August 11, 2016
From the Gunnison Country Times and the Crested Butte News
Remembering the 1993 Colorado Wilderness Act
This coming Saturday, August 13 marks the 23rd Anniversary of the Colorado Wilderness Act of 1993. The Act was a watershed moment in Colorado history, protecting more than 600,000 acres of some of Colorado’s most spectacular public lands.
In Gunnison County, the Act established the Fossil Ridge Wilderness, the Powderhorn Wilderness, and added the Oh-Be-Joyful addition to the Raggeds Wilderness. These are some incredible pieces of country – resplendent in waterfalls, high mountain peaks, and alpine lakes. Creating these Wilderness areas ensured that they retained their spectacular sense of wildness and prevented future mining, drilling, timber cutting, and road building. At the time of their protection, both Fossil Ridge and Oh Be Joyful were threatened by mineral development that would have destroyed sensitive wildlife habitat and polluted water quality.
The 1993 Act also created one of the first Special Recreation Management Areas – a designation that protected more than 40,000 additional acres surrounding the Fossil Ridge Wilderness, but left the area open to motorized and mechanized use. By using this designation, the legislation was able to not only safeguard the ecological integrity of a larger expanse of habitat, but also ensure that the high-quality experience that the motorized trails in that area were known for would be preserved for years to come.
As the leading architect of the 1993 Colorado Wilderness Act and an advocate who worked for more than twelve years to get the legislation passed, I am excited to see a new group of public lands users begin to discuss further protections in Gunnison County. While the 1993 legislation was able to protect some very important large blocks of habitat, work remains to protect corridors between these areas, bring protections into the highly sensitive lower lying sagebrush areas, and to ensure that we are accounting for growing pressures on our landscape.
Our public lands protection system gives the power to the local citizens to protect the areas they care about and provides each generation the opportunity to refine and build off of the work of previous generations. The 1993 legislation made sure that some of our best wild places would remain protected for years to come. Now, with the population of Gunnison County expected to grow by 50% in the next 35 years and increasing stress on our natural resources, it’s time to take a hard look landscape again and ensure we’ve set aside areas for our growing recreation economy, for wildlife and clean water, and to ensure that our native species will have undeveloped lands to migrate to as their ranges shifts with our changing climate.
I commend the hard work that local user groups and elected officials are doing as part of the Gunnison Working Group for Public Lands to create a proposal for public lands protection. I believe that their effort is balanced, taking into the account the needs of many diverse stakeholders while realizing the incredible value of our natural environment. I am glad that the 1993 legislation’s model of using both Wilderness and more flexible Special Management Area designations remains in this effort – allowing more deserving lands to be protected and ensuring that outdoor recreation can be preserved along with the landscape.
My family and I have been coming to Gunnison County since 1970. This landscape is special not just to me, but now also to my children and grandchildren. As we celebrate the anniversary of the 1993 Colorado Wilderness Act, I am hopeful that the Gunnison County community will continue the legacy of protecting their wild places. Gunnison County’s public lands deserve to be protected not just for today, but also for future generations.
Former Colorado Senator Tim Wirth