DeGette urges locals to back wilderness |

DeGette urges locals to back wilderness

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette asked a group of local officials and citizens Friday to actively back her wilderness bill.

The Denver congresswoman told the group that if the bill is to succeed, citizens must contact their representatives and senators and voice their support. DeGette was on the Western Slope during a Fourth of July congressional recess, visiting some of the areas proposed for wilderness designation in her bill.

On Friday, she hiked through the Thompson Creek area outside Carbondale – one of the areas she has proposed as wilderness. Local officials, farmers, ranchers and environmentalists joined her along the way. Roughly two-thirds of Thompson Creek is managed by the Forest Service, while the lower third is controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.

DeGette’s bill calls for the designation of 49 wilderness areas totaling 1.4 million acres in all. BLM land in the proposal covers 1.1 million acres. Nearly all the remaining 300,000 acres is National Forest land.

Of the 8.3 million acres of BLM land in Colorado, only 59,000 acres is now designated as wilderness. If all the land in DeGette’s bill actually became wilderness, it would represent about 14 percent of the BLM land in the state.

DeGette told locals that the primary sources of resistance to her bill are oil and gas interests that have leases in place on the lands proposed for wilderness. But, DeGette said, under the provisions of the legislation, those leases will remain valid, removing the basis for such an objection.

Other objections come from users such as mountain bikers and off-road vehicle enthusiasts, who are banned in wilderness areas. DeGette said there’s plenty of land already open to those uses.

“The important thing to remember,” DeGette said, gesturing, “is there’s 50 more trails you can use over there.”

Aspen Mayor Rachel Richards told DeGette that Club 20, a Western Slope economic development group, has objected to the wilderness proposal on the basis of process, because group members felt they hadn’t participated in selecting the areas in the bill. Richards represents both the city of Aspen and Pitkin County in Club 20.

DeGette replied that though her own proposal was introduced in February, the bill has been around for about 10 years in various forms.

“People who claim they were blindsided by this bill are being disingenuous,” she said. She added that Rep. Scott McInnis and Sen. Wayne Allard held a hearing last year on wilderness designation of BLM lands, and she has personally met with nearly 40 groups, including Club 20, on the issue.

She said the introduction of her bill sparked a lot of discussion in Congress, and since that time, McInnis has reintroduced former Congressman David Skaggs’ bill, calling for the designation of a Spanish Peaks wilderness area in southern Colorado.

Asked by Camilla Auger, Pitkin County Democratic Party chairwoman, what Aspen area supporters could do, DeGette said: “If the city of Aspen passed a resolution, that would be good.” Pitkin County commissioners have already approved such a resolution.

But urging people to contact their senators and congressional representatives would be the most helpful approach, DeGette said.

“You folks are the ones that will make this happen,” she said. “I’ll be in Washington championing the cause, but without you folks, nothing will happen.”

Dottie Fox, chairwoman of Aspen Wilderness Workshop, said because of development in recent years, the remaining wild areas are only bits and pieces, and even with the lands in DeGette’s bill, wildlife habitat and migration routes are threatened.

“They should have done this 50 years ago,” Fox said.

Fox said she, too, thinks people should contact their elected officials in support of the bill. She said declaring areas off-limits for development doesn’t do economic harm, as some claim.

“Look at the wilderness we have around here, and what it’s done for the economy,” Fox said.

DeGette, who was first elected to Congress in 1996, represents Colorado’s First Congressional District, which includes Denver, part of Aurora and part of Commerce City.

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