Time for Tipton and Gardner to support local leaders, public lands

Tuesday, May 22, 2018 10:07 AM

On Thursday, as a fitting start to the second annual Colorado Public Lands Day – celebrated Saturday – a bipartisan bill led by Sen. Michael Bennet naming two local mountain peaks after two distinguished Southwest Colorado mountaineers passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The bill now heads for a vote by the full Senate. A companion bill, introduced by Rep. Scott Tipton, passed the House in December. The “Fowler and Boskoff Peaks Designation Act” recognizes the extraordinary mountaineering accomplishments of Charlie Fowler and Christine Boskoff, lifelong mountaineers and humanitarians, who died in 2006 while climbing a new route on Genyen Peak (20,354 feet) deep in a remote mountain valley in China.

The local peaks (exceeding 13,000 feet each) are located in the Lizard Head Wilderness in the Wilson Range of the San Juan Mountains, an area currently part of another proposal, the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act, reintroduced last month by Bennet.

By expanding or designating 11 areas within and surrounding the San Juan National Forest as special management areas or wilderness, the legislation would secure protections for 61,000 acres of lands in San Juan, Ouray and San Miguel counties that depend on these public lands for their tourism and outdoor recreation economies. A 6,500-acre mineral withdrawal in Naturita Canyon is also included in the proposal; it would preclude future mining in the area.

There are several surprising aspects to this effort, almost a decade in the making. Namely, that some of the areas within it do not already have these protections. Ice Lakes Basin, for example, is one of the most popular area hikes near Silverton, especially during wildflower season. Two 14,000-foot peaks, Mount Sneffels and Wilson Peak, are among the most prominent peaks near Telluride.

The second surprising thing is that despite wide local support for the bill, Sen. Cory Gardner and Rep. Tipton do not support it. After years of negotiations, elected officials of all three counties where the lands are located, and the towns of Silverton, Ridgway, Ouray, Telluride and Mountain Village support this bill, as well as local ranchers and outfitters and more than 120 local businesses, including Ouray Silver Mines, the only operating mining company in the area.

As dependable champions of state’s rights, taking the same philosophy to the local level, Gardner and Tipton ought to respect the interests of county, municipal and business leaders – and the broad coalition of recreation enthusiasts to miners – who have worked collaboratively to craft the bill.

Notwithstanding a March statement by the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition, Colorado Snowmobile Association and Trail Preservation Alliance, and previous statements from Tipton, the legislation does respect private property and existing uses.

With less than 5 percent of America’s public lands protected as wilderness, and as a fitting tribute to Fowler and Boskoff, it is time Tipton and Gardner get on board with the San Juan Wilderness Act and put action behind their words supporting public lands, our outdoor recreation economy and the annual Colorado Public Lands Day.