Soren Jespersen: Wild lands policy is good public policy

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As the snow recedes, many of us in Northwest Colorado follow the thaw into our surrounding public lands to enjoy those activities that we’ve forsaken for the long, cold months of winter. Whether you’re a hiker, biker, mountain climber, hunter, angler, or boater, the public lands and waterways in and surrounding Steamboat Springs provide an ideal location for our outdoor pursuit.

But these lands do more than simply provide recreation opportunities — these lands are also the source of our clean drinking water, the provider of and the filter for our air, and the home and habitat for the wildlife and plants that attract so many visitors to Northwest Colorado each year.

But these lands are under attack, as are many of our wildest places across the West. It appears to be open season on our open spaces by those in Washington, D.C. Earlier this year, radical anti-public-lands voices in Congress succeeded in sneaking into the Fiscal Year 2011 federal budget a rider that defunded Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s wild lands policy. The wild lands policy had restored the Bureau of Land Management’s ability to identify lands with wilderness characteristics and to protect them until Congress decided whether to release them or permanently protect them as wilderness.

The wild lands policy is good public policy. It allowed the BLM to fulfill its legal obligations and responsibilities by identifying wilderness characteristics and taking meaningful action to protect them, whether in land-use management plans or in evaluating damage from proposed drilling or other damaging activities. Wilderness is a valuable resource of our public lands, and protecting wilderness qualities is an important part of multiple use. This wild lands policy would have allowed the BLM to propose lands for protection and then, through a lengthy public input process, decide if and how it would manage those lands to protect their wilderness characteristics.

Despite an overwhelming number of Americans standing in support of safeguarding our valuable public lands, the anti-wilderness crowd pressured the Interior Department to back down from its commitments announced in the wild lands policy. Now, many of these lands are once again at risk. Once the wilderness character of an area is lost — through drilling, road-building or other degrading activities — it is very hard to restore. That is not good policy.

But that’s not all. In addition to the attempt to block the BLM from identifying unprotected areas that deserve protection, they’re also targeting existing protected lands. A bill (H.R. 1581) co-sponsored by our own U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton would remove protections from tens of millions of acres of BLM Wilderness Study Areas and Forest Service Roadless Areas across the nation. In Northwest Colorado, places such as Bull Canyon, Diamond Breaks and Cross Mountain would be open for oil and gas drilling or other high-impact activities jeopardizing the unique wild character of hundreds of thousands of acres of land surrounding Dinosaur National Monument and Browns Park.

BLM manages approximately 250 million acres in the United States, including 8.3 million acres in Colorado. More than 56 percent of the BLM-managed acreage in Colorado already has been turned over to the oil and gas industry, and a paltry 2.5 percent is protected as wilderness. It is time that balance be restored to our public lands. We can have our cake and eat it, too. Or, more appropriately, we can have our energy and wilderness too — it isn’t an either-or proposition. We must return to the wild lands policy. We need to fight back against this unprecedented attack on our open spaces and ask our elected leaders to stand up for these lands that mean so much to us.

Northwest Colorado is blessed with some of America’s most productive and outstanding public lands. These areas are our birthright and help define who we are as Westerners. As Wallace Stegner once wrote, wilderness is “the challenge against which our character as a people was formed.” Now our challenge is to defend it.

Soren Jespersen works as the Northwest Colorado Wildlands Coordinator for The Wilderness Society. His work focuses on public lands issues in Routt, Rio Blanco, and Moffat counties. He holds a Master’s Degree in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif. Soren is a Utah native and lives in Steamboat Springs.

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