When Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., introduced the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act of 2011 in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, it was anything but a seat-of-the-pants initiative. Instead, the bill embodies years of work gathering support, refining boundaries, negotiating concerns and building consensus to produce a measure that reflects the wishes of a broad spectrum of stakeholders in the counties that contain the lands targeted for protection. As such, the bill as introduced is ready for expeditious movement through the legislative process.
The act is co-sponsored by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and is the continuation of efforts begun by former Rep. John Salazar, who introduced the original House version of the bill in 2009. While there have been minor adjustments since then, Udalls measure largely reflects the components of that initial legislation, which was drafted with significant input from a wide array of interests and carried the endorsement of San Juan, San Miguel and Ouray counties.
The broad support the measure enjoys is testament to the regions interest in permanently protecting a smattering of iconic wildlands across the San Juan Mountains. Among these are additions to existing wilderness, including Lizard Head and Mt. Sneffels expansions and the creation of the 8,600-acre McKenna Peak Wilderness in southern San Miguel County. The bill also has a range of nonwilderness prescriptions that will protect deserving landscapes while allowing traditional uses to continue. Most significant is the new Sheep Mountain Special Management Area that spans San Miguel and San Juan counties, and includes such popular and pristine treasures as Ice Lakes Basin.
Each and all of the landscapes included in the San Juan Mountains bill are important pieces to the regions natural heritage and economic future. Outdoor recreation is a significant sector in each of the three counties economies as it is for La Plata County, where many forays into the San Juan Mountains originate. Ensuring that those assets remain intact to support the clean water, clear air, wildlife habitat, scenic splendor and recreation opportunities that the areas in the bill offer is in the interest of all in the region. Udalls measure reflects that interest, as should Rep. Scott Tipton, who is soliciting feedback on the bill from his constituents.
Tipton is right to do so. As a freshman congressman, he is tasked with the dual responsibilities of learning what his districts priorities are by seeking and listening to feedback and advocating for his legislative agenda. The former should inform the latter, and not conducting his own reconnaissance would make Tipton remiss as a representative.
However, in the case of the San Juan bill, there is no need to begin anew. Confirming the broad-based support for the measure is Tiptons duty, as is listening to any concerns that arise in that confirmation process. That should not translate into seeking opposition or giving disproportionate weight to those who do not support the bill for ideological reasons.
There is ample opportunity for refinement as the measure travels the channels of Congress, and Tipton has an opportunity to help usher to finality the work of a diverse cross section of his district work that was initiated to protect a shared resource that all who live in the region recognize as having irreplaceable value.
Sen. Udalls introduction of the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act and Sen. Bennets co-sponsorship of it was an important first step. Tipton should act quickly to take the next one.