House approves legislation to protect over 660,000 acres of Colo. wilderness

Largest Colorado wilderness protection package in 40 years

The Crestone Eagle • March, 2020

The U.S. House of Representatives has approved legislation to permanently protect nearly 1.4 million acres of wilderness in Colorado, California and Washington.

The legislation—introduced by U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO)—is the largest wilderness-protection package the House has approved in more than a decade. It would permanently protect more than 660,000 acres of wilderness in DeGette’s home state of Colorado, 630,700 acres in California and 131,700 acres in Washington. The bill also adds nearly 1,000 miles of river to the National Wild and Scenic River Systems.

“We have been working on this legislation for more than 20 years,” DeGette said. “The areas that will be protected under this bill are some of the most beautiful and pristine landscapes that our country has to offer. And by officially designating them as wilderness, as this bill does, we will finally be providing them the permanent protection they deserve.”

The legislation, approved by a vote of 231-183, will provide the nearly 1.4 million acres of wilderness included in the bill with the highest level of permanent land protection available, ensuring they remain untouched and available for future generations to enjoy.

By designating the areas as wilderness, they become permanently protected from the threat of any future logging, mining, drilling, road building or any other type of development on that land. Instead, the untouched wilderness areas are preserved for the public’s benefit and enjoyment—whether it be for hiking, horseback riding, rafting, kayaking, hunting, fishing, camping or some other popular form of outdoor recreation.

Studies have shown that preserving wilderness lands for the public to use often provides a direct economic boost to the nearby economies.

According to the Colorado Office of Economic Development, Colorado’s outdoor recreation industry generates $28 billion in consumer spending every year in the state and supports more than 229,000 jobs. Nationally, the industry is responsible for generating $887 billion in consumer spending each year.

Specifically, the legislation—known as the Protecting America’s Wilderness Act—would protect 660,000 acres in 36 areas across Colorado. Unlike many of the high-elevation wilderness landscapes that have the focus of previous land-protection bills, DeGette’s legislation seeks to protect more of Colorado’s mid-elevation ecosystems that serve as critical habitats for a variety of plants and wildlife, and are often used by Coloradans for a wide-range of outdoor recreation activities. While more than two-thirds of the areas to be protected in Colorado are already being treated as wilderness areas, by officially designating them as such, DeGette’s bill will provide them the permanent protection they deserve.  The legislation will protect 36 unique areas across the state, including the Handies Peak, Dolores River Canyon and Little Bookcliffs.

DeGette introduced the now-approved legislation (H.R. 2546) in May 2019. At that time, the bill was known as the Colorado Wilderness Act, and it sought to protect more than 600,000 acres of wilderness in 32 areas across Colorado.

After being approved by the House Natural Resources Committee in November, DeGette agreed to amend her solely-Colorado-focused legislation to incorporate five other land-protection bills that were being sought by members from California and Washington. She also renamed it, from the Colorado Wilderness Act to the Protecting America’s Wilderness Act, to reflect the broader reach of the amended bill.

Prior to its final approval on the House floor, DeGette offered—and the House approved—an amendment to add four more areas in Colorado to her bill. The additional areas were Colorado’s Diamond Breaks, Papoose Canyon, North Ponderosa Gorge and South Ponderosa Gorge—bringing the total number of areas to be protected in Colorado to 36 and the total number of acres in her state to 660,000.

DeGette’s decades-long effort to protect Colorado’s wilderness started shortly after she was first elected to Congress. In 1998, DeGette was approached by a group of concerned citizens who had been working for years to identify untouched areas throughout the state that could qualify for a wilderness designation. DeGette has been working hand-in-hand with the group ever since they first met—as well as with countless other residents and community leaders from across the state—to craft the legislation that the House approved today.

While DeGette has introduced various versions of the Colorado Wilderness Act in every Congress since 1999, this is the first time it has been voted on by the full House. Now that it’s been approved, it will soon head to the Senate where DeGette is already working closely with lawmakers there in an effort to make sure it’s included in any land-protection package the chamber may consider this year.