Vail Daily column: Earth Day a reminder of value of wilderness | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: Earth Day a reminder of value of wilderness

Kathy Chandler-Henry and Karn Stiegelmeier
Valley Voices

Earth Day has a special meaning for both of us here in Colorado. As Colorado natives, we were brought up with a sense of wonder and appreciation for our state's amazing natural resources. Through the decades, we have experienced increasing population and development pressure on Colorado's natural wonders.

Hiking, skiing, mountain biking and fishing with your kids really makes you think about Earth Day, its origins and why we should observe this holiday with our children. Earth Day came about more than 40 years ago, in response to a growing need to safeguard our natural resources. Animals were going extinct at an alarming rate, pesticides were poisoning wildlife and humans, and rivers were on fire.

With drop-dead gorgeous scenery, Colorado is the perfect place to reflect upon Earth Day. People come from near and far to hike, bike, raft, paddle, ski, hunt, and fish. Many people think that Colorado will always be a protected outdoor recreation haven, but without taking steps to safeguard our public lands, the future of our Rocky Mountains could look quite different. Our beloved Holy Cross and Eagle's Nest wilderness areas preserve our watersheds, give shelter to wildlife and are critical to the health and sustainability of our communities.

There is another area that deserves an Earth Day shout-out: Colorado's Continental Divide. The Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act was introduced by Congressman Jared Polis last year. It would safeguard roughly 60,000 acres of the White River National Forest as wilderness and special management areas. With mounting pressures on our state's resources, protecting these lands for future generations is a most important legacy. We want our grandchildren to experience the wonders of Colorado, as we have been able to enjoy.

The legislation would help keep drinking water pure and clean for the West Slope and communities along the Front Range. At a time when it is hard to open the newspaper without reading about a water crisis somewhere in the country, it is critically important that we do everything we can to protect our most precious resource. The act would also preserve critical wildlife habitat. The area is home to black bear, bighorn sheep, moose, lynx, elk and wild turkey.

Finally, the legislation will grow Colorado's sustainable economy. Outdoor recreation is a booming business, generating $13.2 billion in consumer spending every year. It also supports 125,000 jobs that pay $4.2 billion in salaries and wages. All of the people who come from near and far to White River National Forest to hike, ski, hunt, fish, bike, ride horseback and camp rely on all sorts of businesses. Whether it is taking families out for an adventure of a lifetime, providing visitors with food and shelter or selling outdoor recreation gear, local businesses depend on our public lands.

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A diverse group of business owners, veterans, sportsmen, mountain bikers and outdoor recreationists have come together to protect this small portion of the White River National Forest.

The Colorado Continental Divide coalition is remarkably like the people who first celebrated Earth Day 46 years ago. It was a bipartisan group of everyday folks from all walks of life who wanted to protect their homes and natural surroundings for their children and grandchildren.

Every time we take our kids hiking in the mountains, fishing in a stream or camping on a lake, we reflect on how fortunate we are to have this great playground right in our backyard. All that's required is a pack and some hiking shoes.

On this Earth Day, we want to thank our community and Congressman Polis for working to safeguard our environment, our economy and our way of life. Now is the time for Congress to act and pass the Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act.

Kathy Chandler-Henry is an Eagle County commissioner, and Karn Stiegelmeier is a Summit County commissioner.

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