George Newman: Guest opinion | AspenTimes.com

George Newman: Guest opinion

George Newman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times

I applaud U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette for introducing the Colorado Wilderness Act of 2011. This bill contains 33 proposed wilderness areas throughout the state, for a total of 714,807 acres. Designated wilderness lands in Colorado account for only 15.7 percent of federally owned property. The Colorado Wilderness Act would preserve an additional 3 percent, leaving 84 percent of these lands available for current multipurpose uses. This act is unique in that the areas proposed for wilderness designation are primarily BLM mid-elevation lands and lower-lying canyons.

Wilderness lands are highly valued by Colorado residents and visitors for their multiuse potential, including hunting, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, wildlife viewing and bird watching, to name a few. Wilderness helps ensure healthy forests, which in turn protect our watershed, which is critical for clean water. Wilderness also ensures clean air, a healthy wildlife habitat, and a diverse ecological landscape. Subalpine areas are currently under-represented in our wilderness preservation program; yet, they are all the more critical to maintaining wildlife habitat.

But wilderness contributes not only to our quality of life, it is also important to our economy. In fact, study after study shows the economic benefits wilderness adds to local communities. Counties fortunate enough to include wilderness lands can have a much more sustainable economy. Preserving our wide-open spaces in perpetuity helps attract visitors from around the world, generating significant recreation and tourism dollars. Scenic and wildlife-based recreation stimulates new businesses, creates job opportunities and enhances property values. Overall, the intrinsic benefits of wilderness further sustain our economy and preserve the unique character of our state for future generations.

The 2011 Wilderness bill includes two areas in Pitkin County outside of Aspen: the Eagle Mountain/Maroon Bells addition and the Assignation Ridge/Thompson Creek proposed wilderness in the Crystal River Valley watershed. Whereas the Eagle Mountain/Maroon Bells proposal will add 325 acres to the renowned Snowmass/Maroon Bells Wilderness, the Assignation Ridge/Thompson Creek proposal preserves an entirely new area encompassing 21,900 acres of pristine mid-elevation terrain that would be unique to our area and the state. As with all of the areas covered by the Act, the boundaries of the Assignation Ridge/Thompson Creek proposed wilderness reflect years of negotiations and compromise and take into account recommendations by ranchers who graze on these lands as well as recreationalists who hike, climb and mountain bike there. (Note: The popular Tall Pines/Braderich Creek Trail will remain outside the proposed Wilderness area).

In fact, the Colorado Division of Wildlife has stated that this area “should remain roadless with no new trails or road construction in order to protect its rich diversity of wildlife and habitat values including big game winter range, elk summer concentration and production areas as well as provide a good quality hunting experience.” The U.S. Forest Service has also officially recommended to Congress that this area be designated as wilderness.

Pitkin County has long been considered a world-class tourist destination. Through the county’s open space and trails program, significant public funds have been invested in the conservation of a 4,800-acre land mass near Assignation Ridge, known as Jerome Park. This conservation easement protects the substantial open space, agriculture, wildlife and recreational values of the land. By resolution last September, the Pitkin County commissioners formally reaffirmed our earlier support of the proposed Colorado Wilderness Act of 2009 (now the 2011 Act) with specific remarks directed to our congressional delegation on the importance of this designation at this time. Potential oil and gas development which currently threatens the Assignation Ridge/Thompson Creek area would have significant adverse impacts not only on Jerome Park but on adjacent lands as well.

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Rep. DeGette understands the need for balanced use of our public lands, yet is visionary in recognizing how vital it is to protect certain public lands for their economic, social, wildlife, natural heritage, agricultural and recreation values. We need to preserve, as is, these unique lands as wilderness – now and for future generations to enjoy. Please join me in supporting this wilderness act.