Senate Moves Bi-Partisan Package of Public Lands Legislation


Many Americans have grown frustrated with Congressional gridlock and inaction in both the House and the Senate. Political posturing and the lack of bipartisan collaboration have left many of us wondering if they will ever get anything done. Today, in a refreshing move, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee has taken steps to change our hearts and minds by passing several bills in a bi-partisan package that will benefit rural economies and promote conservation on our public lands.

The National Wildlife Federation has actively advocating for many of these bills but I want to highlight two that really make a difference for hunters, anglers, and other recreation interests that value the vitality our public lands.

Colorado’s San Juan Mountains

Senator Mark Udall’s San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act (S. 341) has been thoughtfully developed over several years from the ground up with broad-based support from businesses, sportsmen, local governments, and other grassroots interests that want to see access and hunting and fishing opportunities prioritized in the management of our wild landscapes. The bill would expand the Lizard Head and Mount Sneffels wilderness areas and designate 21,620 acres as the Sheep Mountain Special Management Area, where current recreational uses would continue so that existing access, motorized or otherwise, will not be hindered.

Encompassing 61,000 acres of the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, Senator Udall’s legislation has been hailed by hunters and anglers in particular as it would protect important watersheds and pristine fish and wildlife habitat that support some of the state’s largest and healthiest populations of trout and big game.

San Juan Mountains - Steven Bratman
San Juan Mountains – Steven Bratman
Senator Udall announced the committee’s action in a statement to Coloradans. “Today’s vote in favor of the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act is a victory for local residents, businesses and leaders who have told me for years that Colorado’s scenic mountains and open spaces support homegrown jobs and our thriving outdoor recreation economy” Udall said. “I plan to keep fighting for the people of San Miguel, Ouray and San Juan counties, but I am glad the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee endorsed this grassroots bill.”

Senator Michael Bennet, also from Colorado, is an original co-sponsor of the bill and has worked tirelessly with Senator Udall to advance this legislation. As someone who spends a lot of time hunting and fishing in the San Juans with my family, I commend both senators for standing up to preserve our Western heritage for future generations and an important, sustainable cornerstone of our economy. Hunting, angling and other wildlife-related activities generate nearly $3 billion annually statewide. The benefits for the economy, wildlife and lifestyle that will result from safeguarding this area are important to NWF and our 20,000 members in Colorado.

New Mexico’s Valles Caldera

The Valles Caldera National Preserve Management Act (S. 285) was also passed out of committee today. Under the leadership of New Mexico Senators, Tom Udall , the sponsor, and Martin Heinrich, the original co-sponsor this bill has garnered overwhelming support from sportsmen, recreation interests, small businesses, and local communities.

Valles Caldera is a remarkable geological feature in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico. After a cataclysmic eruption 1.2 million years ago, the 12-mile wide caldera was formed when the volcanic crater collapsed. High altitude grassland valleys, river- carved canyons, lush forests and woodlands, and towering domes accent the isolated features of this unique mountain landscape and provide high quality habitat for a wide variety of wildlife and fisheries.

New Mexico's Valles Caldera - Jacopo Werther
New Mexico’s Valles Caldera – Jacopo Werther
The Valles Caldera National Preserve occupies a 140 square-mile portion of the caldera once known and operated as the historic Baca Ranch. The legislation that secured this 89,000-acre ranch prompted one of the most unique experiments in federal lands management history and sought to develop a self-sustaining model that generated its own operational funding. While conceived and guided by good intentions, this experiment generated frustration and animosity amongst sportsmen and failed to provide equitable access and opportunity to the general public by establishing a pay to play structure that only the wealthy could afford.  S. 285 will bring the balance and financial order needed to give this story a happy ending.

The diverse geographic features of the caldera not only provide hunters and anglers a coveted experience in a wild place, they draw visitors in to explore waterfalls, red rock valleys, and support scientific research and education programs. That’s why the Valles Caldera National Preserve Management Act is so important. It will ensure, without question, that this exceptional landscape will remain accessible for all existing uses including ranching, hunting, fishing, camping, recreation and guided by science based adaptive management to promote responsible stewardship so that future generations will have the same opportunities to enjoy it as it is.

I am proud to stand with hunters and anglers in New Mexico and around the country in applauding Senators Udall and Heinrich for moving away from an elitist model favoring the wealthy few who could pay for the privilege of experiencing this special place and building towards a bright future that will provide economic certainty for Valles Caldera National Preserve while promoting public access and opportunity for everyone.

After all, public lands belong in public hands.

So today was a good day in Washington, D.C. Our senators on Capitol Hill serving on the Energy and Natural Resources committee stepped up and did the right thing for the right reasons. Let’s hope the rest of our country’s elected officials can remember what it’s like to work together again and build on this bi-partisan momentum by passing the legislation Americans have been asking for. Let’s put a strong package of public lands bills on President Obama’s desk and encourage the ink in his pen to flow freely as he signs them into law.