A Wilderness Showdown, as Polite as Can Be
by Watch Staff
Oct 06, 2011 | 1375 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
OURAY – It was hardly your average town meeting. In the days leading up to Congressman Scott Tipton’s appearance for a “listening session” last Friday on the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act, proposed by Sen. Mark Udall earlier in the week, fireworks flew. Democrats claimed Tipton’s supporters had been planning on this get-together for weeks, yet deliberately kept them in the dark about it until just a few days before – the better to “stack” the meeting with Republicans, who would likely oppose the bill. The Tipton camp shrugged off the criticism, then abruptly switched the venue to the Ouray Community Center from Ridgway Town Hall. The last-minute change, purportedly to accommodate more constituents (Ridgway Town Hall seats 000; the Ouray Community Center, 340), prompted charges of deliberately making it difficult for Wilderness Bill supporters to attend. If that was the plan, it failed miserably, as more than 400 people packed the Center, most apparently Wilderness Bill proponents.

“As of a week ago, Congressman Tipton, the only ones who knew about this meeting opposed it. This community is here because of passion.” Ridgway resident Howard Greene said, gesturing to the audience. Every seat was filled, and many were standing. “You can see how this community feels. Wilderness lasts forever, and requires little or no maintenance. Talk about a resource.”

The audience applauded, which was probably no surprise, considering the widespread support the bill enjoys in the area. Ouray, San Miguel and San Juan counties all endorse the bill, originally introduced by Senators Udall and Michael Bennet in 2009, the result of years of collaborations between local ranchers, environmentalists, outdoor recreationists and others. San Miguel County Commissioner Joan May spoke first, emphasizing the bill’s grassroots nature. “This came from the ground up,” she said. “No mines or mining claims are (to be) closed” as a result of the bill, and “not a single motorized road” would be, either. As proposed, the bill will protect Beaver Creek, the sole source of Ridgway’s potable water, a fact Ridgway mayor Pat Willits, who was one of the first to speak, was quick to point out. However, “I’m a realist,” he added. While these tracts of land deserve a special designation, not every parcel does. “I’m not opposed to mining,” he said.

Mining drove much of the criticism of the bill for the rest of the evening. The bulk of the night’s critiques, were centered around excavating for minerals: how mining could help the community right now, how much more it might be able to do if only it were allowed to develop and expand, and what the future might hold if excavation is not permitted. The criticism began with people’s ability to earn money. As Mike Thompson, a geologist in Cortez who is on the Board of Directors for the Western Small Miners Association, insisted, “There must be a large buffer zone between mines – places where people are making a legitimate living. If anything, we should be talking about taking away” wilderness designations. There was also the fact that mining affects the pocketbooks not only of individuals, but the community. “If these are closed off, the economic fate of Ouray County will be tied to tourism,” Thompson said, adding that when one industry dominates, the result is “economic doldrums.”

But as Walt Rule, a retired forest ranger, replied, “Tourism is keeping this town alive now. That is our economic heritage.” It would likely be the heritage of the future as well, said Kelvin Kent, the former president of the Montrose Chamber of Commerce and the author of three local guidebooks. Kent said he makes a point of asking hikers where they’re from when he’s out in the San Juans. “About 70 percent of the people I meet on hiking trails come from middle-class or upper-middle-class families,” he reported. “They are the economic lifeblood of this community, because they can afford to eat and stay here.”

Don Rapp of Olathe implored Tipton to see the big picture: “I urge you to help defeat any wilderness with known minerals (in it),” he said. “We have seen the folly of closing huge expanses of Alaska, and we can’t afford this in the name of national security.”

On the flip side, many speakers praised the Wilderness Act, including people you might not expect would want to see it passed. Liza Clark, a local rancher for 34 years, said she supported the bill. “This doesn’t hurt my ranching operation in any way,” she said. Phil Harris, representing the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association, noted that mountain bikes are not allowed in wilderness, and thus, Wilderness designations are often viewed with skepticism by his group. Yet,“We supported this bill when it was first introduced, and we support it now,” he said. Claudia and Steve Woolf, registered Republicans in Ouray County, couldn’t attend, but wrote, in a letter read on their behalf, that although they had supported Tipton “in the last election” and agree with him on many issues, “It’s also important to save a little wilderness.” Tony Shaw, a registered Republican of 35 years and a member of Trout Unlimited, said he was in favor of the bill.

Many who had worked hard on the bill –some, for years – seemed to yearn for accommodation. According to Jeff Weiden, a representative of the Wilderness Society, “It is just as illegitimate to say No Mining as it to say No Wilderness. I believe we can find the middle ground and get this done for everybody.”

“This is not an either/or,” Ridgway Mayor Pro Tem John Clark emphasized. “This proposal can go forward, and so can mining.” Ouray Commissioner Heidi Albritton concurred. “I’m not necessarily inclined to support a Wilderness bill,” she pointed out. But this one, she does. “It was vetted in our local community, it seeks to protects our interests, and it’s no small thing to get us to agree,” she said to applause.

At a press conference after the meeting, Tipton was asked if he would support the bill. He grabbed at his pocket. Out came a folded editorial, written by three commissioners from San Juan, Ouray and San Miguel counties, endorsing the Wilderness Act. “No roads will be closed, legal mountain bike and motorized trails will be left unchanged, and by law, patented mining claims will retain their property and existing rights,” Tipton read slowly. He looked up. “That sounds to me like a lot of common ground.” The only thing left, it seemed, was fear. “But there’s still some distrust, so let’s explore that.” The Congressman said he would definitely hold more meetings about the bill before the end of the year. The fact that the region’s “vast majority” supports the bill “Speaks to a great collaborative effort,” he said. As for the meeting, he said a little wistfully, “This was a great model for what should be going on in Washington.”
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