Keep protections on potential wilderness, says Pitkin County | AspenTimes.com

Keep protections on potential wilderness, says Pitkin County

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Pitkin County will urge Congress to reject legislation that would release millions of acres in the West from continued management as wilderness and potentially open the lands to oil and gas development, logging and mining.

The legislation is overly broad, according to county commissioners, who last month reviewed a first draft of a letter they intend to send to Colorado’s congressional delegation regarding H.R. 1581, the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act. A revised draft of the letter is slated for review when commissioners meet Tuesday.

The bill, still in committee, would apply to wilderness study areas administered by the Bureau of Land Management that aren’t suitable for wilderness, but are being administered as de facto wilderness nonetheless, according to the language of the legislation. Similarly, inventoried roadless areas within the national forest that haven’t been recommended for wilderness designation would be released from roadless protections.

Even though no action has been taken to actually make the considered lands “wilderness,” a designation that prevents road construction, motorized uses and development, county commissioners are objecting to a carte blanche lifting of management practices that are currently protecting the areas.

“H.R. 1581 is far too sweeping a tool that will result in the loss of vital public resources that can’t be replaced,” reads the draft of the county’s letter. “As an alternative to wholesale release of these lands from consideration for wilderness designation, consider release (or designation) of lands on a case-by-case basis.”

“You can kind of talk about this as a No More Wilderness Ever Act,” said Commissioner Rachel Richards last month. “I just find it to be far too sweeping a proposal.”

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In their proposed letter, commissioners note the importance of wilderness and roadless areas to tourism in the mountain West. The lands affected by the legislation may also be crucial from a habitat perspective and because they contain the headwaters of rivers and streams, the letter says.

Commissioners also acknowledge the role resource development plays in the national economy, but note that there are lands already leased for oil and gas development in Colorado that remain unused for that purpose. The county letter questions how much analysis into the lands’ wilderness potential has been done, even though – according to the language of the bill – the areas have been deemed unsuitable as wilderness.

Elsewhere, there have been calls to drop the protection of lands that aren’t moving forward as wilderness. Some Western governors have argued the continued management of the areas as wilderness is hurting their state’s economies by making the lands unavailable for mineral production and other uses.

Where communities want lands released from wilderness management, those areas should be considered individually, according to Pitkin County.

janet@aspentimes.com