Without much fanfare, more than 2 million acres across the West became wilderness when President Barack Obama signed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act two weeks ago. On April 9 Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and several members of Colorado's congressional delegation celebrated the deal with a ceremony at Rocky Mountain National Park, marking the end of a process that dates back to the Nixon era--and says plenty about the politics of wilderness.
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Most of Rocky Mountain has been "under consideration" for wilderness status since 1974. But the proposal stalled out over partisan squabbles and has languished ever since -- until now. Visitors probably won't notice any difference now that 250,000 acres of the park have the designation, but it does provide the park's fragile backcountry with an additional layer of protection against future development. To learn more about why that's a big deal, see "Loved to Death," our 2004 feature on the overstressed crown jewel of Colorado's public lands.
Salazar tried to pass legislation to protect the park when he was in the Senate, but the Bush administration was not terribly keen on the idea. Now that the regime has changed, Secretary Salazar is talking about a new era of conservation, on the scale of a Teddy Roosevelt. Can he pull it off? Our recent cover story, "The Zen of Ken," provides some idea of what he's up against.