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After a decade in the making, the San Juan Wilderness Bill can’t wait!

By Joan May, Pete McKay, Ben Tisdal, Sean Murphy, Dan Jansen and Corinne Platt

Special to the Herald

People live in and come to visit Southwest Colorado in large part because of our spectacular mountain landscapes, high quality of life and abundant recreational opportunities. These special places serve as critical economic drivers, a living representation of our heritage and striking symbols of Colorado.

Protecting unique places like Mount Sneffels, McKenna Peak, Sheep Mountain and Naturita Canyon for present users and future generations is essential to the well-being of our communities.

For the greater part of a decade, local communities have worked hard to protect some of these key public lands that drive our economies in Ouray, San Juan and San Miguel counties, culminating in the San Juan Mountains Wilderness bill.

The SJMW bill would designate important additions to the existing Mount Sneffels and Lizard Head Wildernesses, establish a new McKenna Peak Wilderness, designate the Sheep Mountain Special Management Area surrounding Ice Lakes Basin and the spectacular peaks above Ophir and finally, prohibit oil and gas development in the important corridor of Naturita Canyon near Norwood.

We tip our hat to those who took on the painstaking work to ensure that the boundaries of the proposed wilderness and special management areas are considerate of existing uses, watersheds and our drinking water sources, and protect wildlife habitat and recreation areas. Here are some examples:

Jeep tours and mountain biking are incredibly popular in the region, and the bill was crafted to leave all of the numerous jeep roads and mountain bike trails unaffected.The boundary of the Sunshine Addition to the Mount Sneffels Wilderness was adjusted to exclude several private wells, and to allow for possible repair and realignment of the trail along the old Galloping Goose railroad grade.The eastern boundary of the Sheep Mountain Special Management Area was drawn carefully to accommodate potential expansion of water supply facilities for the town of Ophir.This inclusive, ground-up approach used to create the bill has built and maintained new-found partnerships over the years. As a result, support for the bill remains nearly unanimous across the region. All three counties and a number of municipalities support the proposal. Ranchers, mountain bikers, outfitters, local residents, a heli-skiing operator and private landowners all have voiced their strong support.

Their message is clear to us and to our congressional leaders. Set partisanship aside and work together to pass the SJMW bill. The bill represents our interests as a community, it preserves our way of life and ensures economic stability through hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars that come from the outdoor recreation economy and people’s desire to live and own businesses here.

The economic engine for the San Juan Mountains region consists largely of recreation, tourism and small businesses. Skiing at Telluride, hiking the Blue Lakes Trail or driving the Million Dollar Highway all depend on the appeal of protected landscapes. Local residents understand this, which is a major reason for the overwhelming degree of support for this proposal, support that has remained remarkably consistent for the better part of a decade.

Our communities are united in their support for the SJMW bill. The only hurdle left now is for Congress to act. The SJMW bill – recently sponsored by Sen. Michael Bennet – has been approved by the relevant committees of both the U.S. House and Senate in previous sessions, making it ripe for final passage.

While we understand partisanship has gripped the halls of Congress in recent years, we ask our elected officials, Sens. Bennet and Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton, to take a page from their constituents in Ouray, San Juan and San Miguel counties and work together to enact the bill.

Public lands legislation is never easy. Bills like SJMW, crafted and broadly supported by local communities to make sure all current uses continue, are the kind most likely to pass congressional muster.

As elected officials adjacent to the proposed areas, we urge our congressional representatives to finish the job and enact the San Juan Mountains Wilderness bill.

Joan May, San Miguel County commissioner; Pete McKay, San Juan County commissioner; Ben Tisdal, Ouray County Commission chairman; Sean Murphy, Telluride mayor; Dan Jansen, Mountain Village mayor; and Corinne Platt, Ophir mayor.

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