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September 20, 2012
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Expanded wilderness in San Juans would add permanent protection

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - A guided hike in the San Juan Mountains will take place on the first day of autumn Saturday, Sept. 22, courtesy of Western Colorado Congress, an alliance for community action. Western Colorado Congress members Jim Stephenson of Ridgway and Grand Junction community organizer Lee Gelatt will lead the outing in the Mount Sneffels Wilderness Area in southwestern Colorado."The reason for the hike is to call attention to the potential for expanding wilderness included in the northern San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act," Gelatt said. "We expect the Aspen colors to be peaking."The bill would add 33,000 additional acres of national forest and Bureau of Land Management lands to the existing Mount Sneffels and Lizard Head wilderness areas.The proposal would also protect a new area - McKenna Peak in San Miguel County - and bring the total designated wilderness acreage to 61,000, including two "14-ers." Ridgway's sole water supply also lies within the proposed wilderness expansion area. Stephenson initially worked with former Congressman John Salazar to draft the wilderness expansion bill. Salazar agreed to support the effort if there was widespread community support, Stephenson said. "He made it clear he wouldn't present the bill if it was rife with conflict and this one wasn't," Stephenson said. "We contacted the business community. We had strong support in Ouray and Ridgway. We talked about boundaries that made sense. We avoided user conflicts," with mountain bike trail users, former miners and grazers. "Everything looked like a go," he said.However, Salazar, a Democrat, lost his Congressional seat to Republican Scott Tipton two years ago, and the measure has since stalled. Tipton agreed to hold public meetings to learn more about the issue. He described a meeting he attended in Ouray as "split" regarding the expansion proposal.Stephenson's perspective on that meeting is different. He said the overflow crowd of more than 400 people was "overwhelmingly in support" of the wilderness expansion. Stephenson said that at the same time Tipton was calling for public meetings to gather constituents' feedback about the proposal, in Congress, he was supporting a bill that would drop public lands in wilderness study areas - actions Stephenson called "two-faced." Tipton said he couldn't recall whether public lands in the northern San Juans were among those being considered for elimination from wilderness consideration."At this point there needs to be ongoing discussions" regarding the proposal to expand wilderness designation there, Tipton said. Tipton said a Korean War veteran from Delta told him he doesn't want to see the area be designated wilderness because it would prevent him from riding his motorized four-wheeler there. Motorized vehicles are already not allowed in the wilderness expansion area however. Expanding the existing wilderness would not affect current land uses, Sen. Mark Udall's spokesman Mike Saccone said. "The bill protects existing water rights, grazing, a hydroelectric plant there, skiing access, and current motorized access to the area," Saccone said. Current agency management policy dictates no motorized vehicle use within the area because there are no roads there.Sens. Udall and Michael Bennet support the bill which has passed the Senate's energy and natural resources committee.The San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act is supported by the majority of county commissioners in Ouray, San Juan and San Miguel counties where the wilderness is located, Saccone said. Tipton also said that although he shares locals' opinions on the area's beauty, the public lands "also belong to people in New York, California and North Carolina.""We need a go-slow approach," Tipton said. "We have to be prudent. "Wilderness (designation) is forever."Permanent wilderness protection is what proponents are seeking."That's why we're pushing for it," Stephenson said."Colorado's population is expected to double by 2050. One of the things this bill can do is (preserve wilderness) so future generations can enjoy clean water, beauty and wildlife we have today. The outdoors is an important part of our quality of life in Colorado," Saccone said.

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The Post Independent Updated Sep 20, 2012 04:53PM Published Sep 20, 2012 04:19PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.