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The road to wilderness

Mark Udall stands outside of his new Minturn office located at 291 Main Street. Udall held a press conference to discuss his wilderness proposal for the White River National Forest.
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Udall, in introducing a draft of measure from his new office in Minturn, said the proposal adopts U.S. Forest Service recommendations laid out in the new White River National Forest management plan. More than 50,000 of those wilderness acres are in Eagle County’s Red Table Mountain area. Udall’s proposal also designates 15 miles of the Deep Creek area as a “Wild and Scenic River.” Deep Creek crosses from Eagle County into Garfield County.

Udall said Colorado’s population growth has created new and intense pressure on the state’s public lands and that steps must be taken to protect those lands.

“This gives security and predictability to those who use the land,” Udall said.

“I think that this consensus plan is a good place to start when it comes to consideration of wilderness, wild and scenic river designation and roadless area management.”

Udall said the bill protects Gypsum’s water rights and interests near the Red Table Mountain area, allowing the Colorado Air National Guard to continue training exercises at its current intensity and scope in the area.

In addition to adding 15 miles of Deep Creek to the National Wild and Scenic River system, areas above the canyon’s rim would be managed as roadless areas. Udall said negotiations over Deep Creek wilderness legislation are at an impasse, and this proposed designation is a compromise solution that could protect the stream and its adjacent lands.

Udall insisted the designation would not affect any existing water rights associated with Deep Creek and would not create a new federal water right.

Udall’s proposal also adopts the Forest Service’s management rules for areas identified as “roadless” in the forest plan. His bill would not allow motorized use on Red Table Mountain trails, instead proposing 558,000 acres as roadless areas in the White River National Forest. He said roadless management would allow the Forest Service to implement its management plans for these areas and permit removing trees and building temporary roads to address fire concerns and other management issues.

Udall said he agrees with McInnis that Deep Creek should be protected, and said they have been working to try to resolve concerns about how to achieve that goal.

“If you can get a Democrat and a Republican from the same state to agree on a public land issue, you have a foundation you build on,” Udall said.

Udall said a Wild and Scenic River designation for Deep Creek would protect the free-flowing nature of the stream and the lands immediately adjacent to its banks. Udall said his proposal would affect any existing water rights associated with Deep Creek and would not create a new federal water right. However, the bill authorizes the federal agencies to procure water rights through the state’s courts to protect the stream.

Udall said the approach is similar to language used in converting the Great Sand Dunes National Monument into a national park.

Far, but could go farther

Richard Compton of the White River Conservation Project, a coalition of environmental advocacy groups, said he liked the spirit of the proposal, but said it was not extensive enough.

“It’s a good starting point, and that’s how Congressman Udall is presenting it,” said Compton. “It’s what’s recommended by the White River National Forest.”

Compton said some other areas need wilderness designation, and he doesn’t like continuing National Guard helicopter training in the Deep Creek and Red Table Mountain area.

He also said a wilderness bill should allow the federal government to secure water to preserve the area – called a federal reserve water right.

“A federal reserve water right protects the water in that water shed,” Compton said. “Some of the states rights people don’t like it, but when states take over federal land they tend to develop it more. When it comes to preserving wilderness areas, you can trust the federal government more.”

Compton said areas designated as wilderness are being managed that way already, with no logging and no motorized vehicles.

“It protects them as wilderness area, without making them wilderness,” said Compton. “To my mind it takes some of the crisis out of it.”

Compton said he has been studying White River National Forest roadless areas for 10 years with various organizations. They have identified more than 1 million acres to propose as roadless, including a couple hundred thousand acres in Eagle County.

“We believe a couple more areas need to be added to this,” said Compton.

Rough road ahead

Udall’s proposal will travel a tough road to approval, however, said a spokesman for the chairman of the U.S. House Forest Subcommittee.

Blair Jones, press secretary for Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, said Udall’s proposal probably would not make it through the subcommittee, chaired by McInnis, who represents most of Colorado’s Western Slope and is putting together his own wilderness plan.

The White River National Forest crosses from Udall’s 2nd Congressional District into McInnis’s 3rd Congressional District. McInnis introduced a less extensive wilderness proposal last year.

Jones says McInnis has been involved with these wilderness issues since 2000.

“The chairman of the Forest Subcommittee is open to considering to any sensible suggestions from Congressman Udall,” said Jones. “As chairman, McInnis shapes his own bill; it will ultimately be the vehicle that protects this area.”

Jones said there are immediate concerns with the water language in the Udall proposal.

“It’s important to note that Chairman McInnis has repeatedly warned Congressman Udall about the danger of potential federal water grabs,” said Jones. “Unfortunately, Congressman Udall has chosen to ignore that advice.

“When talking about the federal water rights, Chairman McInnis is not about to let the Sierra Club dictate how Colorado manages its water resources.”

Chris Treese of the Colorado River Water Conservation District blasted the water-rights language in Udall’s proposal, saying it usurps water rights the river district might need to see Western Slope residents through a continuing drought.

“We’re not nearly as concerned with what Mr. Udall has done here – he has tried to be respectful of property rights – but with how he did it,” said Treese. “He did not talk to the river district, county officials or wildlife officials, although they’d also be impacted by this proposal.”

The river district has conditional water rights on Deep Creek.

“We are working our way through a drought, and we’d like to make sure we have them (water rights) if we need them,” Treese said. “We don’t want to see them erased by congressional action.”

Treese said the river district has been working with Udall’s office for the past two years trying to develop a consensus on Deep Creek language.

“We think it’s both odd and unfortunate that Mr. Udall would send this language around in a press release,” Treese said. “It makes for good press releases, but not for good legislation.

“It seems an odd thing to do to go into the chairman’s district and begin designating federal lands without talking to the chairman.”


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