A years-in-the-making proposal to substantially expand Colorado’s federally protected wilderness areas is closer than ever before to becoming reality.
The House Natural Resources Committee voted 21-13 on Wednesday, November 20, to approve the Colorado Wilderness Act, which would establish permanent protections for 32 wilderness areas comprising more than half a million acres across the state. Representative Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Denver, has introduced a version of the legislation in every Congress for the past twenty years, but Wednesday’s vote was the first time it’s been approved in committee and sent to the House floor.
“In 1999, shortly after I was first elected to Congress, I was approached by a group of citizens who had been working for years to identify untouched areas throughout our state that could qualify as wilderness,” DeGette told committee members shortly before the vote. “For more than twenty years since then, I’ve been working hand in hand with those citizens, and also with residents and community leaders from across our state, on the legislation we have before us today.”
Wilderness protections are the most restrictive federal public-lands designation, largely prohibiting the construction of buildings, roads or other infrastructure along with all forms of mechanized recreation — even non-motorized vehicles like mountain bikes. In total, DeGette’s bill would add more than 600,000 acres of wilderness designations in Colorado, significantly expanding the 3.5 million acres already subject to wilderness protections across the state. Many of the public lands in question have already been designated as “Wilderness Study Areas,” a preliminary status often followed by permanent protections.
Among the lands that would be permanently protected under the Colorado Wilderness Act are a 35,000-acre tract surrounding Beaver Creek southwest of Colorado Springs, the Little Bookcliffs wild horse range near Grand Junction, and Redcloud Peak and Handies Peak, two fourteeners in the San Juan Mountains. It would also expand several existing wilderness areas, including West Elk and Flat Tops.
“The Colorado Wilderness Act protects incredible recreation opportunities across an array of unique landscapes in Colorado,” Julie Mach, conservation director at the Colorado Mountain Club, said in a statement. “Hiking, horseback riding, mountaineering, and whitewater paddling opportunities are protected for future use, and the bill avoids existing incompatible recreation assets like mountain bike trails and bolted rock-climbing routes.”
In an endorsement letter, representatives from several outdoor-recreation business groups echoed that sentiment. DeGette made several changes to the bill since first introducing it earlier this year, slightly reducing the amount of land that would be protected.
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“In general, we strongly prefer that important areas for activities like mountain biking be protected...through non-Wilderness designations,” the letter to DeGette read. “In light of the careful attention you have given, however, to avoiding undue impacts to recreation access — as well as the important conservation values and recreation opportunities supported by the proposed designations — we support the bill with the proposed amendments and look forward to seeing it advance.”
With Democrats in control of the House for the first time in nearly a decade, the Colorado Wilderness Act has flown under the radar in comparison to another public-lands bill, the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Economy (CORE) Act, sponsored by Senator Michael Bennet and Representative Joe Neguse, a Democrat from Boulder. (Neguse is also sponsoring the Colorado Wilderness Act.) The CORE Act would protect about 70,000 acres of wilderness in addition to establishing a range of less restrictive protections for another 330,000 acres.
If approved by the full House, the Colorado Wilderness Act would face an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Senate — though the same appears true of the CORE Act, which, in spite of Bennet's hope that it would be immune to the "partisan disease" of national politics, has so far failed to win Republican support. A DeGette spokesman said Wednesday that the congresswoman is talking to Bennet and others about potentially sponsoring a version of the wilderness bill in the Senate, though her priority for now is to get it through the House.
“Protecting the remarkable landscapes that our state has to offer is vital,” DeGette said. “Not just for the health of our environment and our economy, but it’s also important for our identity, and our way of life.”