Rep. Jared Polis, Sen. Michael Bennet introduce 100,000 acre wilderness bill for Summit and Eagle counties

Jack Queen
Summit Daily
The view of the Gore Range mountains from Boulder Lake in the Eagles Nest Wilderness near Silverthorne.
Hugh Carey / |

A pair of Colorado congressional Democrats announced on Wednesday the introduction of a broad wilderness bill that would protect nearly 100,000 acres of public lands in Summit and Eagle counties.

The announcement came the day before the start of the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show in Denver, and the timing was no accident; the four-day industry expo moved to Denver from Salt Lake City last year in response to Utah lawmakers’ controversial efforts to shrink national monuments there.

Senator Michael Bennet and Representative Jared Polis, a candidate for governor who represents Summit County, said during a call with reporters that their bill aims to show the state’s commitment to protecting public lands at a time when the Republican-dominated federal government is moving in the opposite direction.

“I think it’s important for us to have bills like this so we can continue to drive the conversation here about the importance of pubic lands to the West,” Bennet told reporters. “And that’s a debate we will win, for the very reason that the outdoor show is coming to Colorado tomorrow — it was essentially pushed out of Utah by ideologues who do not support public lands in their state.”

The Continental Divide Recreation, Wilderness, and Camp Hale Legacy Act, which has won broad support from public officials across Summit and Eagle counties, would create three new wilderness areas in the Tenmile Range, Hoosier Ridge and Williams Fork Mountains totaling more than 21,000 acres.

“Summit County supports this effort to protect our public lands, for our citizens and for Colorado’s future success,” Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs said in a prepared statement. “Summit County receives millions of visitors every year, and our federally protected public lands, including designated Wilderness areas, contribute significantly to the local economy and quality of life for our visitors and citizens alike.”

The bill would also expand the existing Eagles Nest and Ptarmigan Peak Wilderness Areas, both in Summit, and Eagle’s Holy Cross wilderness, a total of 20,000 acres. Additionally, it creates more than 16,000 acres of recreation management areas that would protect mountain biking, hiking and hunting areas near Copper Mountain Resort.

The biggest addition to the bill, now eight years in the making, is the Camp Hale National Historic Landscape, a first-of-its-kind designation that would protect nearly 30,000 acres around the Eagle County home of the Army’s storied 10th Mountain Division, whose veterans went on to build the ski industry.

The bill, last introduced by Polis in a different form in 2015, has made scant progress in the past. Now, with the support of Bennet, Polis said he’s optimistic the bill can weather a hostile climate in Congress.

“The version we’re introducing today encompasses the vastest area of land to date, it’s bicameral and I’m confident that it’s a question of when it will become law rather than if,” said Polis, who is currently running for governor.

A long list of more than 130 organizations, governments and business in Summit and Eagle support the bill, but it’s unclear what reception it will get in the House of Representatives, where past versions have struggled to even get a committee hearing. This latest version will also be joining a long backlog of wilderness bills.

“A broad coalition supports this bill because we are closest to our lands in Eagle and Summit counties and we know this form of permanent protection will help create jobs and stability around the outdoor recreation economy on Western Colorado,” Polis said, asked about the bill’s feasibility.

Republicans have argued that shrinking protections on federal lands can open the door for extractive industries to create jobs and boost rural economies.

Polis and Bennet, however, argued that expanding protections on recreational lands was a vote of confidence for the outdoor recreation industry, which supports an estimated 7.5 million jobs nationwide.

The industry has pushed back strongly against efforts to shrink protected lands, which often serve as major recreation destinations. Outdoor Retailer pulled out of Salt Lake City, its home for 21 years, after Utah lawmakers pushed the Trump Administration to shrink national monuments there.

In December, the administration shrank Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by half, potentially opening those areas to mining and oil and gas extraction and prompting a flurry of legal challenges.

Unlike national monuments, which are designated by presidents, wilderness areas can’t be unmade by executive action.

Despite the apparent headwinds, Polis said he had high hopes for the bill, which will need to get a hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee before it can move forward.

“Wilderness is forever, and when we look back on this in 50 years or 100 years, it won’t matter so much whether it’s done in 2019 or 2021, but it will get done as long as we have dedicated public officials like Senator Bennet and so many others who are trying to get it across the finish line,” he said.

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