Long fight for wilderness finally succeeds

By Jason Kosena

ESTES PARK — Bipartisanship can be hard to come by.

Policy battles and political posturing often keep politicians from coming together to pass meaningful legislation. But it’s amazing how far politicos can go when they work together on the right issue.

Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, left, Sen. Mark Udall, Sen. Michael Bennet, former Sen. Wayne Allard, and Rep. Betsy Markey hold up a signed photo of Rocky Mountain National Park given to them by the Park Service in appreciation of their efforts to secure federal wilderness protection for the park. Markey and Bennet’s photos are smaller in size because they only came to Congress this year.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

On April 10, a bipartisan group of Colorado political leaders came to Estes Park, the doorway to Rocky Mountain National Park, to celebrate the new federal wilderness designation for thousands of acres of the park’s backcountry.

As a result of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama last month, nearly 250,000 acres of the park will be protected from development, logging and mineral extraction.

The act also designated 210,000 acres of federal land on the Uncompahgre Plateau in southwestern Colorado as a conservation area and established the South Park National Heritage Area at the headwaters of the South Platte River and the Sangre De Cristo National Heritage Area in the San Luis Valley.

“With a single stroke of his pen, President Obama completed the work of so many Coloradans and other Americans who have sought to set aside this wilderness at Rocky Mountain National Park for more than three decades,” Salazar said during the ceremony on the YMCA grounds in Estes Park.

Sen. Mark Udall and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar celebrate the unveiling of a sign declaring Rocky Mountain National Park a federal wilderness area.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

“He ensured our great-grandchildren and their great-grandchildren will visit a park that is like the park today — a vast and breathtaking landscape crafted by the forces of nature and undisturbed by the hand of humankind.”

The designation didn’t come easily, though.

The park’s wilderness designation was the result of a multiyear, bipartisan effort led by Colorado congressional offices, the National Park Service and conservation groups, and it marks the first expansion of wilderness lands in Colorado since 2002. It will include the famous 14,255-foot Longs Peak, the Mummy Range and 250,000 acres of the park.

A wilderness expansion in the park was first suggested by Republican President Richard Nixon in 1974, and members of Congress from Colorado from both sides of the aisle fought water companies, mining and logging interests and other politicians within the political establishment for decades in an effort to secure the additional protection for the state’s public lands.

In Congress, former Democrats Reps. David Skaggs and Mark Udall (now a senator), both of the 2nd Congressional District, are recent veterans of the fight. They were assisted in the Senate by former Sen. Wayne Allard, a Republican, and former Sen. Ken Salazar, a Democrat who was appointed secretary of the Interior by President Obama.

This year, the legislation was championed by freshman Reps. Betsy Markey, of the 4th Congressional District, and Jared Polis, of CD 2, and newly appointed Sen. Michael Bennet — all Democrats.

“I am delighted that we were able to preserve the wilderness aspects of this park for future generations,” Allard said during the ceremony.

“This has been a particular challenge,” Allard added. “This concept of a wilderness area in national parks started with President Nixon, and the delegations that worked on it from that time had to drop out provisions that addressed the wilderness aspects of Rocky Mountain National Park because they were so controversial. And if you think about this park, it’s the sixth busiest in the nation, and it’s very important that we protect it.”

Sen. Mark Udall whispers to colleague Michael Bennet as Rep. Betsy Markey enjoys the conviviality during the wilderness designation.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

The wilderness designation was a powerfully joyful moment for Udall, an enthusiastic outdoorsman with family connections to Rocky Mountain National Park spanning generations.

“I have had the great fortune to be here in every season, to climb Longs Peak and the great diamond in August,” said Udall, whose grandfather co-owned the famous Stanley Hotel in Estes Park generations ago.

“I have climbed on the Twin Alps on Monkey Ridge. I have been able to ski in the back country and walk along the Continental Divide with my family and look off both directions,” Udall continued. “This place has taught me more than I can truly express.”

The act will not stop all new development, however.

Under an agreement with a ditch company that allowed the designation to move forward, the federal government will pay 65 percent of the costs associated with the construction of a new 130-mile water delivery system from inside the park to cities and towns in the Arkansas River Valley, and some designated roadway also will be allowed.

Despite the concessions, Markey, who worked on the designation first as a staffer for Salazar and this year as a freshman congresswoman, said the challenge was to keep the focus on protecting the state’s cherished federal land.

“It really is an exciting day,” she said after the ceremony. “It took a lot of hard work by many dedicated people to make this happen. It’s just great to see it finally come about. Colorado is better off because of it.”