Supporters of Colorado wilderness bill say meeting stacked | AspenTimes.com

Supporters of Colorado wilderness bill say meeting stacked

Steven K. Paulson
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER – Supporters of a plan to expand the San Juan Wilderness area say Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton tried to pack a town hall meeting in Ridgway with opponents to keep supporters from attending a public meeting to discuss the plan.

Republicans are accusing environmentalists who back the plan of using the same tactics.

“That’s generally how public meetings go. Mining opponents are trying to pack the hall, and we’re trying to pack the hall. That’s the way politics go. It’s a messy business,” said Mike Thompson, executive secretary of the Western Small Miners Association, which opposes the plan.

Colorado Democratic Party chairman Rick Palacio accused Tipton of trying to manipulate the turnout to skew public opinion.

An email from Ouray County GOP chairman Jim Buske to fellow Republicans, obtained by The Associated Press, asks them to “jam the hall with conservatives” before the town hall meeting Friday to discuss the proposed expansion.

Ouray County Democratic Party chairman John Hollrah got a copy of the email and urged his supporters to respond in force.

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“We want as many people as possible to show up,” he said.

Tipton spokesman Josh Green says Tipton was unaware of attempts by the mining association to keep supporters from attending the meeting and he’s taking steps to make sure the meeting is open to the public. He said Tipton is moving the meeting to a larger room at the Ouray Community Center for the same date and time.

“We had no idea about that. It’s a public meeting and everyone is invited,” Green said Wednesday.

He said Tipton waited until this week to release details of the meeting because of the ongoing budget fight in Congress that might require him to cancel the event, even though Republicans were notified of the meeting weeks ago.

The bitter battle over the wilderness area has been going on for years, with each side accusing the other of trying to hold secret meetings.

The dispute is over a bill sponsored by Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, that would declare about 61,000 acres in southwestern Colorado as federal wilderness and special management areas.

The San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act would designate 33,000 acres as wilderness, mostly as expansions of the existing Lizard Head and Mount Sneffels wilderness areas, and establish a new area called McKenna Peak that includes sandstone cliffs rising 2,000 feet above the plain. It would also designate about 22,000 acres as a special management area and withdraw over 6,000 acres within Naturita Canyon from mineral development.

Opponents say the expansion would limit economic development at a time when the United States is in global competition for resources, including oil, gas and minerals. At present, there is no mining in the area.

The dispute has been simmering for years. In 2009, a similar proposal by U.S. Rep. John Salazar failed without a vote.

On Wednesday, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar planned to meet with elected officials in Utah still angry over a push to identify wilderness areas throughout the West.

Salazar plans to discuss the economic opportunities provided by conservation and outdoor recreation.

Utah officials sued the Interior Department earlier this year because of a Wild Lands policy they feared would prohibit development and mining on millions of acres in the state. That lawsuit is still pending despite Salazar’s suspension of the policy.