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” she said. “I enjoyed the visit and learned a lot.”