Exciting news last week was the release of U.S. Rep. John Salazar's long-awaited San Juan Mountains wilderness proposal.
The Congressman is soliciting public comment about permanent protection for more than 60,000 acres of Southwest Colorado's wild deserts and mountains. The proposal offers the first new wilderness designations in the San Juan Mountains since 1993.
The proposal's most substantial component is doubling the size of the current Mount Sneffels Wilderness. The Sneffels Range offers one of Colorado's most dramatic, and most photographed, scenes as viewed from Ridgway Divide.
Most folks probably don't realize, however, that the formal wilderness area runs only from basically the summit of Mount Sneffels to the west. All those jagged, classic alpine Colorado peaks east of Mount Sneffels - Teakettle, Potosi, Whitehouse - have never been part of the wilderness. When Mount Sneffels originally was designated wilderness in 1980, a patchwork of private, patented mining claims littered this eastern portion.
Over the ensuing years, purchases and land exchanges have consolidated land ownership with the Forest Service, and the time now is ripe to expand Mount Sneffels Wilderness to include the entirety of the range.
A second compelling component of the proposal is the first wilderness designation for desert landscapes within the Dolores River Basin, offering protection for the north half of McKenna Peak Wilderness Study Area in Disappointment Valley.
McKenna Peak is a stark, conical peak of Mancos shale, dramatically framed by soaring cliffs of Mesa Verde sandstone behind it. The lower slopes of the proposed wilderness, along Disappointment Creek, are open shale slopes with scattered piñon-juniper woodlands, but atop the sandstone cliffs hikers can find cool grottoes of towering Douglas fir to lounge beneath as well.
This combination of hot, shale desert with cool, alpine tundra and peaks makes the San Juan Mountains wilderness proposal the most ecologically diverse proposal we've seen in Colorado. One major missing element, unfortunately, is that Rep. Salazar, D-Manassa, thus far has left the south half of McKenna Peak out of the bill, in deference to opposition from Dolores County commissioners to wilderness.
A third major element of the proposal is backcountry protection for Ice Lake Basin, Hope Lake and the peaks of the San Miguel Range between Silverton and Ophir.
Salazar's bill has not yet included two other significant pieces. The La Plata County commission and Durango City Council have both requested inclusion of a mineral withdrawal for Perins Peak wildlife area to preclude future oil and gas leasing. San Miguel County and conservation groups also have urged wilderness protection for that portion of the Dolores River canyon downstream of Snaggletooth Rapid, covering about 8 miles of river canyon. Hopefully, the congressman will be sensitive to the requests by local governments for added protection for these areas.
Salazar is soliciting comments until Aug. 16. See maps of these areas, as well as the text of the draft bill, at www.house.gov/ salazar/sjmw.shtml.
Mark Pearson is director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.