Timothy E. Wirth: Guest opinion | AspenTimes.com

Timothy E. Wirth: Guest opinion

Timothy E. Wirth
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

President Obama recently proclaimed September as National Wilderness Month. His action could not be more appropriate and timely for Colorado.

While our state contains many magnificent wilderness areas, a significant backlog of proposed wilderness sits in Congress, and action is now needed to diversify our wilderness system, particularly to include more ecologically important, lower elevation lands. Like most everything else in the current Congress, gridlock in Washington has stalled these new wilderness designations. For almost three years, Congress has sat on its hands, despite very broad support for more wilderness designations in Colorado.

We should remember that there is a long and proud tradition of bipartisan support for Colorado wilderness. Senators Bill Armstrong and Gary Hart worked closely together in the 1970s on many early wilderness designations. The Colorado delegation unanimously sponsored the protection of the Indian Peaks wilderness, a remarkable area just west of the Denver Metropolitan area. Hank Brown and I spent hundreds of hours hammering out complicated boundary and water issues in the far-reaching Wilderness Act of 1993, and Ben Campbell led efforts to protect areas in Southern Colorado. I know that all of us have fond and proud memories of both the substance and the process of our cooperative efforts.

In the difficult political environment of 2011, when partisan bickering has led to a near legislative standstill on most issues, our elected leaders should again seek out the symbolic and practical benefits of wilderness protection. Key proposals are ripe for negotiation and collaboration, including the following:

– Legislation introduced by Rep. Jared Polis to protect 160,000 acres of wildlands in Summit and Eagle counties known as the Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act. Those counties receive millions of visitors annually, who come recreate and see Colorado’s natural wonders.

– An important proposal to protect Brown’s Canyon on the Arkansas River, which originated with the bipartisan support of Republicans Wayne Allard and Joel Hefley, working with Democrat Ken Salazar.

– Initiatives under way from Colorado’s U.S. senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, to protect lands in the magnificent San Juan Mountains, and the Hidden Gems wilderness proposal in Pitkin and Gunnison counties.

– Legislation offered by Rep. Diana DeGette to designate 700,000 acres of the Bureau of Land Management lands as wilderness. These BLM lands are important because they cover wildlife winter range, spectacular red rock canyons, rivers popular for whitewater recreation and diverse natural habitat.

Resolution of these proposals will produce lasting benefits for the people of Colorado and the legislators themselves. Along with our national parks, wilderness designation is the highest form of land conservation in the United States. Its preservation assures that many essential services that nature provides to humanity will persist.

These include: 1) production of the vast majority of our state’s drinking water – much of which is famous for being drinkable without expensive filtration or other treatment; 2) critical habitat for fish and wildlife, which support our state’s hunters and anglers; 3) clean forests and biomass which produce oxygen to help combat climate change; 4) outdoor recreation, which contributes billions to our state’s economy; 5) biological diversity of plants and animals, which is essential to our planet’s ecological health; 6) preservation of species for scientific research that may lead to future medicines or other cures for diseases; and 7) the scenic backdrops of great value to many Colorado communities. These communities also recognize the attraction of wilderness which, once designated, proves to be an important economic force and magnet for tourism.

The beautiful and important areas celebrated by National Wilderness Month are permanent monuments to our ability to recognize the contribution that wilderness makes to our economic and environmental systems. And that is something we all should be able to agree upon.