Op-Ed: Wilderness needs bipartisan support

Timothy Wirth.

Wilderness designations offer long-lasting benefits

By Timothy Wirth

President Obama recently proclaimed September 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 designations sit 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 in Colorado.

We should remember that there is a long and proud tradition of bi-partisan support for Colorado wilderness. Senators Bill Armstrong and Gary Hart worked closely together in the 1970’s 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 metro 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 bi-partisan support of Republicans Wayne Allard and Joel Hefley, working with Democrat Ken Salazar.
  • Initiatives underway 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 . 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:

  • 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;
  • Critical habitat for fish and wildlife, which support our state’s hunters and anglers;
  • Clean forests and biomass which produce oxygen to help combat climate change;
  • Outdoor recreation, which contributes billions to our state’s economy;
  • Biological diversity of plants and animals which is essential to our planet’s ecological health;
  • Preservation of species for scientific research that may lead to future medicines or other cures for diseases; and,
  • 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.

Timothy E. Wirth is a former U.S. Congressman and Senator from Colorado. A resident of Colorado, he is also currently President of the United Nations Foundation.


10 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Wilderness needs bipartisan support

  1. Mr. Wirth says in regards to Summit/Eagle Wilderness Preservation Act: “Those counties receive millions of visitors annually, who come recreate and see Colorado’s natural wonders.”

    This reason is precisely why we should enact Companion designations (Nat’l Conservation Area, Nat’l Recreation Area, etc.) rather than Wilderness designation. Protection of our natural resources is a noble goal, one that I think we can all get behind. But let’s not confuse a tool for the goal. Wilderness designation is a land protection tool, not a religion or a first amendment right. We have many tools at our disposal in our ‘land-protection-tool-kit’. Let’s look at all of our options before we make a mockery of Congress’ definition of Wilderness (let’s face it, not all parcels in the Summit/Eagle meet Congress’ definition of (W)ilderness, some parcels abut I-70).

    Companion designations, like Wilderness, are acts of Congress, and would require a similar act of Congress to reverse. Contrary to what the Wilderness lobby would have you believe, to date not a single Congressionally mandated Companion has been reversed. These Companions can also be tailored to insure proper restrictions on development and extraction while still allowing silent, human-powered recreation. Companions can be written locally, by people with boots-on-the-ground-knowledge of the area, not in Washington. Companion designations should really be the new model going forward.

    The notion that conservation is at odds with silent, non-motorized recreation must end. Outdoor recreation is a major part of our economy up here. We should be educating users and fostering this activity, rather than restricting it with Wilderness designation. Protect, not exclude.

  2. It is no surprise that Senator Wirth’s current push for more Wilderness in Colorado has caused a range of reactions, some of them strongly negative. People don’t like being restricted, and it is downright insulting to many cyclists to be banned from Wilderness, especially because there is no evidence that biking on a trail impacts the natural world more than hiking on it. But mountain bikes were not around in 1964 when the Wilderness Act was written.

    Mountain bikers want to see natural areas protected, so we have encouraged the use of “companion designations,” such as National Conservation or Recreation Areas, to complement Wilderness. It’s a sound strategy, but it has limitations. Unlike Wilderness, these companion designations do not come with the ironclad Organic Act protection afforded to Wilderness.

    The fact is, Wilderness remains the strongest tool we have to keep the land in its natural state. When used thoughtfully, we can avoid closing bike trails and restricting other forms of accustomed recreation. For instance, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) has worked closely with the proponents of Hidden Gems to keep all currently legal bicycle trails in Summit County open, and to protect as much land as possible. In fact, we are working on a proposal right now to increase the companion designations included in Congressman Polis’s bill, not to replace Wilderness parcels but to protect those lands that don’t qualify as Wilderness.

    With companion designations we can protect important recreational areas; some of the very places Sen. Wirth points out are visited by millions of users in his essay. These front-country areas are important components in the economies of many mountain towns. IMBA is working to develop more tools, similar to the Wilderness Act to protect these recreational lands while allowing bicycles, but in the meantime cyclists need to let go of the insult and respect the power of Wilderness to protect the places we all cherish.

    Ashley Korenblat
    Director IMBA Public Lands Initiative

    1. Very well put. Personally, I do not see wilderness designation as an insult to myself as a mountain biker, but more like an often misunderstood tool for protection of lands. With that said, many e-mails to various societies advocating wilderness, have been replied to with what is open anti-mountainbike sentiment.

  3. Please no more wilderness. Wilderness economically kills communities and takes money away from tourist ralated businesses

    1. Mike, you’re entitled to your opinion, but there are numerous studies showing economic benefits of wilderness to gateway recreation communities. Can you cite a single study showing how wilderness “takes money away” from tourist-related businesses?

  4. I would love to support wilderness, but as long as that designation closes land to bicycles, I have no choice, other than to not support these moves to close off land to a large group of environmentally conscious users.

  5. The simplest solution is to allow bicycling in wilderness. The fact is that Congress did not ban cycling in Wilderness. It’s the interpretation of the Act by a Federal agency in 1984 that banned cycling. All it would take is an amendment that clarifies that the banning of mechanical vehicles in Wilderness is meant to apply to motor vehicles, not human powered ones (like say a mountain bike), and the never ending battles over stupid rules would end. Then again, hoping for common sense to come out of Washington is wishful thinking.

  6. Re: Companion Designation v. Wilderness: The Summit Fat Tire Society, which led the charge to remove as much mtn biking trails from the proposal, does not agree with IMBA on this point and believe it has been used as a red herring for those who just don’t like mountain biking as an excuse to prevent companion designations from being included in legislation. We feel very strongly that there is little evidence to support the claim that CDs can’t be written as strongly as any Wilderness legislation.

    As anyone knows, exceptions can and have been written into Wilderness bills, such as enabling military overflight, transportation easements, etc. Wilderness is not always as pure as some would sell it, especially when it comes time to negotiate and get buy-in from local officials.

    Our goal is to protect MORE, not less, but leave an area open for mountain biking corridors along the very edges of portions of the proposed areas (that have little Wilderness value), while protecting watershed and allowing for fire mitigation. This should make Wilderness advocates happy, and we’re glad that IMBA has joined us to help make CD’s a reality in Summit. We welcome their participation and much-needed expertise. We also welcome the participation of many of the Hidden Gems supporters to the table, and have come together on many topics.

    We have the support of local elected officials and continue to work to emphasize the economic strength of mountain biking and it’s contribution to our community.

    While IMBA is a good friend to the SFTS, like any group with different goals we don’t always see eye-to-eye, and the Fat Tire Society did not endorse this legislation as submitted by Rep. Polis. That doesn’t mean we won’t work together.

    That said, we continue to work with Wilderness advocates and Rep. Polis and other electeds to find a reasonable solution to the companion designations in Summit County by moving them and protecting a corridor for future trails that are open to mountain biking.

    David Rossi, Board Member
    Summit Fat Tire Society
    Learn more: http://summitfattire.org

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