WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet introduced a bill Thursday that would designate nearly 61,000 acres of the San Juan Mountains as wilderness, extending the strictest federal conservation protections to some of the range’s most prominent peaks.
“Not only are these iconic landscapes vital to outdoor recreation and local economies, but they also stand as a symbol of our public lands legacy in Colorado – a legacy we must pass onto our kids and grandkids,” Bennet, a Democrat, said in a news release.
The San Juan Wilderness Act expands or designates 11 areas within and surrounding the San Juan National Forest as wilderness or special management areas. Also included is a 6,500-acre mineral withdrawal at Naturita Canyon, a designation that would prevent future mining in the area.
Protections under Bennet’s bill designate some of the most prominent peaks in the area as wilderness areas, including two Fourteeners – Mount Sneffels and Wilson Peak.
Kelsey Mix, communication director for U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, said, while vetting the latest version of the bill, Tipton’s office “determined there is still not broad consensus.”
“The Colorado River District has raised concerns with the private property and water rights within at least one of the proposed expansions. Additionally, the Colorado Snowmobile Association has significant concerns,” Mix said in an email.
The expansion of the wilderness areas worries some outdoor recreational groups, such as the Colorado Snowmobile Association. Expansion of the wilderness would close many trails they ride on as well as access points to cross to other trails.
Scott Jones, president of the Colorado Snowmobile Association, said, “The problem is the way some of these boundaries are laid out. It would cut access to other areas.”
Bennet worked closely with the San Miguel, San Juan and Ouray county commissioners in formulating the legislation, the release said. Bennet has been pushing this legislation since he came to the Senate in 2009 and closely consulted local leadership.
“San Juan County has strongly supported the San Juan Wilderness Act for over a decade after we worked in our community with all local stakeholders to help craft a bill that has widespread support and represents a balanced approach to protecting the public lands that help drive our recreation economy,” said San Juan County Commissioner Pete McKay.
A version of the bill was introduced in 2013 by then-Colorado Sen. Mark Udall. The bill passed unanimously out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that year, but the Senate never brought it to the floor for a vote.
A wilderness designation is the federal government highest level of protection for public lands. According to the Wilderness Society, about one-third of the public lands receive permanent protections as wilderness, parks, refuges or other designations. There are 109 million acres of designated wilderness area in the United States.
Bennet’s legislation received support of various environmental groups, including the Wilderness Society.
“The San Juan Wilderness Act works to strike a balance between conservation, recreation, and smarter energy development in the future,” said Jeff Widen, senior regional conservation representative at the Wilderness Society, in a statement.
Telluride Ski Resort, a premier destination in the San Juan National Forest, also cheered the introduction of the legislation.
“The spectacularly rugged and pristine San Juan Mountains are an American treasure that are worthy of preservation,” Telluride CEO Bill Jensen said in a statement. “A public lands designation in the San Juan Wilderness bill will protect the environment while ensuring recreational access that is core to the regional economy.”
If passed through both chambers of Congress and signed by the president, the San Juan wilderness designation will prohibit additional roads and commercial enterprises from developing the area, according the National Park Service. However, the Wilderness Act allows people to fight fires, control insect infestation and provide for human safety, but respects private property rights.
Staff members for Republican Sen. Cory Gardner didn’t immediately respond to inquiries about the legislation.
Andrew Eversden is an intern for The Durango Herald and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.