A new wilderness within expanse of the San Juans

On Tuesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted in favor of the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act. The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Mark Udall, with Sen. Michael Bennet as an original co-sponsor, would protect more than 61,000 acres of public lands in San Miguel, Ouray and San Juan counties.

The San Juans are known worldwide as the spectacular mountains we all know and love. Their beauty and wildness are why many of us live here. They are the primary draw for the thousands of visitors to Ouray, Silverton, Telluride and Durango that drive much of our local economies.

Beyond any recognition of their importance to our local communities, the San Juans are a treasure of the spectacular creation in which we live. The high peaks and upper montane areas are the source of much of our water, providing the snow-melt and highland wetland areas, which feed our rivers through the summers. The protection and recognition of these treasures is something we owe to our children and future.

The act includes additions to the Mount Sneffels Wilderness, north of Telluride and west of Ouray, the largest addition being the massif, which towers over Ouray. There are small additions to Lizard Head Wilderness, which covers the West San Juan Mountains.

The Sheep Mountain Special Management Area, straddling the mountains between the upper reaches of the Dolores River, Mineral Creek and the upper San Miguel River, would allow existing uses such as heli-skiing to continue.

An important component is the new McKenna Peak Wilderness, in the Disappointment Valley of south central San Miguel County. This little known area of critical midelevation lands, includes part of the Spring Creek Basin wild-horse management area. The protection of mid-elevation lands, and ecosystems, lags behind the protection of high, rocky peaks.

Lastly, the bill also would protect Naturita Canyon, near Norwood, from gas and oil leasing.

All three of the counties with lands included in the bill, San Juan, San Miguel and Ouray, have voiced strong support of the bill, recognizing the importance of these areas to their economic future and local communities.

The bill has the support of many local leaders, businesses, sportsmen and conservationists.

The only opposition we are aware of is from those who have a philosophical opposition to wilderness and have a poor knowledge of the bill itself, and even of the lands involved. Those most affected and with a personal knowledge of the areas support the bill.

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, who has sponsored the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act, has as yet to decide whether to support, oppose or remain neutral on the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act. We urge Tipton to listen to the local counties and support this bill.

San Juan Citizens Alliance has worked for more than six years on this effort, and we are extremely grateful to Sens. Udall and Bennet for their leadership and work on behalf of Southwest Colorado.

dan@sanjuancitizens.org. Dan Randolph is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.