“Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free.” – Aldo Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac”
A naturalist and father of the conservationist movement, Aldo Leopold died in 1948, but his words speak as loudly today as they did when he wrote “A Sand County Almanac,” a book on the shelf of nearly every American who cares deeply for our environment.
Today our Congressional representatives are expected to vote on a package of eight land conservation bills. One of them, the Colorado Wilderness Act, was first introduced under another title 23 years ago. Rep. Diane DeGette (D-Denver) introduced the current bill in 2019 and is its primary sponsor.
The Colorado Wilderness Act will permanently protect 660,000 acres of primarily Bureau of Land Management lands in 36 different sites around the state and preserve that land for use by hunters, anglers, equestrians, hikers, rafters, mountaineers and more. This acreage amounts to less than 10% of the eight million acres of BLM land in Colorado.
Included in our region are three fourteeners between Silverton and Lake City (Handies Peak and Redcloud Peaks); Cross Canyon and Papoose Canyon in Canyons of the Ancients; the Weber and Menafee Mountains, south of Mancos; and numerous parts of the Dolores River Basin.
Another major bill to be included is the four-part Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy (CORE) Act, which will have important impacts on the Four Corners area. Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Lafayette) is its primary sponsor in the House.
Under CORE, more than 31,000 acres of San Juan Mountains will achieve wilderness designation, including Mount Sneffels and Wilson Peak, both fourteeners. It will also safeguard Ice Lake Basin in the Sheep Mountain Special Management Area and protect community watershed in that vicinity.
Overall, CORE will impact about 400,000 acres of public lands, primarily U.S. Forest Service lands.
Some of the sites in the two bills have long been studied as areas for potential preservation designations.
Stakeholders in each of the regions impacted have been engaged in conversations about the bills for years. Data show Coloradans, including Western Slope residents, overwhelmingly support land conservation of the kind in the package of bills.
The outdoor recreation business generates $28 billion in consumer spending each year. The changes wrought by these bills will encourage more outdoor recreational activities and generate more revenues and jobs for the state while preserving the pristine lands and air, wildlife migration corridors and water resources for all Coloradans, now and in the future.
The combined package of bills also includes four bills from California, one from Washington State and one addressing uranium mining in the Grand Canyon in Arizona. All eight bills passed the House last year, with all Democrats but only a handful of Republicans voting in their favor. The bills stalled in the then-Republican-controlled Senate Energy Committee in 2020.
We look forward to the bills’ passage in the House and a speedy consideration and passage by the Senate.
Aldo Leopold might not understand why a vote like today’s likely will split along party lines. Indeed, it is hardly possible to grasp: How is it that the conservation of our wilderness – that thing so beloved by every American who has ever experienced the outdoors – separates rather than unites us?
Those who might vote against these bills should consider the words of another pioneer of the contemporary environmental movement, Rachel Carson, author of “Silent Spring”:
“One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’”