Montezuma County Commissioner Keenan Ertel testified against the proposed Colorado Wilderness Act of 2019 to a Congressional Natural Resources subcommittee Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
But, in a split vote, the Cortez City Council voted 4-3 this week to support the bill.
The bill introduced in the House by Democrat Rep. Diana DeGette seeks to designate 740,000 acres in 31 areas as wilderness, the most restrictive level of federal land protection.
The areas in Montezuma County proposed for the designation in the bill are the Bureau of Land Management wilderness study areas of Weber Mountain, Menefee Mountain and Cross Canyon. Cahone Canyon, and Squaw and Papoose Canyon are the other wilderness study areas within the county but are not part of the bill.
In extensive comments to the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forest and Public lands, Ertel said the hands-off restrictive management of wilderness designations would threaten public safety, block oil and gas development and limit the area’s growing recreation economy.
Weber and Menefee wilderness study areas are within the Wildland Urban Interface area, and most wilderness areas have a policy of letting wildfires burn, he said. Both mountains are susceptible to lightning-caused wildfires.
“A let it burn policy is not acceptable,” Ertel said. “Residential properties are simply too close to these WSA’s, and the town of Mancos is only 1.25 miles from the boundary of Menefee.”
A full wildfire suppression plan is needed, he said, adding that restrictions on mechanized treatments in hamper crews’ efforts to thin the forest to prevent large wildfires.
By stripping the WSA designation, local communities may develop recreation trails, Ertel said.
“The county is transitioning from an oil- and gas-based economy to a sustainable and environmentally friendly tourism- and recreation-based economy,” he said.
Ertel also opposed wilderness proposals for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, claiming that current regulations are strict enough to protect archaeological and natural values. The fear is that if those areas became designated as wilderness it could limit existing CO2 production, which accounts for more than 50% Montezuma County’s taxable revenue.
He added that Montezuma County has been trying to have the wilderness study area designations dropped to allow for trail building, improved noxious weed controls and fire mitigation.
Wilderness study areas must be managed as if they are wilderness until Congress either designates them or releases them back to less restrictive BLM management status.
On the other hand, the Cortez City Council voted 4-3 to submit a letter of support for DeGette’s bill. Mayor Karen Sheek and council members Mike Lavey, Jill Carlson and Ty Keel voted for sending the letter, and council members Sue Betts, Gary Noyes and Orly Lucero voted against it.
The bill has been introduced in the House only. DeGette has introduced the Colorado Wilderness Act in every Congress since 1999. The first bill encompassed more than 60 areas, but after years of stakeholder input and refinement, the current version protects 33 areas.
According to a letter of support signed by nine environmental groups including San Juan Citizen’s Alliance and Great Old Broads for Wilderness, the wilderness areas were proposed by “concerned citizens who want to protect these public lands for future generations.” It notes that 21 of the 33 identified areas are already managed as wilderness study areas for nearly 40 years.
“The need for this protection has only grown as more people have moved or traveled to Colorado enjoy its natural splendor,” the letter says. “Now more than ever, we need a comprehensive vision for protecting Colorado’s last remaining wild places. The 2019 bill reflects the efforts of grassroots activists, citizens, landowners, and recreationalists across the state.”
Montezuma County officials want to go the other way. The county commission is seeking legislation to release the WSA’s, and points to a 1991 study by the BLM that concluded they are unsuitable for wilderness designation.
“Even the BLM says the areas in our county don’t meet the standard for wilderness designation,” Ertel said.
Ertel criticized DeGette for failing to consult with Montezuma County commissioners regarding her proposal for local wilderness designations.
“Congresswoman DeGette claims her bill has broad-based support and has been crafted through a transparent public process; however, there have been no public meetings held in Montezuma County to determine the best course of action for our residents,” Ertel said.
Ertel said he spoke with DeGette about the county’s concerns after the hearings, and she “made a commitment to visit us” this summer to view the areas and meet with the public and officials about wilderness area issues.
The county is requesting that DeGette remove local WSA’s from her wilderness proposal and add language that would release the wilderness study designations “so they can be managed in a way that is a better fit for our community, and a safer one,” Ertel said.
In a news release, U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton supported the county’s objections to the bill.
“I value protecting Colorado’s natural spaces and understand the importance of identifying wilderness areas in our public lands. However, when we are determining which areas are best suited, we cannot ignore the voices of those who would be most impacted by the designations,” Tipton stated. “This bill has received justified local criticism over concerns regarding noxious weed control, mitigating existing fire hazards near residential properties, and stripping local control of energy resource development. Wilderness designations should always be locally driven, and I am thankful for Commissioner Ertel’s efforts to bring the county’s concerns to members of the Natural Resources Committee.”
Ertel’s testimony in front of the subcommittee can be seen on the House Natural Resource Committee YouTube channel.