A U.S. congresswoman from Denver said she will travel to Southwest Colorado in August to pitch a vast wilderness protection bill to local officials after a Montezuma County commissioner vehemently opposed the bill at a congressional hearing this week.
Initially brought to her by a group of citizens, Democrat Rep. Diana DeGette has been trying to push the Colorado Wilderness Act through the U.S. House for 20 years. The bill would designate 740,000 acres of mostly low-elevation areas and ancestral Puebloan ruins in Western Colorado as wilderness, which is the highest category of protection.
“Most of the lands in our bill are lower-lying canyon areas, foothills and lower-elevation terrain,” DeGette said. “This type of landscape is not well represented among Colorado’s current wilderness areas because almost all of the existing wilderness in Colorado is above 9,000 feet.”
DeGette views the bill as a companion to the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, which would protect 400,000 acres of Colorado wilderness at mostly higher elevations.
Montezuma County Commissioner Keenan Ertel testified in Washington against DeGette’s bill.
Three proposed wilderness areas – Weber Mountain, Menefee Mountain and Cross Canyon – are in Montezuma County. These parcels are already managed by the Bureau of Land Management in much the same way they would be if the legislation passes.
While the legislation would prevent any new oil and gas operations in the wilderness areas, Ertel was more concerned with the effect the bill would have on housing costs and the recreation economy.
If these areas get official wilderness designations, property values adjacent to them may rise, causing rural gentrification and displacement, Ertel said.
Ertel was also concerned that the bill could be a detriment to mountain biking in Montezuma County as mechanized vehicles – except for wheelchairs – are banned from official wilderness areas. This could set back the county’s efforts to transition from an oil and gas economy to a recreation-based one, he said.
“Every little contribution is important to a rural economy,” Ertel said. “This is not something someone from metro Denver with unlimited tax resources and Starbucks on every corner can relate to.”
Steve Bonowski, a Colorado-based board member of nonprofit group Conservatives for Responsive Stewardship, said wilderness designations are a boon to local economies. He and DeGette referenced a study by Headwaters Economics that showed federally protected lands promote jobs and higher wages.
And while mountain biking may be restricted in wilderness areas, economic activity related to other recreation activities such as hiking, hunting and fishing could spur growth, Bonowski said.
“If I can add one thing, my suitcase for the plane that I head for after this testimony, is made by Osprey Packs, an outdoor gear manufacturer that’s headquartered in Cortez,” he said.
Ertel’s biggest gripe, though, was being left out of conversations about the bill by DeGette’s office. DeGette said she helped the bill gain the endorsement of 350 businesses and 14 counties and municipalities by working with local stakeholders near many of the 33 proposed wilderness areas. One remaining endorsement she appears to covet is that of the Montezuma County Board of Commissioners.
Ertel and DeGette hadn’t met until Wednesday’s hearing in Washington. The two shook hands for the first time outside of the House Natural Resources Committee hearing room and DeGette apologized for not having visited the wilderness areas in Montezuma County.
“That’s on me,” she said. “I will commit to you, in the next few months, I hope in the August recess, I’m going to come down there and meet with the county commissioners and have a local town hall meeting and go to these areas.”
James Marshall is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.An earlier version of this story misstated Rep. Diana DeGette’s political affiliation.