From the Gunnison Country Times
By Kevin Noreen
A bill introduced by Rep. Diana DeGette at the end of July, if passed, would designate swaths of land throughout Colorado as wilderness — including several parcels in Gunnison and Hinsdale counties.
Known as the Colorado Wilderness Act of 2015, the legislation outlines 32 individual portions of land throughout the state that make up more than 715,000 acres in total, according to a press release issued by the congresswoman’s office.
DeGette is the representative for Colorado’s 1st Congressional District. She has introduced similar legislature in every Congress since 1999 after concerned citizens put together an original wilderness bill.
Her proposal has changed somewhat since then, and certain areas have been with- drawn from, or added to, the bill. For instance, Brown’s Canyon was designated as a National Monument this past February and is thus no longer being pursued for protection under the bill, while another area in Fremont County saw an increase in ATV use and has also been withdrawn.
However, much of the Wilderness Act of 2015 remains the same as the previous 2013 iteration, including the lands proposed near Gunnison.
The legislation would add 3,325 acres to the Powderhorn Wilderness, and add 5,000 acres north of Blue Mesa Reservoir to the West Elk Wilderness. Both additions are in Gunnison County.
In Hinsdale County, two distinct areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — Redcloud Wilderness Study Area and Handies Wilderness Study Area — would be designated as the Redcloud Peak Wilderness, part of the original 1999 proposal.
Most of the wilderness bills that DeGette has sponsored have not made it very far in the legislative process before dying, with the exception of the Wilderness Act of 2009, which received a committee hearing.
The press release states that the current bill is the “product of decades of work” and encompasses “a wide range of wilderness quality public land including high mountain peaks and critical lower elevation red rock canyons.”
“I’ve heard people across the state emphasize the importance of wilderness and their reasons are as diverse as the individuals calling for their protection, ranging from the support it brings to local businesses and our economy to habitat protection and the Colorado lifestyle,” DeGette said in the release.
If it were to finally pass, the bill would likely have little impact locally on the management of the areas in question. In Gunnison and Hinsdale counties, the tracts in the proposal are roadless areas largely already marked as potential wilderness.
Similar interests, multiple initiatives
Other congressional bills that aim to protect wilderness areas currently exist, and smaller initiatives abound — some that even overlap with DeGette’s bill.
Gunnison Public Lands Initiative (GPLI) also has looked at areas adjacent to the West Elk and Powderhorn Wilderness areas and determined that they are worthy of preservation, yet their initiative is locally-driven and more comprehensive for Gunnison County.
“We have, I think, a much broader vision for what Gunnison County could look like for public land protection,” said GPLI coordinator Hilary Henry.
Henry noted that GPLI — founded in 2012 — is pleased to see leadership on wilderness areas at the federal level, but said their initiative is entirely separate.
“We’d like to see those places protected,” she said. “If it happens with DeGette’s (bill) that’d be great. That bill has been in Congress for 16 years, but we are ... a completely separate process.”
Additionally, Henry said that GPLIs seeks to “protect a greater variety of lands for more reasons” than just the two areas proposed under the Wilderness Act of 2015. GPLI is exploring a combination of wilderness and special management areas that would provide protection yet also allow users such as bikers and snowmobilers access.
In Gunnison’s neighboring county of Hinsdale, the proposed Redcloud Peak Wilderness area would be made up of two areas that were designated as Wilderness Study Areas by the Bureau of Land Management in 1980 — meaning that they have been earmarked as a site worthy of wilderness designation.
As such, the BLM already has been managing the study areas as if they were wilderness. If DeGette’s bill were to pass, virtually no changes would be made to current management of those lands.
Jim Lovelace, of the BLM’s Gunnison office, indicated that wilderness regulation of the lands in question in Hinsdale County has been fairly well received.
“For the most part our compliance with our wilderness-style regulations in that area ... is pretty good,” he said. “Which tells me that I think people are open to the idea of those being managed for wilderness experiences.”
Lovelace said that additional inventory of BLM lands in the last several years pointed to areas such as those proposed in DeGette’s bill that could be considered as possible wilderness areas.
“Proposals like this are important to the overall management of different areas,” he said. “I really couldn’t say that we have anything in our plans that conflicts with this proposal.”
Although, to some extent, Gunnison and Hinsdale lands proposed in the Colorado Wilderness Act of 2015 have already been accepted as potential wilderness areas, the proposal is still a long way from becoming law.
After being introduced on July 29, the bill was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources that same day, but no further action is scheduled yet.