Lien: Top 10 reasons to pass the San Juans Mountains Wilderness Act (column) | VailDaily.com

Lien: Top 10 reasons to pass the San Juans Mountains Wilderness Act (column)

David Lien
Valley Voices

David Lien on an elk hunt in the San Juan Mountains.

I've been privileged to hunt elk and turkeys in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado for more than a decade now, which is why I was pleased when Colorado's U.S. Sen. Michael Bennett introduced the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act, a bill that would protect roughly 61,000 acres of public land located in the heart of the San Juans.

However, these days it's increasingly common whenever a new wilderness bill is introduced for some groups (oftentimes motorized recreation-related) to reflexively oppose it. Their reasons almost always seem to revolve around the perceived need for ever-expanding motorized trail networks, even though Colorado and the nation are already crisscrossed with so many motorized routes that it would take the average rider a dozen lifetimes to cover a fraction of them. On the other hand, the reasons to support more wilderness include (but are not limited to):

1. Wilderness encompasses less than 3 percent of the landmass of the lower 48 states.

2. Only 8 percent of the National Forest acreage in Colorado lies beyond one mile of a road (only 4 percent for Bureau of Land Management lands), and there are enough Forest Service roads in the state to go from the Kansas border to Utah and back, 17 times.

3. An old adage applies to the impacts of motorized recreation on public lands: "Too much of a good thing is a bad thing." In fact, right-sizing road systems has been found to increase elk survival and the number of bulls, extend the age structure, increase hunter success and allow elk to remain in preferred habitat longer.

4. In Colorado, 12 of the 15 most hunted game-management units (the most productive ones) have more than 100,000 acres of roadless wilderness. More than 70 percent of Colorado River cutthroat trout habitat is in roadless areas. Build roads or trails in these areas, and the elk migrations are hindered, the mule deer populations suffer and the trout-spawning habitat is negatively impacted. That means fewer hunting and fishing opportunities.

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5. My friend, World War II veteran and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers life member Bill Sustrich, said: "During the past decade, I have personally had six out of seven elk hunts ruined by the careless intrusions of ATV operators. This epidemic has forced me to abandon one prime hunting area after another, only to encounter the same situation elsewhere."

6. A U.S. Department of Agriculture-Forest Service Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Gunnison Basin Federal Lands Travel Management plan stated: "Basically all activities related to roads and trails will have an effect on wildlife species. The widespread, detrimental impacts of human disturbance on wildlife are well documented in the literature. No positive benefits to wildlife have been identified from increases in travel-management access."

7. Retired Southwest Colorado outfitter Mike Murphy has an answer for people who oppose preserving roadless and wilderness areas and say public land should be open to everyone driving or riding anything: Look at the satellite images of this corner of Colorado. "You take a look at that map and look at all the roads in southwest Colorado and northwest New Mexico, and you won't want to see another road for a long time," Murphy said.

8. Commissioners from the counties with proposed wilderness acreage (i.e., San Miguel, San Juan and Ouray) support the bill.

9. The towns of Telluride, Mountain Village, Silverton, Ophir and Ridgway all support the bill.

10. Sustrich (also a National Rifle Association life/benefactor member) adds: "In the simplest terms, without suitable habitat, we will have no game; without game, we will have no hunting; without hunting, a precious heritage of our past will be lost forever."

As Bill alludes to, wilderness is the gold standard for wildlife habitat and backcountry hunting/angling grounds, which is why sportsmen and women applaud Bennet for his ongoing efforts to preserve this landscape. His bill enjoys widespread support from residents, businesses, outfitters, hunters, anglers, ranchers and county commissioners.

We urge Sen. Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton to co-sponsor this commonsense legislation and Congress to pass the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act.

David Lien is a former Air Force officer, National Rifle Association life member and chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He's the author of "Hunting for Experience: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation" and during 2014 was recognized by Field & Stream as a Hero of Conservation.