The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Colorado Wilderness Act of 2019 by a solid margin Wednesday night despite disagreement among Colorado’s congressional delegation.
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, proposed and developed the legislation over the course of 20 years to protect more than 600,000 acres of wilderness in 32 different areas of Colorado – mostly Southwest Colorado.
As federally protected wilderness, DeGette’s legislation would give areas like the Canyons of the Ancients and the Ponderosa Gorge on the Dolores River the highest-level of permanent protection possible.
The vote comes shortly after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation unveiled plans to construct new roads, power lines and bridges in the remote areas of the Dolores River Canyon.
“Wilderness is not owned by me or any member of Congress, it is owned by the people,” DeGette said on the House floor in support of her bill. She cited a recent poll of Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, which shows 63% of Western Slope residents support new wilderness designations.
“The people of the United States want to preserve the few wild places we have left,” she said.
DeGette has the support of Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Boulder, who said he is looking forward to enjoying the wilderness areas in the future with his 18-month-old daughter.
“There is a strong tradition of protecting lands in my home state,” and this bill will protect “Colorado’s most treasured lands” while helping to curb greenhouse gas emissions, Neguse said on the House floor.
The bill will also protect species like the Uncompahgre butterfly in the Red Cloud Peak Wilderness Study Area, desert bighorn sheep and the Mexican spotted owl.
But Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, and Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, oppose the Colorado Wilderness Act.
Lamborn said Colorado already has 3.5 million acres of designated wilderness, and that the proposed bill does not work with local economies to protect them from “unnecessary and harmful restrictions” on land use.
“We are wasting our time,” Lamborn said, saying President Donald Trump has already indicated he will veto the bill.
Tipton said the Bureau of Land Management studied the areas and found they were “unsuitable for wilderness designation.” Tipton also emphasized these lands are largely already protected by the federal government.
The BLM has designated some of the proposed sites as Wilderness Study Areas in the 1980s, and according to DeGette, scientific experts agree these areas should remain as wilderness.
Tipton said he was opposed to further restrictions on federal land, considering the fact that the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is surrounded by privately owned land.
Montezuma County commissioners oppose the bill, Tipton said. But DeGette said the commissioners should not have veto authority over federal land designations, and that the state’s constituents should have a voice. For example, the mayor of Cortez and the City Council support the Colorado Wilderness Act.
Rep. Russ Fulcher, R-Idaho, and other Republican members of the committee argued that the more unmanaged land there is, the more likely wildfires will occur.
“They think they are protecting this land, but they are not,” Fulcher said.
But Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., argued states like Colorado and California “depend on the economic benefits” vast areas of wilderness provide, including the increase in recreational opportunities the Colorado wilderness bill creates.
Thousands of visitors travel to Southwest Colorado every year to visit some of the “few pristine areas” left in the country, contributing a great deal to the local economy, DeGette said.
Mark Pearson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, said the bill will “help elevate in the public’s mind just how spectacular our canyon and plateau areas are.”
After the Trump administration dismantled national park land designations in Utah and along the U.S.-Mexico border, the passage of the Colorado Wilderness Act is “such a refreshing breath of fresh air that we can make these advancements,” Pearson said.
Tipton attempted to add an amendment to the bill that would remove wilderness designations in the 3rd Congressional District, but the amendment was rejected in a vote of 234-183.
But Democrats and Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee agreed on an amendment that would protect high-altitude aviation training sites in and near the wilderness areas proposed in the bill.
“When Sen. (Michael) Bennet and Sen. (Cory) Gardner see how hard we’ve worked, we think they will support it,” DeGette said in a news conference call after the vote.
Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.