Deep Creek bill gets big boost | AspenTimes.com

Deep Creek bill gets big boost

U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis’ announcement yesterday that his bill to designate the Deep Creek Canyon area as wilderness received a big boost in Congress, but didn’t earn any cheers from environmentalists.

McInnis (R-Grand Junction) hailed the House Resources Committee’s passage of his wilderness bill as an important step in getting 7,350 acres of forest land northeast of Glenwood Springs protected. Deep Creek is in the White River National Forest on the south end of the Flat Top Mountains.

“This is a great day for Colorado,” said McInnis in a prepared statement. “This is a special place in my heart, and now Colorado is one step closer to achieving a permanent protection for this awe-inspiring resource.”

But a coalition of local and regional environmental groups was sounding the alarm over the committee’s action. The members of the Colorado Wildnerness Network sent out their own statement with a subheading stating, “Environmentalists’ compromise refused, Congressman fails to offer meaningful protection.”

Steve Smith, a Glenwood Springs-based regional representative of the Sierra Club, said the coalition will oppose the passage of the bill by the full House. He claimed that McInnis refused to compromise on three key issues: the acreage receiving wilderness designation, handling of water rights for Deep Creek and the National Guard’s usage of certain areas for training.

“We’re extremely disappointed that Representative McInnis refused to compromise or to listen to local conservationists’ problems on the bill,” said Suzanne Jones, assistant regional director for The Wilderness Society. “I guess he’d rather accuse us of being obstructionists than sit down at the table with us and work on a meaningful bill for Deep Creek.”

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The acreage issue was a glaring difference between the two sides. The conservationists originally wanted about three times the acres designated as wilderness, roughly 22,000 acres. They claimed that land above the Deep Creek gorge was worthy of protection.

They compromised and pared about 1,000 acres off their wish list. Late last week, the conservationists compromised further. While they still believe 21,000 acres deserve wilderness recognition, they were willing to settle for 11,000 acres this year, said Smith.

McInnis’ proposal designates land within the 13-mile long, 2,500-foot deep canyon, but not above the rim. McInnis maintained that the uplands needed to be kept open for access to Deep Creek and for other uses, such as snowmobiling. The wilderness designation prohibits mechanized uses.

Smith said the Colorado Wilderness Network will lobby against the Deep Creek bill and work for passage of a stronger version next year. He said the bill was “hotly debated” by the Resources Committee. It ultimately earned passage by voice vote.

But conservationists believe it will face a tough time getting full approval because it lacked bipartisan support at the committee level.

“It is not clear sailing for this bill,” said Smith.

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