For many, a trip into designated wilderness is a chance to leave behind the noise, busyness and trappings of our mechanized world behind as they stroll up an inviting footpath. Soon, it is the soundtrack of nature that embraces the visitor in an increasingly rare experience - the quiet of the natural world. On a Colorado wilderness trail, one is likely to encounter a young family, perhaps with a toddler in a backpack; an angler dropping a dry fly on a likely looking pool; a group of friends who meet each fall to test their hunting skills; a birder focusing in on a species to add to his or her life list; or a lone archer quietly awaiting her chance to stock her freezer for another winter.
Wilderness is a supremely democratic (small "d") form of land protection. Only with Congressional approval and a presidential signature can new wilderness areas be created. Congress deliberately reserved to itself the right to designate new wilderness because such significant decisions must made under the glaring lights of our highest elected offices. Local congressional delegations are traditionally given great deference whether to designate an area and where to place the boundaries.
Sen. Mark Udall's current proposal to designate more than 200,000 acres of backcountry lands in the Central Rockies as wilderness fits in with the spirit of the Wilderness Act. It is built on the work of local residents who believe in protecting the environmental values that make this area such a beautiful place and popular destination. Three county governments, hundreds of businesses and thousands of residents living in the affected area have publicly endorsed the Udall proposal or an earlier version of it. And the senator is now seeking additional public input before crafting legislation to add to the legacy of conservation that is so much a part of Colorado's culture.
Congress had a much broader vision than simply recreation when it enacted The Wilderness Act, expressly providing that "wilderness areas shall be devoted to the public purposes of recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historical use." In fact, Congress specifically stated that wilderness is one of the multiple uses intended on public lands. Specifically, the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act says: "The establishment and maintenance of areas of wilderness are consistent with the purposes and provisions of this Act."
Wisely, the Wilderness Act makes provisions for rescues. Land managers routinely use helicopters, snowmobiles or other motorized vehicles in wilderness emergency rescue situations. I know firsthand; as a member of Mountain Rescue, I've landed in a helicopter in designated wilderness to evacuate injured climbers.
And, to the question of whether wilderness somehow impeded access that could have otherwise halted the bark beetle epidemic so apparent all around us, the U.S. Forest Service Bark Beetle Incident Commander said (in a separate context), "all the access in the world would not have stemmed this epidemic."
Three different surveys conducted in the last five years consistently show that most Coloradoans favor strong protection of public lands. Research firm Talmey-Drake found in 2007 that 70 percent of West Slope residents favor designating more wilderness on lands near them. A 2010 survey by RBI Strategies found that nearly 70 percent of people living the 2nd Congressional District, which includes Eagle and Summit counties, favor designating more lands in Colorado as wilderness. And, Colorado College's 2011 State of the Rockies report finds that nearly eight in 10 Colorado voters view having a strong economy and protecting land and water as compatible.
These instincts are confirmed by multiple studies of wilderness' economic effects published in peer-reviewed journals. Research nearly unanimously shows that wilderness counties have much more robust economies than non-wilderness counties across the west. Eagle, Summit and Pitkin counties bear witness, each containing marquee wilderness areas and robust local economies. (For a six page annotated bibliography, see http://bit.ly/I4D3Q5)
By protecting our backcountry, we ensure our Western heritage, the wild landscapes that so define who we are as Coloradans, is maintained for us and our great grandchildren. What could be more important?
Sloan Shoemaker is executive director of the Wilderness Workshop, a Carbondale-based nonprofit that works to protect Colorado's backcountry.