Environmentalists seize moment for wilderness

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

A small group of Colorado environmentalists — including mountaineer Aron Ralston, who became famous in 2003 for freeing himself by using a dull pocketknife to sever his arm after it became trapped under a fallen boulder during a backcountry hike — called for more protection of Colorado land during an event in Denver Tuesday morning.

Environment Colorado advocate and staffer Matt Garrington, left, hands nearly 14,000 signed comment cards to Zane Kessler, a representative of Bennet’s office.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Led by Environment Colorado, the environmentalists asked representatives of Sen. Michael Bennet’s office to push for federal wilderness designation for parts of the San Juan Mountains, the White River National Forest region and Browns Canyon.

During the event at REI in downtown, the group turned over nearly 14,000 signed comment cards from Colorado residents who would like those parcels to receive wilderness designation. In total, the proposals would protect more than 1.8 million acres of wild lands.

“Spending time in Colorado’s wild lands inspires my life,” Ralston said to a group of about 20 people. “We need our leaders to protect the hidden gems of the White River region and other lands throughout the state.”

Ralston, a former mechanical engineer turned outdoor enthusiast, was living in Aspen at the time of his accident. Venturing alone into the canyon lands near Moab, Utah, after not informing anyone of his whereabouts, Ralston became trapped when an 800-pound boulder pinned his right arm against a rock wall.

Ralston spent six days in the desert before choosing to break both the bones in his arm before amputating his forearm above his wrist with a pocketknife he carried with him. Ralston’s ordeal made national news and led to his best-selling book, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” and to his career as a motivational speaker.

“The courage to think boldly is what got me free. The courage to persevere in the face of adversity is what saved me,” Ralston said. “With our public lands today, we have to have the courage to think boldly and face adversity. Only then will we be able to free Colorado’s landscapes
from certain fate and save them.”

Members of the group said the makeup of today’s United States Congress gives them hope that their pleas will be heard.

“We need to think big and be big when it comes to new wilderness protections,” said Suzanne Jones, regional director of The Wilderness Society for the central Rockies.

Mountaineer Aron Ralston talks about the importance of wilderness protection in Colorado during an Environment Colorado press event on Tuesday. Ralston became famous after amputating his right arm after becoming trapped in the canyon lands near Moab, Utah, in 2003.

“This is the most conservation-minded Congress we’ve had in decades,” Jones continued. “Our senators and representatives should join together and make new wilderness protection a priority for the sake of our state and future generations.”

Matt Garrington, an advocate with Environment Colorado, said the group’s hope is that all three parcels of Colorado land being considered for the designation will be included in one
congressional bill. Traditionally, wilderness areas have been established through a piecemeal approach, with each area designated under a separate bill.

“While health care and energy are making the front page, there’s a growing grassroots movement to support new wilderness protection in Colorado,” Garrington said. “Coloradans want to see our public lands stay the way they are, and new wilderness protection is the best way to protect our land, water and wildlife.”

In 1964, the United States became the first country in the world to designate and protect 9 million acres of wilderness areas through law. Today, the Wilderness Act protects more than 100 million acres of land nationwide.

Jason@coloradostatesman.com