WESTERN SAN JUANS – U.S. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) testified in Senate subcommittee last Thursday, April 25, on behalf of his proposed legislation to federally preserve more than 61,000 acres of public land in San Miguel, Ouray and San Juan counties.
This is Udall’s third attempt to push through the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Bill, which seeks to expand two existing wilderness areas in this part of Colorado (Lizard Head and Mt. Sneffels), designate one new one (McKenna Peak), and extend new protections to certain other wild lands in the area.
In his testimony to fellow members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources' Public Lands, Forests and Mining Subcommittee, Udall hit upon what have become familiar themes in his years-long quest to advance the legislation, stressing the bill’s grassroots origins and potential economic and environmental benefits to the region.
"This bill reflects extensive collaboration done over several years with local leaders and interested stakeholders," Udall said. "Wilderness is one of our state's great economic engines and I am proud to be able to lead the efforts on this bill. Our population is expected to double by 2050, and we need to be proactive so that future generations can experience the beauty, clean water and air, and wildlife that we have today. I am committed to getting this bill and similar community-driven efforts to the finish line."
Now that the bill has again been heard by the ENR subcommittee, it will either be marked up and sent to the Senate floor for an eventual vote, sent back to the committee staff for revisions, or killed. The bill’s supporters hope that the first option will prevail. Its opponents, including many from the mining industry as well as those who subscribe to the so-called Agenda 21 theory, would rather see the bill killed.
The U.S. Forest Service, meanwhile, has proposed modifications to the bill that would improve the agency’s ability to manage resources in the area, according to testimony at the hearing by Associate Deputy Chief of the National Forest System James Peña.
The legislation was originally sponsored in the House by John Salazar and in the Senate by Udall in 2009, but failed to pass Congress first time around. Udall and fellow Democratic Senator Michael Bennet then teamed up to reintroduce the legislation in the Senate in September 2011.
The Public Lands and Forests Subcommittee held a similar hearing on the bill in March 2012, but it failed to gain significant momentum at that time, largely due to lack of companion legislation in the House.
Republican congressman Scott Tipton from Cortez has yet to indicate whether he might be the one to introduce such legislation, although he’s done a lot of “listening” to his constituents on the matter.
In late September 2011, he attended a listening session in Ouray that drew over 400 wilderness advocates and opponents from throughout the region. His staff have since conducted open house events in Silverton and Telluride to meet with concerned constituents on the matter.
The San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act (S.341) would protect areas in San Miguel, Ouray and San Juan counties as wilderness — mostly as expansions of the existing Lizard Head and Mount Sneffels wilderness areas — and establish a new area called McKenna Peak, which includes imposing sandstone cliffs rising 2,000 feet above the plains. The bill would also protect acreage on Sheep Mountain and Naturita Canyon by withdrawing these areas from mineral entry, while continuing to allow existing uses of the land.