Vail Valley Voices: Much left to do in wilderness legislation
Vail, CO, Colorado
While our state contains magnificent wilderness areas, a backlog of proposed wilderness sits in Congress, and action is needed to diversify our wilderness system, particularly to include more ecologically important, lower elevation lands.
Like most everything else in the current Congress, gridlock in Washington has stalled these new wilderness designations.
We should remember that there is a long and proud tradition of bipartisan support for Colorado wilderness. Sens. Bill Armstrong and Gary Hart worked closely together in the 1970s on many early wilderness designations. The Colorado delegation unanimously sponsored the protection of the Indian Peaks wilderness, a remarkable area just west of the Denver metropolitan area.
Hank Brown and I spent hundreds of hours, hammering out complicated boundary and water issues in the far-reaching Wilderness Act of 1993, and Ben Campbell led efforts to protect areas in southern Colorado.
In the difficult political environment of 2011, when partisan bickering has led to a near legislative standstill on most issues, our elected leaders should again seek out the symbolic and practical benefits of wilderness protection.
Key proposals are ripe for negotiation and collaboration, including the following:
• Legislation introduced by Rep. Jared Polis to protect 160,000 acres of wildlands in Summit and Eagle counties known as the Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act.
• An important proposal to protect Brown’s Canyon on the Arkansas River, which originated with the bipartisan support of Republicans Wayne Allard and Joel Hefley, working with Democrat Ken Salazar.
• Initiatives under way from Colorado’s U.S. senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, to protect lands in the magnificent San Juan Mountains, and the Hidden Gems wilderness proposal in Pitkin and Gunnison counties.
• Legislation offered by Rep. Diana DeGette to designate 700,000 acres of the Bureau of Land Management lands as wilderness. These BLM lands are important because they cover wildlife winter range, spectacular red rock canyons, rivers popular for whitewater recreation, and diverse natural habitat.
Resolution of these proposals will produce lasting benefits for the people of Colorado and the legislators themselves. Along with our national parks, wilderness designation is the highest form of land conservation in the United States. Its preservation assures that many essential services that nature provides to humanity will persist.
• Production of the vast majority of our state’s drinking water — much of which is famous for being drinkable without expensive filtration or other treatment.
• Critical habitat for fish and wildlife, which support our state’s hunters and anglers.
• Clean forests and biomass which produce oxygen to help combat climate change.
• Outdoor recreation, which contributes billions to our state’s economy.
• Biological diversity of plants and animals, which is essential to our planet’s ecological health.
• Preservation of species for scientific research that may lead to future medicines or other cures for diseases.
• The scenic backdrops of great value to many Colorado communities. These communities also recognize the attraction of wilderness, which once designated, proves to be an important economic force and magnet for tourism.
These beautiful and important areas are permanent monuments to our ability to recognize the contribution that wilderness makes to our economic and environmental systems. And that is something we all should be able to agree upon.
Timothy E. Wirth is a former U.S. representative and senator from Colorado. He currently is president of the United Nations Foundation.