The Gazette: Rep. Diana DeGette striving to protect more than 600,000 acres in Colorado
The game we see in Washington is not usually the game being played. And there’s no bigger football than conservation right now.
There’s gamesmanship, brinksmanship and partisanship, and then there’s the test of time and commitment.
Register U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette of Denver in the latter category.
The latest version of her Colorado Wilderness Act has some life, after passing out of a House committee last month, but it’s still eclipsed by an election year shaping up to be vicious and an impeachment that’s sucking the hot air out of D.C.
Skopos Labs, the research and data crunchers, give the bill just a 3% chance of becoming law.
Her wilderness campaign would designate 606,826 acres at 32 locations, collectively an area more than twice the size of Rocky Mountain National Park. People would be free to use it, if they can get there. You won’t find oil wells, roads, cabins, motorized vehicles, mountain bikes or any civilization at all in a designated federal wilderness. It’s to remain as God made it.
The highlights of DeGette’s wish list: Grand Hogback in a mineral-rich region in Garfield, Pitkin and Rio Blanco counties; the wild horse range of the Little Book Cliffs; the desert canyons carved by the Dolores River; the lazy and secluded Grape Creek that flows into the Wet Mountain Valley; as well as the Arkansas River that thunders through Brown’s Canyon.
The media and the public haven’t given the congresswoman the notice she deserves on this one. We’ve been too distracted by greener new deals.
Right now, however, Washington has a withering federal budget for natural resources and headline-grabbing proposals to protect or declassify huge swaths of the West.
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner and Democratic counterpart Michael Bennet are working to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which pours millions into public lands from oil and gas fees charged for offshore drillers.
U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse of Boulder continues to carve out a place for himself in Washington. He’s padding out his resume this year with his proposal to plant a wilderness flag on 400,000 acres under the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act.
In July, Republican Rep. Scott Tipton began drafting his own public lands bill, the Colorado Recreation, Enhancement and Conservation Act. His bill would designate 70,000 acres of new wilderness and release about 39,000 acres from wilderness study projects in his 3rd Congressional District in western and southern Colorado.
I have questioned the wisdom of politicians seeking to add more inventory to an overburdened federal system. Trees die and forests burn because of the underfunding already.
DeGette’s bill promises the largest Colorado set-aside for wilderness in 25 years, but it’s already in the Bureau of Land Management’s inventory, for the most part.
“It’s low-lying canyon country, almost all of it is BLM land, and the BLM land is way underrepresented in our wilderness inventory, because when the Wilderness Act was written in the 1960s, it included only Forest Service land,” DeGette explained. “BLM was added in the 1980s.”
The congresswoman from Denver has had her heart and her head in the woods and the canyons for two decades now.
It was 1999, early in her congressional career, when she introduced her first version of what local activists had been working on for a while, the Citizens Wilderness Plan.
Last month, she had to navigate the legislation around military helicopters, ultimately dropping out an area near Deep Creek north of Dotsero to appease state and federal military folks.
Though Deep Creek has been a federally designated Wild and Scenic River since 1995, the area also is used by the Guard’s High-Altitude Aviation Training Site near Gypsum.
“I don’t think that’s consistent with wilderness,” the congresswoman said of the whirlybirds.
Deep Creek was drained out of the proposal.
“This is critical training that saves lives,” she said.
DeGette is a member of the House Natural Resources Committee. She said this year that finally getting the bill passed was her top priority.
As the congresswoman sees it, wild places like these get caught on the Colorado crush of population growth and our economic dependence on outdoor tourism.
“We need to protect the wild places that we have, because our economy and our future depend on it,” she told me in a Thursday night phone call.
The odd twist of Washington fate is that she need not worry about the vengeful Sharpie of Donald Trump.
Wilderness designations are bestowed by an act of Congress, with the president only in an advisory role. Republicans, however, still control half of Congress.
DeGette is no ally to a president who demands fealty.
Over the Thanksgiving break, she planned to read transcripts of the rest of testimony presented to the House Intelligence Committee the past two weeks, as well as the rules of impeachment, besides sharing glad tidings with her family.
“All the witnesses have said basically the same thing,” she told me, slowing down to choose her words. “The actions of the U.S. government, as they relate to Ukraine, the aid, the White House meeting, were dependent on Ukraine helping Donald Trump with his domestic issues.”