WESTERN SAN JUANS – The U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted this week to support the beleaguered San Juan Mountains Wilderness Bill, which was re-introduced by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) in February 2013.
It is Udall’s third attempt to push through the legislation, which seeks to federally preserve more than 61,000 acres of public land in San Miguel, Ouray and San Juan counties, through Wilderness and other designations.
The bill was originally sponsored in the House by John Salazar and in the Senate by Udall in 2009, but failed to pass Congress the first time around. Udall and fellow Democratic Senator Michael Bennet then teamed up to reintroduce the legislation in the Senate in September 2011.
It has not gained significant traction thus far, largely due to lack of companion legislation in the House. Opponents include many from the local mining industry, and those who link the Wilderness proposal to Agenda 21, a United Nations program promoting sustainable development that Tea Party activists associate with socialism and extreme environmentalism.
Udall, however, remains undeterred in his enthusiasm for the Wilderness bill. Testifying in April to fellow members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources' Public Lands, Forests and Mining Subcommittee, he emphasized the by-now familiar themes in his years-long quest to advance the legislation, including the bill’s grassroots origins and potential economic and environmental benefits to the region.
His comments to the ENR Committee on Tuesday, June 18 followed a similar vein.
"Today's vote in favor of the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act is a victory for local residents, businesses and leaders who have told me for years that Colorado's scenic mountains and open spaces support homegrown jobs and our thriving outdoor recreation economy," he said. "I plan to keep fighting for the people of San Miguel, Ouray and San Juan counties, but I am glad the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee endorsed this grassroots bill."
Udall is also working with residents of Chaffe County to develop legislation to create a Browns Canyon National Monument, and recently joined with Congressman Scott Tipton (R-Colo.) to help Mesa County leaders draft legislation to re-designate the Colorado National Monument as a national park.
Tipton and Udall, along with Bennet, are also co-sponsoring the Hermosa Watershed Protection Act legislation to protect the Hermosa Creek watershed, north and west of Durango. This community-designed legislation seeks to protect more than 100,000 acres of the Hermosa Creek watershed with various designations including approximately 38,000 of Wilderness.
The immediate fate of the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Bill, meanwhile, appears to lie largely in Tipton’s hands, as Wilderness supporters across the region continue to urge him to sponsor companion legislation in the House. Thus far, he appears unlikely to do so, although he did indicate he is open to more talks on the matter, when he held a Town Hall meeting with constituents in Ouray earlier this month at which the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Bill was a major topic of discussion.
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