City backs wilderness plan | SteamboatToday.com

City backs wilderness plan

Avi Salzman

— The Steamboat Springs City Council voted unanimously to support a grass-roots campaign to designate 1.6 million acres in Colorado as wilderness last week.

None of the new acreage proposed is in Routt County, but more than 300,000 acres is being proposed for Moffat County.

The city joined a growing group of local businesses, community groups and residents who have gotten behind the proposal, which would cut off about 16 percent of Colorado’s 8.4 million acres of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management to motorized and mechanical uses as well as new drilling leases. It would also limit the use of 300,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land.

The legislation to ratify the plan has already been proposed by Diane DeGette (D- Colorado), but the environmentalist groups involved have a slightly different plan and will work with DeGette to try to get her to modify her proposal. DeGette’s previous proposal from 1999 died in committee.

Designating wilderness in some areas of Northwest Colorado has been a challenge for local environmentalists in the past. Previous legislation attempted on the federal level was criticized for not directly addressing local concerns. Understanding that some people feel that decisions have been made in the past without local input and that the will of the people always helps influence politicians a coalition of environmental groups is now hoping to better inform people about its goals.

“People in the Northwest are really nervous when it comes to wilderness and rightly so,” said Cindy Harding, the media relations director for the Colorado Wilderness Network.

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Harding said that although there is a lot of land in Colorado designated as wilderness, much of it is above timberline and not enough protects land adjacent to streams and other low-lying parcels.

Jennifer Seidenberg, who is a local organizer for the network and has been working for the past few months in Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties, said there are many misconceptions people have about wilderness designations.

Wilderness areas are restricted to motorized and mechanical uses and to new drilling, but the areas can be used for practices like cattle grazing if they have been used for those things in the past, she said. They can also be drilled on if the leases are already in place.

Seidenberg said she will be working with local residents and community groups over the next few months to try to gather enough support to show politicians like Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colorado) and DeGette that they have consulted residents and have their blessing. How they will demonstrate that support is still an unknown, she said.

Moffat County Commissioner T. Wright Dickinson said that too many federal decisions about land in Moffat County have been made without the consent or even the input of local residents.

He said that the residents of his county are keen to what wilderness designation will do to the public land they use for work and play and, according to local surveys, a majority of them don’t like it.

“People earn their livelihood on this land every day of the week, and use it for recreation on the weekend,” he said.

Dickinson said the county relies on energy providers, including gas and oil companies, for 56 percent of its school districts’ budget.

Dickinson said the county has undertaken a land use plan that will be presented to the public next month by the county’s land use board and will help guide the county’s position on wilderness designations.