SW Coloradans Lobby Tipton on Wilderness Bill

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More than 400 people showed up at a meeting in the tiny town of Ouray on September 30. Many wanted to persuade Republican Congressman Scott Tipton about proposed wilderness expansion. Tipton is deciding whether or not to carry a bill that would add more wilderness and other protections in the iconic mountains of Southwestern Colorado. Tipton has supported anti-wilderness bills in Congress this year, but appears to be open-minded about the measure. Reporter Elise Thatcher went to see the action on Friday night. Here’s a transcript of her story:

REPORTER ELISE THATCHER: Congressman Tipton joined other House Republicans this summer to stop the Obama Administration’s Wild Lands policy. That was successfu --and he’s currently co-sponsoring a bill that does away with wilderness study areas. So to convince him that this wilderness proposal is a good idea, many supporters pointed to its origins. Which is to say, it came out of lots and lots of meetings, with local landowners and other stakeholders. Ouray County Commissioner Lynn Padgett:

OURAY COUNTY COMMISSIONER LYNN PADGETT: We overall believe that this process is very important, it has brought together a lot of different groups, to negotiate a lot of different activities on the forest, and it has been a balance.

REPORTER: The bill feels like a mix-and-match approach that comes after lots of haggling. Called the San Juan Wilderness Act, it creates one new wilderness area and expands two existing ones. Then it makes a so-called special management area in a nearby stretch of the San Juan Mountains. And finally, it withdraws some mining leases west of Telluride. In all, it covers more than 60,000 thousand acres. And for most of that land, details have been hashed out to allow for things like snowmobiling along Lizard Head Pass, or heliskiing near Telluride. Such concessions have gotten a lot of buy-in. To make sure Congressman Tipton got the point, Ridgway resident Priscilla Peters read a list of small business owners who support the bill.

RIDGWAY RESIDENT PRISCILLA PETERS: In Ridgeway we have Rose Walsh Studio, Alternative Power Enterprises, Timber Creek, 520 Burgers…

REPORTER: Many of those businesses, along with local officials, want more wilderness because it’s considered good for tourism. That’s a key source of revenue in an area known for staggering mountain views and outdoor recreation. Opposition to the bill mostly centers around mining. Cortez resident and geology consultant Mike Thompson has clients with operations in San Juan County. He’s worried about the effect neighboring wilderness could have on those and other mining projects.

CORTEZ RESIDENT MIKE THOMPSON: There must be a buffer zone between those of us making a legitimate living, and land that is locked away forever. If anything, we should be talking about reversing or shrinking wilderness areas that already exist.

REPORTER: Still others felt left out of previous discussions about the bill. Dave Andrews came from the nearby mining town of Norwood.

NORWOOD RESIDENT DAVE ANDREWS: It’s so hard to stay up on these things that happen every day during the week, during the work week when we all work. And all of a sudden we look up and the decisions are made and we’re at the cusp of the decision.

REPORTER: In the Senate, the San Juan Wilderness Act is carried by Democrats Mark Udall and Michael Bennet. Previous Democratic Congressman John Salazar championed an almost identical version of the bill last year… but couldn’t get it passed. Tipton defeated Salazar in last year’s election and now must decide whether to take it on—or let it languish. After Friday’s meeting, Congressman Tipton said he noticed people seemed to agree on a lot of things in the wilderness proposal. But he wasn’t ready to make up his mind yet

CONGRESSMAN SCOTT TIPTON: That sounds to me like a lot of common ground, but apparently there’s some distrust that exists so let’s see if we can explore that, to be able to find what’s going to be able to work best.

REPORTER: Tipton said he plans to hold more meetings, hopefully before the end of the year, before deciding whether or not to take on the bill.

[Photo by Elise Thatcher: Republican Congressman Scott Tipton, center, listens as citizens testify.}