Maintaining access to public lands is of critical concern to Montrose County commissioners, who on Tuesday weighed in on proposed federal legislation specific to the 3rd Congressional District.

The Colorado Recreation Enhancement Conservation Act, or REC Act, is in draft-discussion phase. U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, unveiled the draft in July, under which about 70,000 acres of new wilderness would be designated, in various regions, and about 39,000 acres of current Wilderness Study Areas would be withdrawn.

Parts of it are similar to the proposed Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act, introduced by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse, both Colorado Democrats, but Tipton said his proposal focuses exclusively on the 3rd Congressional District.

The five components of the REC Act (see sidebar) would add wilderness-designated lands in the San Juan and Rio Grande National Forests; establish a formal boundary for Curecanti National Recreation Area; expand the Yucca House National Monument by nearly six times its current size and release Wilderness Study Areas deemed “unsuitable” for wilderness designations.

“It’s just to make sure we’ve got lands that are ripe for multiple use and being able to protect what we do all like, as well,” Tipton said Tuesday, after meeting with stakeholders in Ouray.

“It’s 3rd Congressional District-specific. We’re trying to reach out and hold these roundtables, just to be able to get feedback, see what’s appealing and what’s not appealing.”

Section 2 of the draft discussion, San Juan Mountains Recreation and Wilderness Act, is in some respects similar to the CORE Act’s San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act.

Both would protect about 60,000 acres of land in the San Juan mountains, including about 30,000 acres of new wilderness near Telluride, Norwood and Ridgway. Both propose that 6,590 acres or mineral estate (mineral resources) be withdrawn in Naturita Canyon.

The REC and CORE acts also both propose special management areas and formally establishing the boundary for Curecanti National Recreation Area.

The CORE Act, however, contains multiple provisions for areas beyond the 3rd Congressional District, overall pertaining to about 400,000 acres of public lands in the state, establishing new wilderness areas and “safeguarding existing outdoor recreation opportunities,” according to Bennet’s announcement earlier this year.

Montrose County Commissioner Sue Hansen attended Tipton’s Ouray roundtable, which she said was an important listening tour.

“We want to make sure people have access. People who have lived here a long time, they like to use the roads. We want to make sure they’re being heard on any kind of road closures,” Hansen said, adding that it’s not clear whether the draft proposal would pertain to road closures, so she was offering that concern as an example. Tipton, she said, was clear that public lands are for multiple uses.

“I think the main issue many of us have is that we want to make sure we can get into those areas if there needs to be fire mitigation,” Hansen said. “We just want to reiterate those are the things that are important to us.”

Access to U.S. Forest Service lands is a consistent concern he hears, Tipton said.

He said others at the meeting spoke to the importance of considering water health when looking at wilderness and public lands and that fire has significant effect on watersheds.

Not everyone has the matching visions for public lands: some interest groups want more lands designated as wilderness or more Wilderness Study Areas, while some local governments want lands withdrawn from such areas, Tipton said.

“We’ve had some that do not want to see Wilderness Study Areas eliminated. That has to be some of the conversation that takes place, because we have some that want the other side,” he said.

He said roundtable meetings are designed to help develop legislation that is reflective of the whole 3rd Congressional District.

“In many respects, I think I made some progress in being able to get some clarity of what people like and dislike,” Tipton said.

“We are just having these roundtables right now, going through the district. … The idea behind this is to try to get some clarity in these areas and make sure we have public lands for those that live or work here.”

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer.

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