DeGette optimistic on wilderness plan | AspenTimes.com

DeGette optimistic on wilderness plan

Judith Kohler
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” Despite clashes over energy development on federal land, Congresswoman Diana DeGette expressed optimism Wednesday about her latest proposal to designate 1.65 million acres in Colorado as wilderness.

The area in the Denver Democrat’s proposal includes land on the top and cliffs of the Roan Plateau and in the Vermillion Basin, western Colorado sites prized for their scenic and wildland qualities and targeted for major natural gas development.

DeGette has introduced a Colorado wilderness bill every congressional session since 1999 without success. She said during a news conference along the South Platte River in downtown Denver that House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.V., has already agreed to hold a hearing on the bill, set to be introduced next week.

“I could never even get a hearing” in the previous Republican-controlled Congress, DeGette said.

The congresswoman was joined at the announcement by more than 20 people, including elected officials and environmentalists, who have campaigned for the proposal for years.

Garfield County Commissioner Tresi Houpt said while the county hasn’t taken a formal position on the bill, it’s incumbent on the commissioners to balance energy development with recreation, wildlife and other values.

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“Garfield County is rich in natural resources,” Houpt said. “It is also spectacularly beautiful.”

The Roan Plateau in western Garfield County is popular with hunters and anglers and sits atop large natural gas and oil shale deposits. Industry groups say the area could provide enough natural gas for 4 million homes for the next 20 years.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management released a plan for the plateau in June that projects 1,570 wells over 20 years on some of the federal land on the plateau, including 210 on top.

Wells have already been drilled on private land on top of the formation, about 180 miles west of Denver.

DeGette’s bill would designate some federal land on the Roan Plateau’s top and cliffs as wilderness, making it off-limits to development. Motorized vehicles are prohibited in wilderness areas.

Currently, 3.3 million acres are listed as federal wilderness in Colorado.

Another area that would be protected is the Vermillion Basin, about 81,000 acres of bandlands in northwestern Colorado. Some gas drilling would be allowed in the basin under a preliminary management plan released earlier this year by the BLM.

DeGette said she isn’t trying to block energy development on public lands. She said she reconfigured some of the boundaries to account for ongoing energy production.

“Over 80 percent of our land will still be available for oil and gas leasing,” DeGette said.

And 71 percent of Coloradans across the political and geographic spectrum support designating more wilderness areas, according to a poll conducted in May by Boulder pollster Talmey-Drake Research and Strategy, she said.

“I cannot stand by as a fourth-generation Coloradan and let every last acre of our state be sold to the highest bidder,” DeGette said.

Most of the sites in her bill are on BLM land, with several parcels clustered in western Colorado. DeGette said the bill grew from a proposal first advanced by several groups and individuals involved in the Colorado Wilderness Network.

DeGette said she has toured many of the areas and talked to elected officials, residents and business leaders. She is also discussing her bill with other members of Colorado’s congressional delegation.

Republican members of the delegation opposed past proposals.

DeGette said the new bill would make clear the federal government couldn’t usurp existing water rights in wilderness areas. If the federal government wanted to secure water to maintain a site, it would have to follow state water laws and specify the planned use and amount of water needed.