A proposal to designate 342,000 acres of new wilderness across central Colorado's Rocky Mountains finds itself on new political terrain after the defeat of a lawmaker expected to usher part of the proposal through Congress and the Republican takeover of the House.
The lands included in the "Hidden Gems" wilderness campaign -- pared down from more than 600,000 acres when first introduced in 2007 -- are intended to connect existing high-elevation "rock and ice" wilderness areas to biologically richer middle elevations that feature old-growth forests and provide important wildlife habitat.
But the election defeat of Rep. John Salazar (D) in Colorado's 3rd Congressional District has left the proposal without a likely ally in Congress. Salazar was expected to push for passage of the "Hidden Gems" provisions in the western part of the state, while his colleague, Rep. Jared Polis (D), was steering passage of new protections in the proposal's eastern reaches.
Polis, who won re-election last week to his 2nd District seat, introduced a bill in September that included much of the Gems proposal in Summit and Eagle counties, including 89,000 acres of new wilderness and an additional 79,000 acres of "special management areas" that offer more flexibility to land managers and users.
But Salazar's narrow defeat to businessman and former state representative Scott Tipton, a Republican who has said little about the Hidden Gems proposal, has cast doubt on the bill's prospects for passage. Tipton has said the proposal needs more local input and that he has concerns with how motorized and mechanical restrictions in wilderness would affect off-highway vehicle (OHV) users and people with disabilities.
Tipton, in an interview this week with the Aspen Daily News, recalled a disabled Korean War veteran he met on the campaign trail who loves to fly fish, but who would be unable to access streams in wilderness areas due to prohibitions on motorized vehicles.
"He said, 'Are you going to close that off? What did I fight for?'" Tipton told the newspaper. "And he said, 'That's the only way I can get there.' So we'll open up those types of doors and have discussion."
Mike Hesse, Tipton's newly appointed chief of staff, who served in the same role under former Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) before Salazar's three terms, said Tipton's staff had received letters from both supporters and opponents of the Gems proposal and is looking forward to hearing more from the public.
"We want to make sure we've fully exhausted everyone's input before we come out with a position," he said, adding that Tipton follows "a land of many uses" philosophy on public land management.
"We want to make sure the public has access," he said.
Meanwhile, Polis' "Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act" faces little opportunity for action in the House Natural Resources Committee during the upcoming lame-duck session of Congress.
Polis has not decided whether to push the bill as part of a larger legislative package during the current session, the congressman's spokeswoman, Lara Cottingham, said. Nor has he committed to reintroduce the bill in next year's Republican-led House.
"We just won't know until we get back in session," Cottingham said, adding that "it has to go through the committee."
Backers of the Hidden Gems campaign say their decade of work garnering local support for the proposal will be rewarded regardless of what party holds the gavel in Congress.
"There have been wilderness champions on both sides of aisle since the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964," said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Wilderness Workshop, which has promoted the Gems proposal.
Shoemaker pointed to the 11 million acres of wilderness designated during the Reagan administration -- most of which passed a Republican-led Senate -- as proof that wilderness bills transcend political boundaries.
As chief of staff for McInnis, Hesse helped get nearly 100,000 acres of wilderness designated in the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Shoemaker noted.
"[Hesse] is fluent with the issue and has worked bills through to the presidential signature," Shoemaker said. "We look forward to re-engaging with Mike."
High-profile Republican supporters of the Hidden Gems campaign also have offered to speak with Tipton, said Shoemaker, who wrote a personal letter endorsing Salazar and criticizing Tipton ahead of last week's election.
While Tipton's staff has yet to meet with Hidden Gems supporters -- which include the Wilderness Workshop, Wilderness Society, Colorado Environmental Coalition and Colorado Mountain Club -- the groups are currently seeking support of Pitkin and Gunnison county leaders to burnish their proposal in Congress, Shoemaker said.
Pitkin commissioners on Tuesday appeared poised to back the proposal after unanimously ordering county staff to prepare a resolution of support for an expected vote next week.
Long-standing concerns from local emergency responders and wildfire officials were resolved in the Summit and Eagle county proposal by allowing access to protect communities in forests that are hard hit by the mountain pine beetle, Shoemaker said (Land Letter, March 11).
Proposed wilderness boundaries have also been adjusted to allow for the potential development of 46 oil and gas leases on more than 46,000 acres that would have been blocked under earlier proposals, he said.
"One of the Republican mantras has always been local control," Shoemaker said, adding that both Summit and Eagle counties have endorsed Polis' bill. "This sure seems consistent with the notion of being responsive to local desires and local concerns."
But the proposal still faces opposition from groups such as White River Forest Alliance, which has warned about new restrictions on OHV users, mountain bikers and snowmobilers that would accompany new wilderness designations.
Water rights also continue to be a concern in Pitkin County, where there has been talk of building a water delivery canal through a proposed wilderness area, Shoemaker said.
As Hesse noted, the burden of demonstrating that Colorado needs to add to its existing 4 million acres of federal wilderness falls on Hidden Gems supporters.
"Most of the areas that clearly qualify have been designated," Hesse said. "The folks who want to designate it are going to have to make the case that this truly qualifies."
In fact, wilderness advocates may have other battles to wage if Republicans succeed in lifting of wilderness study area (WSA) designations across a half-million acres of Colorado forest that receive de facto wilderness protection as WSAs.
"We're interested in hearing from the agencies which ones are eligible for wilderness and which ones aren't," Hesse said. "For those that aren't, we should remove the designation, which has never been done."
As for Hidden Gems, "[Tipton's] philosophy will be balance and building consensus," Hesse added. "From everything I've heard, we aren't at consensus yet."
Tipton will return to Washington, D.C., on Sunday for freshman orientation and is hoping to be assigned to a committee that oversees the Interior Department, Hesse said.