Sitting in that same room during a town hall meeting in Ouray on Tuesday night, Tipton finally broke that silence, enumerating several concerns he has with the proposed grassroots legislation that seeks to federally preserve a patchwork of public lands in southwestern Colorado.
Primarily, he said, he is concerned that the Wilderness proposal appears to be such a divisive issue among his constituents.
“I am in favor of creating win-wins, and at the listening session I heard about 50 percent express concerns,” he said. “Those need to be respected and taken into consideration as well.”
Tipton said he also has issues with a heli-skiing concession that is included in the proposed bill, as well as the fact that the Wilderness expansion would limit the development of mining claims within its boundaries.
“You can mine, but you would need to get it out by pack mule,” he pointed out.
Tipton emphasized his belief that much of the federally owned land that the bill seeks to make into Wilderness is already adequately protected by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
“We need to always make sure we are looking in perpetuity,” he said. “There may be a time when we will be inhibiting young Americans’ ability to make choices.... Nobody can lecture me about loving this land. I value where we live. But we have got to be looking at the whole big scope as well.”
While discussion at the town hall meeting veered to other topics ranging from Obamacare to fracking, several of those in the room doggedly brought it back to the Wilderness issue.
“We have worked five long years on this issue, and feel pushed aside by your office,” said Jim Stephenson, a member of the Ridgway Ouray Community Council and one of the architects of local components of the bill. “We need to know where you stand on it, firmly, so we can move on.”
Tipton said he would like to get more more precise knowledge regarding heliskiing and mining in the proposed Wilderness expansion areas, but refrained from committing to a definitive position on the matter. “I always applaud being passionate for something and caring about it, but this is a process we need to be prudent and thoughtful on,” he said. “Our door is open; we are happy always to sit down.”
Even as Tipton has withheld support for the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Bill, he has sponsored legislation creating a new national monument at Chimney Rock, and is currently co-sponsoring a bill to expand Wilderness along Hermosa Creek. “Why them, but not us?” several constituents wanted to know.
Tipton replied that those two initiatives enjoyed broader support from his constituency.
The San Juan Mountains Wilderness Bill seeks to preserve 61,000 acres in San Miguel, Ouray and San Juan counties by expanding two existing wilderness areas, designating one new one, and extending new protections to certain other wild lands in the area. Specific provisions include:
• 3,170 acres added to the existing Lizard Head Wilderness Area in San Miguel County;
• 21,606 acres added to the existing Mt. Sneffels Wilderness Area in San Miguel and
• 8,614 acres of the McKenna Peak Wilderness Study Area in San Miguel County,
located in the Disappointment Valley, designated as wilderness.
The bill was originally sponsored in the House by Tipton’s democratic predecessor John Salazar and in the Senate by Mark Udall in 2009, but failed to pass Congress. Udall has twice reintroduced the bill, but it has not gained the traction it needs to succeed, due mainly to lack of companion legislation in the House, which Wilderness supporters have been leaning on Tipton to introduce.
While in Ouray, Tipton also took the opportunity to tout his small hydro and conduit act which passed through the House in April and will go through to the Senate on unanimous consent. It is Tipton’s second shot at pushing through the bill.
HR 678, the Bureau of Reclamation Small Conduit Hydropower Development and Rural Jobs Act, seeks to simplify permitting for small hydro development on Bureau of Reclamation facilities by eliminating duplicative environmental analysis on existing manmade Bureau of Reclamation conduits (pipes, ditches, and canals) that have already received a review under the National Environmental Policy Act.
If it becomes law, Tipton said, the bill could enable as much electricity to be produced by small hydro projects as is currently produced at the Glen Canyon Dam.