Wilderness Network accuses lobbyists of ignoring public

Environmental group claims public was not informed of meetings to discuss state's designated wilderness areas

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A Colorado environmental group is making some heated accusations, charging that a group of Colorado lobbyists has violated the public's right to have its opinion heard.

The Colorado Wilderness Network, a group of more than 280 local government, business, recreation, religious and conservation organizations, has claimed that Colorado Counties Inc. (CCI), a lobbying group made up of county commissioners, has intentionally ignored public input regarding areas that could possibly be designated as wilderness.

The Wilderness Network has recommended 294,000 acres of land in Moffat County for possible wilderness designation.

According to the Colorado Wilderness Network, if designated wilderness, those areas would still be open to uses such as hunting, backpacking, trail running, horse packing, rock climbing, fly-fishing, rafting and kayaking. But, wilderness is closed to motorized and mechanized vehicles, including off-road vehicles and mountain bikes. Grazing is allowed in designated wilderness, with grazing continuing in the 'same manner and degree' as it did prior to designation. New developments and uses are not considered a 'grandfathered' use, but current developments can be maintained by whatever methods were in use prior to designation, including with the use of mechanized equipment and motorized vehicles. New gas leases would not be allowed once an area is designated either as wilderness.

On Wednesday, the Colorado Wilderness Network released a report that they say documents the county-by-county inconsistencies with the CCI process, which include a lack of public input and the exclusion of applicable wildlands from the CCI's wilderness proposal.

"We have had widespread support throughout the state to advance with our proposal," said Jennifer Seidenberg, Wilderness Network representative for Steamboat Springs. "Especially in Northwest Colorado, we have had support to move forward with the process; however, Moffat County, which is one of the most outdoor-minded counties in the state, has not reached a finalized decision on this issue.

"It is important that the county commissioners and representatives from Moffat County give their assessments of this issue, because if it is just allowed to die, a lot of land that we can protect for the future may not be there to protect."

The Wilderness Network's goal is to take public land that is currently owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and designate it as wilderness areas. The land would not be purchased by the Network, instead it would labeled wilderness, which would disallow the use of mechanized vehicles, such as ATVs, bicycles and automobiles.

The land would remain open for the public to use for camping, hunting, fishing and horseback riding, and farmers would also still be able to use the land for ranching purposes. A congressional act is needed to designate the area as wilderness.

"This plan isn't going to take any land away from people who already have it," Seidenberg said. "All it is going to do is keep the land that is here now, so that it will be in the same condition 100 years from now. We are not looking to take anyone's land, we are just trying to preserve it for generations to come."

To qualify as a wilderness area, lands must be 5,000 acres of land in its original condition, which may also contain ecological, geological or other features of scientific, educational, scenic or historical value. To date, more than 100 individual acts have been passed, designating more than 600 wilderness areas, which are managed by four, different Federal agencies the BLM, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service and the National Park Service.

"Most of the lands that this group is talking about you would need a billy goat to get to," CCI Executive Director Larry Kallenberger said. "These, for the most part are not National Forest lands, and the BLM has been working closely to determine how much land could be designated as wilderness. They have done studies that have recommended a much smaller amount of acreage than the Wilderness Network has.

"We are blessed with more public land than any of the other lower-48 states," he said. "What we need is to have a wise, multiple use of these public lands."

As of 1999, approximately 104 million acres had been designated as wilderness in all but six states, which is slightly less than 3 percent of the land in the lower 48 states.

"The problem with this Wilderness Network is that they are playing the game of asking for everything, and continuing to raise the bar that way," Moffat County Commissioner T. Wright Dickinson said. "Personally, I think that is the wrong approach, because it adds concern to a lot of people that there will never be enough land for the Wilderness Society. I think that people are going to be concerned that they are going to keep asking for more and more land to designate as wilderness, and I've told them that it makes it difficult to support them when they keep asking for more."

According to Dickinson, the Colorado Wilderness Network is nothing more than a reinvention of the Colorado Environmental Coalition (CEC), which has taken on a new name.

"If you look at it, the Wilderness Network is nothing more than a new moniker for the CEC," he said. "The same players are still involved, and they have really just added some organizational positions. We have taken airplane rides over Moffat County to do a land study, but their group continues to ask for more designation than is reasonable, and I believe that is the wrong approach. This makes it extremely difficult to look at their proposals in an objective way."

Wright also said that in Moffat County, which relies heavily on natural resource production to stimulate growth, a proposal such as this would only hurt the local economy.

"In Moffat County, 56 percent of the school district's budget comes from energy-related industries," he said. "If you look at the potential that we have here, this program doesn't come down to protecting the environment, but rather, working to stop exploration, in particular oil and gas."

The County Commissioners are working on a Land Use Proposal, which does not address the designation of wilderness. That portion is being deliberated separately. The final Land Use proposal should be completed by mid-October.

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