Roan Plateau a "little Yosemite" |

Roan Plateau a "little Yosemite"

PARACHUTE – It was all in a day’s work for Congresswoman Diana DeGette on Tuesday, though she wasn’t in either of her offices in Washington D.C. or Denver, and she wasn’t debating on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Instead, the congresswoman from Colorado’s 1st District, wearing a pair of broken-in cowboy boots, a straw hat and astride a trail horse, was following Kay Hopkins, outdoor recreation planner for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, up an old cattle road on the East Fork of Parachute Creek.

About 15 community and environmental leaders, government officials, DeGette staff members, and members of the press joined DeGette on horseback and foot to take a first-hand look at one of the drainages DeGette is proposing to protect under a comprehensive, state-wide wilderness bill.

“This is like Colorado’s little Yosemite,” said Eric Finstick, BLM wilderness coordinator from Lakewood, as he looked around the canyon. Giant yellow canyon walls jutted up around the group on two sides, as green box elders and grasses crowded in around the narrow trail.

The group stopped after about an hour to water the horses and view a spectacular, 200-foot waterfall spilling into the canyon from the plateau above.

DeGette has been working on a wilderness bill for the past six years that would protect 59 wilderness areas within Colorado. One of the 59, the 40,000-acre Roan Plateau proposed wilderness area, would protect four scenic drainages.

But DeGette doesn’t plan on her bill passing through the House and Senate anytime soon.

“With Republican leadership, my wilderness bill isn’t going to get called up in this Congress,” she said. “That gives me time to continue to work on it.”

Part of that work means physically going out to visit wilderness areas with community leaders and land managers -exactly what she was doing Tuesday.

“What concerns most people in Rifle,” said Rifle Mayor Keith Lambert, “is that the traditional, historic use of the land continues. People want to know hunting is still going to be allowed.”

DeGette confirmed hunting will still be allowed if the drainages receive wilderness protection, though access to the canyons by motorized vehicles would be barred.

Keith Goddard, a longtime outfitter in the Rifle area, was quick to say he favors protecting the area. He is on the wilderness study group for the Roan Plateau, and said the drainages should remain primitive and undisturbed.

“There will still be plenty of ways for a motorized vehicle to get up on the plateau for hunting and the like,” he said.

“But what this designation will do is keep vehicles from using `cherry stems,'” he said, referring to dead-end roads typically created to access now-abandoned gas pads, for example.

“Vehicles tearing around create a big impact on wildlife and to hunting in these drainages where they don’t belong. There’s no place that a hunter can’t pack out and access an existing road that will still allow motorized traffic,” Goddard said. “That’s the experience of hunting.”

DeGette told the group that a lot the work she’s doing on her wilderness bill is educating the public about what a wilderness designation does and doesn’t mean. She said existing roads can still be used for horses and non-motorized traffic, and existing oil and gas leases will still be grandfathered into the bill.

“We’re educating people about the importance of protecting the wilderness we have,” she said. “Colorado has changed in the four generations my family has been here. People are moving in, and now is when we need to study and set aside these areas for pristine and wild protection.”

Jamie Connell, field manager for the BLM’s Glenwood Springs office, was also along on the tour. She said the BLM isn’t taking a position on DeGette’s bill. But BLM officials are interested in what DeGette is proposing, and are working with the congresswoman’s office.

“Currently, we’re writing a holistic master plan for the entire Roan Plateau, which encompasses a total of about 100,000 acres,” Connell said. “We’re planning to have a draft of that plan ready by September. Much of our wilderness inventory runs parallel to what Diana is proposing to be protected.”

Contact Carrie Click: 970/945-8515 ext. 518

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