Wilderness bill a top priority for Polis, Bennet heading into fall congressional session

Kevin Fixler

Coming out of U.S. Congress’s August recess, Rep. Jared Polis, who represents Colorado’s 2nd District, is closing in on plans to reintroduce a piece of wilderness preservation legislation straddling the White River National Forest that has far-reaching implications.

Now eight years in the making, the updated Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act would safeguard more than 92,000 acres of land stretching from Summit to Eagle counties as a follow-up on its predecessor that imagined similar designations for about 58,000 acres. The bill was last pitched in May 2015 and Polis believes its adoption is more critical than ever before.

“Congress hasn’t done any additional wilderness bills in several years and in fact, quite to the contrary, we’re fighting the threat of privatizing our public lands,” said Polis. “These are important tourist destinations, they’re important areas that local residents use for quality of life and recreation, and to preserve those … will really help ensure that our communities have those natural resources in perpetuity.”

If accepted, the law would add wilderness and/or recreation protections to a number of locations, among them the Williams Fork Mountains, Tenmile Range, Hoosier Ridge, Ute Pass and Porcupine Gulch. Areas in Eagle that would also receive the special-management classification include Spraddle Creek and Freeman Creek in the Eagles Nest Wilderness, as well as No Name joining the existing Holy Cross Wilderness Area.

Perhaps the biggest change to the forthcoming proposal is the addition of Camp Hale, the U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division’s former training grounds, for consideration as the country’s first-ever National Historic Landscape. The site between the city of Leadville and town of Red Cliff presently holds a National Registry of Historic Places listing, but the new label would provide for heightened preservation and restoration practices, prolong current recreational activities there including snowmobiling, and offer improved conservation and management direction to maintain its picturesque scenery.

Securing a couple key wildlife habitat areas is also a big part of the act. From several conversations with Colorado Parks and Wildlife following the last version of the bill, the territories for both Williams Fork, north of Silverthorne, and Porcupine Gulch, near Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels along Interstate 70, have both been amended slightly to better shield those conservation zones.

“The area going over the tunnel is the most important alpine wildlife corridor in the state, and one of the few places that wildlife can cross I-70 at that altitude,” Scott Miller of The Wilderness Society told county leadership this past spring. “So CPW and wildlife advocates are very anxious to protect that corridor.”

During a May presentation to the Summit Board of County Commissioners, Miller — whose land conservation nonprofit helped draft the latest edition of the bill — noted the Williams Fork area is the southeastern-most range of the greater sage-grouse. A redesigned boundary allows all parties, including CPW and the U.S. Forest Service, to continue managing the location for sustained recreational uses and wildlife conservation.

Aside from the bill’s set of enhancements based on a number of regional stakeholder suggestions, this time around the five-term congressman — and candidate for Colorado governor — has a new ally in the fight in fellow federal lawmaker Sen. Michael Bennet. The two Colorado Democrats intend to set forth companion legislation in their respective chambers to strengthen its chances of passage.

“You’ll see both members of Congress introduce pretty much identical bills so we have something that can move through Congress in tandem,” Noah Koerper, Bennet’s central mountain regional director, explained at the spring meeting. “We are really taking our time with it because I think that — especially in the current political environment — it remains incredibly important that this be not just us. It needs bipartisan support.”

The collaborative approach allowed Polis and company to focus on the adjustments to some of the area boundaries in the prior pitch, while Bennet’s team has concentrated its efforts on the inclusion of Camp Hale. That site alone adds roughly 25,000 more acres in protections to the previous bill.

Supporters of the proposed law submit its broad-based local consent as a central reason for why it should be approved. The list of endorsements spans more than 130 organizations and businesses, from Summit and Eagle county governments and the towns of Vail and Breckenridge to Vail Resorts, Xcel Energy and a number of wildlife and outdoor recreation groups.

At the moment no exact timeline for formal introduction is set, but the hope is to push the bill through the active 115th U.S. Congress. And it’s that level of regional backing that makes sponsors optimistic 2017 will finally be the year where the legislation gets passed.

“We will get it done,” said Polis. “It’s a matter of when, not if. We’ve got the support of the local community — the mayors, the commissioners, the business community — and really Summit and Eagle counties have worked closely with us to put together a proposal that not only preserves some of our wild outdoor areas along the Continental Divide, but helps ensure that the economic driver that these areas create can continue to be able to create jobs in Summit and Eagle counties.”

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