Lines in the sand
Dashing through the snow may sound great in a song, but these days it can get extremely complicated.Take, for example, a jaunt in the Red Table wilderness.The 50,000-acre area is shaping up as a major gamepiece in a political test of wills between Congressman Scott McInnis, a West Slope Republican, and Mark Udall, a Front Range Democrat who will represent Summit and Eagle counties in Washington when federal lawmakers go back to work in January. At issue are some provisions in a McInnis wilderness bill that could allow motorized use and withdraw some implied federal water rights from the designation.Udall’s court-mandated 2d Congressional District includes a big chunk of West Slope political turf that belonged to McInnis for years. During the waning days of the lame duck session, McInnis decided to weigh in on the Red Table Mountain matter by introducing a wilderness bill that would codify the designation. The Forest Service can recommend an area for wilderness, but the Wilderness Act requires an act of Congress. The measure also addresses several other non-controversial wilderness additions proposed by the revised White River National Forest plan.But the bill won’t go anywhere until the new Congress convenes next year, when the Red Table Mountain area will be in Udall’s district. That led Udall spokesman Lawrence Pacheco to characterize the bill as a breach of congressional courtesy and as a political challenge.The political fault line the separates the two men runs deep, although they have worked together on some forest-related legislation, including a measure aimed at mitigation wildfire danger in the so-called red zone. But the tiff over Red Table Mountain might just be the first hint of a larger battle. Doug Young, a regional policy director for Udall, recently told a Summit County audience that the Colorado State Legislature, with a newly elected Republican majority in the Senate, may try to redraw the Congressional map during the upcoming session.When the divided legislature failed to reach a compromise on redistricting, a judge created Udall’s district. But under Colorado statutes, the Congressional map has to be drawn by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor, Young said.Pacheco said Colorado Republicans have retained the services of a mapping consultant who was involved in the redistricting effort last year. "There may be some completely innocuous reason for that," he said. "But we’re keeping a close watch on it."Red Table Mountain was included as a substantial addition to the White River National Forest’s wilderness inventory in the final version of the revised forest plan released last June. The acreage specified in the McInnis proposal is very similar to the forest plan recommendation, said Beth Boyst, wilderness specialist for the forest."It’s lower elevation than some of the existing wilderness we have, so it offers some diversity," Boyst said. Located west of the Holy Cross Wilderness, the new area could also help provide critical landscape-level connectivity to counterbalance the trend of habitat fragmentation that has caused concern for many conservation biologists.But as always, the devil is in the details. Under the version proposed by McInnis, several major roads would be "cherry-stemmed" out of the wilderness. Boyst said that may not be unusual along wilderness area boundary, but that it’s not common in the middle of a wilderness area. In any case, the agency will manage the area as wilderness as outlined by the plan until the political issues have been resolved, Boyst concluded.Pacheco spoke bluntly. "Congressman Udall’s main concerns are the roads and mechanized use. Having a road bisect a wilderness area is unprecedented and may fly in the face of the Wilderness Act," he said. "Others have raised concerns about water language," Pacheco continued.It’s not clear if Udall will introduce an alternative version of the bill. "He (Udall) is keeping his options open. He’s willing to set politics aside and do what’s needed to protect the land," Pacheco concluded.McInnis spokesman Blair Jones would not answer direct questions about Udall’s assertion that the bill constitutes a breach of courtesy and a political challenge. Instead, Jones emphasized that McInnis has represented the area for about 20 years, including his stint in the State Legislature."People get stuck on the language," Jones said. "They think that once you’ve introduced a bill, that’s it. Congressman McInnis introduced this as a starting point for discussion and he’s willing to talk to anyone about their concerns. That’s the message.""My introduction of this legislation is based on the input I received from various local entities including county commissioners, the U.S. Forest Service, and other citizen activists," McInnis said in a prepared statement on the bill. The measure included explicit protections for existing water rights in the area and avoids conflicts with area water users, notably the community of Gypsum."If I wasn’t 100 percent certain that we could protect the rights of water users, this legislation would never have been drafted," McInnis said. "We can protect this majestic landscape without abridging, usurping or otherwise harming Colorado water rights."Provisions of the legislation allow for the maintenance of water infrastructure facilities, electrical power lines, existing roads and trails, would not interfere with hunting and fishing regulations or grazing rights, and allows for the continuation of Colorado Army National Guard aerial training exercises. Mineral exploration and mining rights, however, would be withdrawn.The Town of Gypsum initially opposed the designation of the Red Table Mountain wilderness, but recently voted to support the McInnis bill, viewing the measure as representing "a creative balance between the need for the new wilderness areas and the protection of municipal water rights and the local economy," according to a Town of Gypsum press release."The Bill recognizes the need of municipalities, such as the Town of Gypsum, to plan for and provide dependable water supplies for its citizenry, a crucial task in the arid West. In light of the most recent drought conditions in Western Colorado and specifically in Gypsum, the Bill protects the Town’s current and future water rights needs," town manager Jeff Shroll said in the release.The fact that McInnis introduced a wilderness measure that includes Red Table Mountain elicited mixed reactions from Currie Craven, co-founder of the Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness and one of the region’s most outspoken conservation advocates."I’m absolutely floored he even used the words "wilderness" and Red Table Mountain" in the same sentence," Craven said. "It’s very perplexing to me."Craven was involved in a special areas work group early during the White River forest planning process, when motorized users expressed strong reservations about including Red Table Mountain in the wilderness system."I thought it was a clear line in the sand," Craven said. "From what I was hearing, the motorized community was saying ‘no way.’"Craven said the McInnis bill could serve as a starting point for dialogue, but also warned that there may be a more cynical motive. "The more sinister intent may be an attack on the Wilderness Act itself," Craven speculated, explaining that if McInnis can draw up a bill that legitimizes motorized use in Red Table Mountain, it could set a dangerous precedent for existing wilderness areas.Most of all, Craven said people need to stay tuned in, understanding that wilderness designation alone does not adequately protect an area. Craven added that the key is to ensure that any areas so designated are actually managed in a way that lives up to the mandate of the Wilderness Act.SIDEBAR:Wilderness issues are globalPolitical quibbling over a 50,000-acre wilderness area in Colorado may seem like small potatoes when almost half the Earth’s land mass still qualifies as wilderness, according to a recent book published by Conservation International.But getting involved in such issues on the White River National Forest may be the classic example of thinking globally and acting locally, according to Pam Eaton, regional director of the Wilderness Society.Preserving undeveloped places here in the Rockies is an important part of ensuring long-term biodiversity around the planet. Each chunk of pristine land plays is an important piece of the global sustainability puzzle. Locally, the Southern Rockies, with it’s mix of high deserts, canyons, riparian corridors and high alpine areas, is a critical biological meeting ground.A team of more than 200 international scientists spent the past two years cataloging information about the Earth’s most unspoiled areas. The result is the new book, "Wilderness: Earth’s Last Wild Places."The researchers identified 37 large wilderness regions that cover 46 percent of the Earth’s land surface but is occupied by only 2.4 percent of the world’s population excluding cities.In a prepared statement announcing publication of the book, Conservation International president Russell Mittermeier said, "These wilderness areas are critical to the survival of the planet. They help regulate weather patterns and rainfall, and are major storehouses for biodiversity. Unfortunately, they are increasingly threatened by population growth, encroaching agriculture and extraction activities," Mittermeier said. "Barely seven percent of them enjoy some form of protection.""Learning about these undisturbed wilderness areas offers "a unique and historic opportunity to protect these high priority regions," said Peter Seligmann, Conservation International’s chair and CEO."These wilderness areas are important for any global strategy of protecting biodiversity, since we have the opportunity to save large tracts of land at relatively low costs," Seligmann added. "In doing so, we can also support indigenous communities that are often struggling to maintain their traditional way of life."According to Conservation International, the Americas are home to the largest number of wilderness areas, with 16 unique regions that range from Patagonia in southern Argentina to the Arctic tundra of Alaska and Canada.The book highlights several regions near Colorado, including the 220,000-square-miles of the Northern Rockies, which is more than 75 percent intact and supports more than 1,400 species of plants, 92 native mammals and 264 bird species, such as the great gray owl, Clark’s nutcracker and tundra swan.Africa has eight wilderness areas, including the dense forests of the Congo and the expansive plains of the Serengeti. Australia and New Guinea share six areas, Europe has three areas and Asia two. The Arabian Desert and Antarctica are also considered wilderness areas."Wilderness areas provide critical ecosystem services to the planet, including watershed maintenance, pollination and carbon sequestration," said Gustavo Fonseca, executive director of Conservation International’s Center for Applied Biodiversity Science. "As international debates on climate change and water security continue, these wilderness areas take on even greater importance."The largest wilderness area identified by Conservation International is the boreal forest, which forms a six-million-square-mile ring just beneath the Arctic Circle stretching across Alaska, Canada, northern Europe and Russia. The smallest site at about 3,861 square miles is the Sundarbans, the world’s largest tidal mangrove forest, which straddles India and Bangladesh at the mouth of the Ganges River."Wilderness: Earth’s Last Wild Places" is the third in a series of Conservation International books. Others include "Megadiversity" and "Hotspots," a work that identified 25 sites containing more than 60 percent of the planet’s terrestrial species diversity."We have a narrow window of opportunity to keep these wilderness areas from becoming fragmented and fragile hotspots," Fonseca said. "If we are to succeed as conservationists, we have to take a two track approach and protect the biodiversity rich hotspots and keep our wilderness areas healthy.""Wilderness: Earth’s Last Wild Places" is available through Conservation International’s website at: http://www.conservation.org.