Is More Wilderness the Answer?

by Molly Pitts, HFHC Rocky Mountains Director

As a Colorado resident, I truly enjoy a wide variety of activities on all types of lands including secluded, designated wilderness areas. As a forester, I am deeply concerned with the idea of designating more land as wilderness under the guise of “protecting” or “conserving” it. Take for instance the proposed Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act (CORE Act). This bill combines four previously introduced bills: the Continental Divide Recreation, Wilderness and Camp Hale Legacy Act; the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act; the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act; and the Curecanti National Recreation Area Boundary Establishment Act. Together, this combined bill would create 73,000 acres of new wilderness areas and 80,000 acres of new recreation and conservation management areas.

In theory the CORE Act sounds like a great idea for our public lands here in Colorado, but the proverbial devil is in the details. Having a formal education as a forester and living in a state that has experienced significant mortality from mountain pine beetle and spruce beetle, I am very concerned with reducing our options to care for our forests through land designations. For instance, while the San Juan Wilderness Act portion only includes about 20 acres of suited timber lands (as categorized in the San Juan National Forest Plan), the Continental Divide Act bill includes over 7,000 acres of suited timber lands that are outside roadless and slopes less than 40% (as categorized in the White River National Forest Plan). While not all of those acres are being put into wilderness additions, the rest are being put into either “recreation management areas” or “national historic landscape.” Not only do both of these designations come with strings that make management of any sort more difficult and burdensome, but it undermines the overall efforts to increase the pace and scale of forest treatments.

As we prepare for a changing climate and the fact that more of our population is living in the wildland urban interface (WUI), it is extremely important that we maintain as much flexibility as possible to allow forest management options that will actually protect and conserve our public lands. This includes protecting our watersheds and areas not within WUI, such as our reservoirs and power infrastructure that are critical to our daily lives. Since 2002, over 2.8 million acres have burned in Colorado, many at high-intensity. These fires have threatened communities, burned homes, devastated habitat, and caused long-term flooding and erosion problems for watersheds throughout the state. Without major increases in strategic forest management treatments, this trend is likely to continue.

There are some special places within our state that should be protected and we are never going to be successful in managing every acre or preventing every large wildfire. Land designations, such as the CORE Act, only act to place obstacles in the path of moving to reduce hazardous conditions around communities and forest resources, reducing continued risk of insect infestations, and truly protecting the public lands that we all enjoy.

Is More Wilderness the Answer?