Thank you so much, Mr. Chairman, for having this hearing today. I have been waiting 11 years to have this hearing so I really appreciate it.
As you said, I have introduced my newest version of the Colorado Wilderness Act, a version that I have introduced at each Congress for the last decade. This bill was put together by a coalition of Colorado citizens who are committed as I am, as all of us our, to protecting the few remaining wild places in our state. I do not need to tell you that Coloradans from Carbondale to Colorado Springs, from Denver to Durango, live in our state because of the very special outdoor heritage we have and because of the outdoors.
The bill before us today, the Colorado Wilderness Act of 2009, protects some of the most cherished areas in our state. Many of the lands in my bill are lower-lying canyon areas, foothills and lower elevation terrain. I sent a book to each one of your offices that was written about my bill—do you have a copy of it?—Colorado Canyon Country, that talks about the very special areas that we have, the canyon areas, and how important it is that we protect those areas.
This type of landscape is not well represented among our current wilderness areas because almost all of the existing wilderness in Colorado is above 9,000 feet in elevation. Part of the reason we don’t have lower-lying canyon areas in our wilderness inventory now is because the original wilderness act that Congress passed directed the Forest Service and the National Park Service but not the BLM to study lands under their control for potential wilderness designation. Congress remedied this in 1976 in the Federal Land Policy Management Act. The BLM then undertook a process of inventorying land in Colorado and elsewhere to determine their suitability for wilderness.
In 1991, the BLM presented its final list of wilderness study areas. These areas from 1991, almost 20 years ago, continue to be managed to preserve their natural condition and wilderness character. About three quarters of the land in the bill we are talking about today consist of BLM-managed wilderness study areas.
In the early 1990s, after the WSAs were designated, a group of dedicated citizens took it upon themselves to review the areas that the BLM had recommended and to suggest additional areas that might have outstanding wilderness characteristics. These thorough citizen inventories were conducted by volunteers who spent countless hours on the ground, mapping and looking at areas that merited wilderness designation.
In 1994, those citizens published their first proposal for Colorado wilderness on BLM lands. For the next decade, they continued to review and inventory wilderness quality areas. They held public meetings across western Colorado seeking input on the proposal. As a result of those efforts, a revised citizens’ proposal was published in 2001 and another revision took place in 2007. This bill has stemmed directly from those citizen efforts.
Over the last decade, the bill has evolved in significant ways. I expect, Mr. Chairman, that it will continue to evolve through this hearing and the legislative process. The full citizens’ wilderness proposal is 62 areas comprising 1.6 million acres. While I support the vision of that original citizens’ proposal, I have scaled back my bill over time to focus on those areas that are most deserving of protection and have the fewest potential conflicts. I have done this in consultation with local citizens, other members of Congress and local elected officials.
I have also made significant changes, Mr. Chairman, to the legislative language over time. For example, I removed the federal reserve water right that was in earlier versions of the bill, and I made specific boundary adjustments as a result of direct local input. The current bill that I introduced late last year contains 34 areas consisting of roughly 850,000 acres. It would leave unaffected over 90% of BLM-managed lands, which would remain open to oil and gas drilling, mining, off-road vehicle use and other development.
Since I introduced the first version of this bill in 1999, I have consulted with interested groups, local leaders and other members of the congressional delegation to focus on select areas. I have personally traveled the state, visiting 14 of the areas by foot, horse and boat. On those trips, I was joined by landowners, ranchers, business leaders, elected officials and many others. I have also held a number of public meetings and discussions on the proposal, soliciting feedback from all interested parties. Last year, before I reintroduced my bill, I released a discussion draft of this revised proposal, and accepted public comments from citizens and elected leaders all over the state. As a result of the feedback from this process, I am actually personally sorry to say I made the tough decision to remove the Roan Plateau from the final bill. While the Roan Plateau is a remarkable area that deserves to be protected, it is entangled in litigation over energy development, and the ongoing settlement discussion should be given a chance to succeed before Congress intervenes.
My proposal has received significant local support over the last decade. It has been endorsed by 350 businesses and organizations from across the state. Fourteen Colorado counties and municipalities had expressed their support for wilderness, and just last summer over 14,000 Colorado residents signed cards in support of the wilderness areas proposed in our bill.
I am going to leave it to the witnesses, Mr. Chairman, to talk about the many benefits for Colorado that wilderness has, but as you said, increased pressures on the public lands from population growth, mining, natural gas drilling and diverse forms of recreation have made it even more important to preserve our few remaining wild places. I think that it is not contradictory to both preserve wilderness and also encourage oil and gas drilling and other types of public land use.
For all of these reasons, over 70% of Coloradans supported additional wilderness designation in a 2007 statewide poll including majorities in all parts of the state and from both political parties. In that same poll, over 90% of Coloradans agreed that wilderness was important for the tourism it supports, and 71% agreed that wilderness-quality lands should not be sacrificed for energy development. Seventy-three percent of the people who live on the western slope of Colorado, where most of these lands occur, support more BLM wilderness.
This bill, Mr. Chairman, has seen a decade of work from me and my staff and from the many citizens statewide who have been involved. The proposed areas have been reviewed and inventoried by the BLM, the Forest Service and local citizens for even longer. But Mr. Chairman, I recognize, and I think Mr. Salazar recognizes, too, that today’s hearing is not the end of the process. I look forward to continuing to work with local residents and leaders and all of the members of the congressional delegation going forward to continue to refine this proposal. I welcome the feedback and input of today’s session.
Our public lands are valued for many reasons—for motorized recreation and resource extraction, to their ability to provide solitude and unblemished landscapes, but I strongly believe, Mr. Chairman, that we must conserve a small portion of those very most special public lands for future generations. Thank you.
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