WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette advocated for huge swaths of Colorado’s rural areas to be added to the state’s protected wilderness during a congressional hearing Wednesday.
DeGette reintroduced a bill this year that would set aside 744,000 acres of federal land as wilderness for recreation and conservation in central and western Colorado.
“The Colorado Wilderness Act of 2019 protects some of the most cherished and unique areas of our state, Colorado’s canyon country,” DeGette said during a hearing of a House Natural Resources subcommittee.
However, her proposed legislation drew words of caution from Colorado conservatives, who warned about negative consequences DeGette overlooked.
The designation of the 33 new areas as federally protected wilderness means they could not be leased or sold for private or commercial development. The issue is being hotly debated among conservationists critical of the Trump administration for granting more leases of federal properties for oil, gas and mineral extraction.
DeGette’s bill would increase the amount of federally protected wilderness in Colorado by more than 20%.
The difference for the areas proposed by DeGette is that they do not lie in the state’s alpine regions like most of the state’s roughly 3,500,000 acres of federally-protected land. The low to mid-elevation areas contain more historical sites, such as petroglyphs — or rock carvings — and ancient pueblo ruins in southwestern counties.
“Almost all of the existing wilderness in Colorado is above 9,000 feet in elevation,” the Denver Democrat told the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.
DeGette said protecting the lower elevation areas listed in her bill would be an economic benefit to rural areas, which already depend heavily on outdoor recreation.
The Colorado Office of Economic Development reports that the outdoor recreation industry supports 229,000 jobs, “which is four times more than oil and gas,” DeGette said.
The industry also generates $28 billion in consumer spending annually for the state and pays $9.7 billion in salaries and wages.
DeGette has introduced some version of the same bill every year since 1999 but it never won approval in Congress. Recent modifications that took out the most controversial language on water rights have broadened public support for it, she said.
“It is ready to be passed into law,” she said.
Steve Bonowski, a Lakewood resident who testified on behalf of two environmental groups, said DeGette’s bill could relieve what he called “major pressures on the state’s open space, its public lands, its water and its transportation infrastructure among other impacts.”
He mentioned the White River National Forest, the Pike-San Isabel National Forest and Rocky Mountain National Park as examples of sites with a hefty rise in visitors in recent years.
“An upside can be growth in visits and in outdoor recreation for rural economies that take the right approach to this growth and its management,” Bonowski said in his testimony.
DeGette’s bill also would protect critical wildlife habitat and promote clean air and water, said Bonowski, who testified for the Golden-based Colorado Mountain Club and Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship.
Some of the disagreement about the wisdom of the Colorado Wilderness Act came from U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Cortez Republican. He said DeGette and her supporters ignored concerns of some residents in the new wilderness areas she proposes.
“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,” Tipton said.
Additional criticism came from Keenan G. Ertel, a Montezuma County Commissioner, who said the bill, H.R. 2546, threatens the livelihoods and safety of residents near Cortez.
“I believe H.R. 2546 is probably bad for energy production in Colorado as a whole,” Ertel said in his testimony. “H.R. 2546 will also be bad for the Montezuma County economy as well, especially within Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, where it has potential to limit existing CO2 production, which accounts for over 50% of Montezuma County’s taxable revenue.”
Designating more land as wilderness will make it harder to control fire risks, he said.
“Wildfire risk is very, very real on the landscape these [wilderness study areas] are being proposed on and fighting fires in these areas is already a real challenge without the burden of a wilderness designation,” Ertel said.