McInnis, greens battle over wilderness |

McInnis, greens battle over wilderness

A proposal to designate the beautiful Deep Creek area northeast of Glenwood Springs as wilderness is expected to float or fail in Congress this week.

Environmentalists are squaring off with Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., over the proposal. Both sides advocate wilderness designation for Deep Creek. But the amount of acres varies greatly in the opposing proposals.

“We hate to be in a spot where wilderness advocates are opposing a wilderness bill, but we could get there,” said Steve Smith, a regional representative of the Sierra Club.

Conservation groups aligned in the Colorado Wilderness Network are lobbying for wilderness designation for 21,000 acres. Their plan includes the Deep Creek gorge as well as additional lands above the rim.

McInnis has sponsored a bill to designate about 8,000 acres as wilderness. His plan would give the special protections to lands inside the gorge only.

McInnis is reluctant to designate lands above the canyon rim because it restricts access to the beautiful area and eliminates uses, said Josh Penry, chief of staff for the House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, which McInnis chairs. It appears doubtful that McInnis would negotiate on the amount of acreage to be designated wilderness.

“I don’t know how much room there is,” said Penry. “He feels that he has already compromised.”

Penry noted that the conservation groups initially lobbied for wilderness designation for 8,000 acres in Deep Creek, then drastically expanded their proposal. The congressman feels that if 8,000 acres was good enough initially, it should be good enough now, said Penry.

Smith and Suzanne Jones, assistant regional director of the Wilderness Society, said they have adjusted their proposed wilderness boundaries to avoid almost all roads and trails, except some that have already been closed by the U.S. Forest Service.

They acknowledged that their proposal would close about 3,000 acres to use by snowmobilers, but that is dwarfed by the amount left open in the Flat Tops area on the vast, flat mesa north of Glenwood Canyon.

The conservation groups had requested that 22,000 acres be designated wilderness, then pared 1,000 acres off their wish list, Jones noted. She and Smith claimed they have public sentiment in their corner.

“You know how the congressman is keen on local support – so we went out and got it,” Smith said. Adjacent property owners, outfitters and the general public have voiced support for the grander plan, Smith and Jones claimed.

The amount of land to be designated isn’t the only issue of contention. The sides disagree on whether there should be a federal reserve for wilderness water rights, as the conservationists want, or whether they get handled through the state water law, as McInnis advocates.

A third point of contention is wilderness access for National Guard helicopters on training missions. The National Guard practices landings on a particularly challenging pinnacle in the gorge. McInnis wants that right preserved. The environmentalists are promoting alternatives.

McInnis had delayed action on his bill at least once to try to negotiate a compromise with the environmentalists, Jones said. The bill is scheduled to go back before the House Resources Committee for mark-up and discussion of amendments Wednesday.

Republicans will defer to McInnis for guidance on the issue. Democrats, who are in the minority, will likely take their cue from environmentalists.

If the language doesn’t earn bipartisan support, the bill is probably dead for the session, said Penry. Even without partisan bickering, the timing will be tight for approval this year. There is definitely no more room for delays for negotiations, he said.

“It’s an uphill battle at this date,” said Penry.

Smith and Jones stopped short of saying they would prefer to see nothing passed rather than approval of McInnis’ proposal. They are still jockeying for the best deal.

A broader wilderness bill that would cover more parts of the state, including part of the Thompson Creek area south of Carbondale, will apparently fade without Congressional action this session, Jones said.

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