Senator Udall's office is currently seeking input on a proposal to expand designated Wilderness in Colorado by 235,000 acres. Federal lands designated as Wilderness are the most restricted, least available public lands in the country, as these areas are supposed to reflect the lands in an "untrammeled by man" way. Over 15 percent of the Colorado mountains are currently managed as Wilderness but account for less than 4 percent of visits to the region. Most people will never set foot in a federally designated Wilderness area, as there is no access for most users of public lands. Mechanized travel is strictly forbidden in designated Wilderness areas, and until recently motor vehicles could not be used for emergency response in Wilderness.
The closure of public lands to 96 percent of users has drastic economic impacts to communities, as most Colorado communities are heavily reliant on tourism revenues. A recent Utah State study found that counties with significant Wilderness designations average $1,446 less in per household income, $37,500 less in average payroll and generated $92,900 less in tax revenue than similarly located counties. The negative economic impacts of Wilderness restrictions caused the Utah Legislature to adopt a resolution requesting the federal government not to designate additional Wilderness due to the negative economic impacts. Wilderness limitations result in thousands of dollars in lost salary to families and tens of thousands in lost payroll and revenue for local communities to maintain roads and operate schools.
Wilderness impacts on forest health is even more critical to Colorado given the tourism contributions to the Colorado economy. Tourism relies on healthy and vibrant forests in Colorado, which do not result from prohibiting management and access. The Forest Service recently reported to Senator Udall that designated Wilderness directly contributed to the mountain pine beetle epidemic and limited the response of the Forest Service to this threat. The impact of the pine beetle threatens habitat for all species, which expands impacts to Colorado tourism as Colorado provides world-class hunting and fishing opportunities. There can be no argument that the pine beetle epidemic will directly impair the recreational experience of all public lands users and cause tourists to go to other states to experience healthy forests. Addressing the pine beetle impact must be a high priority in all management decisions. Wilderness expands management practices that resulted in possibly the single greatest threat to Colorado forest this generation will face.
The Wilderness boundaries in Udall's proposal directly undermines the years of public involvement and meetings that occurred in the development of the Colorado Roadless Rule. The Wilderness proposal nakedly asserts broad public support, but this outreach is almost non-existent compared to the true public input and extensive on the ground analysis that occurred with the Roadless Rule. Only a small fraction of the Wilderness proposal area was found even suitable for the lesser level of protection provided with a roadless designation.
The motor vehicle is an integral part of all portions of our life including recreation. Designating more lands where people will not have motor vehicle access will not alter this characteristic of our society. The Forest Service's Rural Development office recently found that a developed trail system open to all users was a significant economic contributor to small communities, and these trails should not be limited for any one user group. This position is supported by Colorado State Parks data that indicates users demands for a motor vehicle as part of their recreational experience has increased over 150 percent since 1990.
While there are forest uses that do not require a motor vehicle, research indicates the number of people pursuing these activities has significantly declined since the early 1990s. This decline has created a supply of these resources that already far exceeds public demand. The Fish and Wildlife Service found wildlife watching was a significant contributor to the Colorado economy. While wildlife watching could be non-motorized, the Fish and Wildlife Service found almost 75 percent of expenditures directly resulted from people purchasing trucks, campers, OHVs, boats and other transportation as part of this pursuit.
There is simply no need for more Wilderness; the risk to Colorado communities is simply too great.
Scott Jones writes on behalf of the Trails Perservation Alliance (www.coloradotpa.org) and The Colorado Off Highway Vehicle Coalition (www.cohvco.com).