Clouds roll in over Ice Lakes Basin, near Silverton. Ice Lakes is one of the areas that would gain additional wilderness protection under the San Juan Wilderness Act, reintroduced this week by Sen. Mark Udall./Photo by Steve Eginoire.

Wilding the San Juans

San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act reintroduced
by Will Sands

The San Juan Mountains may grow wilder in coming months. The San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act was reintroduced in Congress this week and will add tens of thousands of acres to the local wilderness inventory if adopted. The bill is the product of years of negotiation and has been hailed as a win-win by stakeholders, politicians and wilderness advocates alike.
Signed into law in 1964, the Wilderness Act created the highest form of protection for America’s most pristine public lands. Since that time, more than 109 million acres have been designated as wilderness throughout the country. Southwest Colorado boasts the South San Juans, Mount Sneffels, Lizard Head wilderness areas as well as the Weminuche, the state’s largest at 488,000 acres.
This week, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and co-sponsor Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., took a step toward further enhancing the local wilds by reintroducing the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act. First proposed by former U.S. Rep. John Salazar in 2009, the bill would grow local wilderness by more than 33,000 acres and protect 30,000 additional acres by other means.

The San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act at a glance

“This is how wilderness can and should be done,” Udall said. “I’m proud to fight for this incredibly special part of our state. Not only will this bill ensure generations of Coloradans will be able to enjoy its stunning beauty, but it will also help create jobs and boost the economy of the entire area.”
Most significantly, the wilderness bill would safeguard some of Southwest Colorado’s most renowned viewsheds. The slopes of Mount Sneffels and Wilson Peak, two of Colorado’s most widely known fourteeners, would be forever off-limits to mining, logging and road building. The bill makes similar provisions for Lizard Head Peak and the skyline stretching southeast above Telluride and Ophir.
The bill would also make wilderness inroads into the Lower Dolores River Basin, creating the 8,614-acre McKenna Peak Wilderness Area. The McKenna Peak designation would create the first wilderness area in the Lower Dolores and protect lands at a lower elevation, something largely missing in Colorado’s current inventory.
“The bill fills out some of the areas that were not included in previous wilderness designations,” said Jeff Widen, associate director of the Wilderness Society’s Wilderness Support Center. “In the case of Mount Sneffels, the wilderness boundary ends at the top of the peak. This bill provides protection for the rest of the ridgeline.”
Interestingly, one of the San Juan Wilderness Bill’s biggest components is not directly related to wilderness. More than 21,000 acres stretching from Sheep Mountain through the heart of the San Juans to Ice Lakes Basin would gain protection as a “special management area.” The SMA designation allowed the bill to “thread the needle” by offering permanent protection to the area, while respecting Telluride Helitrax’s existing heli-skiing operation.
At the heart of the San Juan Wilderness Bill was a grassroots effort to get all the players at the table and involved in drafting the bill. The bill has picked up letters and votes of support from governments and municipalities throughout the region and gained traction amongst diverse stakeholders. That up-front work should be the key to the legislation’s success, according to Widen.
“You’re always going to have people who will oppose wilderness legislation because it’s wilderness legislation,” he said. “But this bill has strong and widespread support Everyone who backed this bill during its original reintroduction has gotten behind the latest effort and reiterated their support.”
Pete McKay, San Juan County commissioner, said he shares Widen’s optimism. He joined officials from San Miguel and Ouray Counties in commending Udall for reintroducing the bill. McKay noted that the bill will not only preserve pristine places but help grease tourism in the region.
“I am grateful to see Sen. Udall taking action that represents so much of our local grassroots efforts,” he said. “The senator recognizes that our wild and scenic areas are essential for tourism, our main economic engine.”
However, the San Juan Mountain Wilderness Act must now run the gauntlet in Washington, D.C. Wilderness designation is accomplished exclusively by an act of the U.S. Legislature, and the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act faces a challenging climate. Crediting Udall’s and Bennet’s support, Widen predicted smooth passage for the bill in the U.S. Senate. However, U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., must pick up and the bill and sponsor it in the House of Representatives and the Republican is still uncertain.
“The outlook is good for the bill in the Senate,” Widen said. “Sens. Udall and Bennet have been behind the bill since its original introduction and want to see the bill become law. In the House, it hinges on Rep. Tipton. We hope that once he sees the level of public support, the Congressman will be inclined to introduce a companion bill.”
Tipton has yet to come down one way or the other on the legislation. However, he appears to be open-minded and will hold a “listening session” this Friday in Ridgway.
“Preserving our environment, protecting our state’s treasures, and ensuring that people have the ability to enjoy Colorado’s beauty is important to me,” Tipton said. “I appreciate all of the work that Sen. Udall and his staff have done, and I am anxious to gather feedback from my constituents on this issue.”
Udall and Bennet have already heard their constituents, and Widen commended them for taking a proactive step to protect the San Juans and Colorado’s $10 billion outdoor recreation economy.
“In reintroducing this bill, Senators Udall and Bennet have shown that land preservation and our outdoor recreation economy are driving forces in Colorado,” Widen said. “They’ve also shown that they are listening to their constituents and doing their jobs.”

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