DeGette’s wilderness proposal two decades in the making |

DeGette’s wilderness proposal two decades in the making

Garfield commissioners oppose measure on grounds congresswoman didn’t approach them; bad public lands policy, they say

The distinctive fins on Assignation Ridge south of Carbondale, as seen from a 2016 EcoFlight flyover of the area. Assignation Ridge is one of the areas proposed for wilderness protection in U.S. Rep. Diana Degette’s reintroduced Colorado Wilderness Act.
John Stroud/Post Independent file photo

Rep. Diana DeGette’s Colorado Wilderness Act — part of a larger package of public lands protections including the CORE Act that recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives — has been more than 20 years in the making.

Contained in the proposal are areas carried over from several past wilderness bills sponsored by the congresswoman from Denver, including many in Garfield County.

County commissioners, however, say DeGette failed to coordinate the effort to include those areas with the county in accordance with the county’s new Federal Lands Natural Resources Plan, which was adopted last year.

Commissioners, in a letter sent to DeGette last month opposing the plan, contend the wilderness proposal would impose restrictions on public lands counter to the multiple-use concept.

“The piecemeal wilderness approach does not represent the citizens of Garfield County and would impose restrictions on public lands that limit access and restrict or eliminate mining, oil and gas development, grazing, hunting and recreation,” the letter states.

Further, DeGette “did not elect to meaningfully engage or coordinate with Garfield County or many of the other West Slope counties, which also have been designated for additional wilderness,” the letter notes.

Read the Garfield BOCC letter:

Garfield BOCC letter to U.S. Rep Diana DeGette.pdf

That engagement has occurred over multiple years, culminating in the reintroduction of DeGette’s revised Colorado Wilderness Act, said Ryan Brown, communications director for DeGette.

“This is a bill Rep. DeGette has been working on for more than 20 years,” he said. “During that time, DeGette has met with countless residents, officials, landowners and business owners from all across the state to discuss the proposal.”

That feedback has resulted in the bill being reworked several times to address various concerns, including those similar to the county commissioners, Brown said.

“This is not some new piece of legislation that has suddenly popped up overnight,” he said. “This is the tail end of a nearly two-decades long process in which a bill that has tremendous support from across the state – and has been endorsed by over 440 businesses and organizations throughout Colorado – is finally moving through Congress.”

The Colorado Wilderness Act — part of the larger Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act — would give wilderness protection to more than 660,000 acres in 36 areas across the state.

The DeGette proposal focuses on some of the state’s mid- and low-elevation areas that often serve as critical habitats for a variety of plants and wildlife. But the wilderness designation would also recognize them as ideal locations for a wide-range of outdoor recreation activities, Brown noted.

Among them is the Assignation Ridge, encompassing 19,240 acres primarily in Pitkin county southwest of Carbondale — a remote destination that draws numerous rock climbers.

One area included in the bill that’s specific to Garfield County is the 25,624-acre Demaree Canyon in the far western part of the county, which already has been protected as a wilderness study area for 40 years.

Others include:

  • Flat Tops Addition north of Glenwood Springs/New Castle (16,101 acres)
  • A small portion of the Grand Hogback near Rifle (10,282 acres)

Read a summary of the proposal:

Colorado Wilderness Act.pdf

“Our fight to protect more of Colorado’s wilderness gained tremendous momentum last year,” DeGette said in reintroducing the bill in January. “We are confident that we are finally in a position to get this bill approved and signed into law.”

The larger package, which also was sponsored by DeGette along with U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), is currently pending in the Senate.

“Our hope is that the Senate will take up and pass the entire package as soon as possible,” Brown said.

And, as was the case in the House, he said the sponsors are hoping for bipartisan support.

The areas included in the bill all stem from the Citizen’s Wilderness Plan, which was initially developed in 1994. That proposal came with input from conservationists and others across the state, Brown said.

“DeGette used the plan as the basis for her proposal and then began working with elected officials, business owners, residents and other stakeholders across the state to perfect it,” he said.

But, the local commissioners said their policy has changed with regards to any management changes on public lands within Garfield County.

“This doesn’t match up with our federal lands natural resources coordination plan,” Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said during the March 8 meeting when the letter to DeGette opposing the wilderness proposal was approved by the commissioners.

“We list our policies on wilderness in that plan, and without talking to us, she’s asking for 11 percent of the proposed wilderness to come out of Garfield County,” he said

“This is another example of the federal government making a land grab,” said Commissioner Mike Samson, adding, “What if our congressional representative introduced something related to downtown Denver,” referring to DeGette’s metro-area 1st Congressional District.

The county’s letter also notes that, overall, more than 62% of Garfield County is already made up of public lands. Much of that is already under some form of protection, the letter states.

Commissioner John Martin added during the March 8 discussion that Colorado Counties, Inc. (CCI) and the National Association of Counties (NACo) have agreed to support wilderness proposals, but only if all affected counties have been coordinated with and support the bill.

The county commissioners have supported other parts of the larger land protections package, including the CORE Act. Among its protections would be a permanent freeze on oil and gas leasing in parts of the Thompson-Divide region west of Carbondale.

The county, however, also signed a letter recently in opposition to President Joe Biden’s proposed “30×30” executive order, which aims to preserve 30% of public land and water by 2030 — part of the president’s climate action plan.

Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or

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