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James Peak Wilderness and Protection Area

I wrote this story in late 2001 after one year of life in Boulder, Colorado. By the following summer, the James Peak bill had not yet passed the U.S. Senate. I rode in the proposed Wilderness, up the east side to the Continental Divide along the shoulder of James Peak. I had been told by Boulder cyclists who never rode there that the east side was too tough to ride. They were wrong.

Guys who lived in Nederland, closer to the land, showed me that it was an exciting, great ride, with awesome, inspiring views of magnificent mountains. When the bill passed, I still celebrated the protection of that landscape. But we cyclists lost the last singletrack ascent to the Continental Divide in the northern Front Range. The moral of the story: Don't accept the loss of that which you do not know. Check thoroughly before making compromises. --G.S.

Celebrating Conservation Diversity in 2001

It amazes and reassures me to see foxes scurrying across my backyard. I'm glad I have to protect my two old cats from them, because the presence of these predators in our urban setting says we have not completely screwed up our natural environment. Boulder, Colorado, is blessed to have a rich, large landscape of protected open space surrounding our city. Foxes, while more adaptable to humans than grizzly bears, are not pigeons. To survive, they need a significant resource of at least semi-natural land.

The prosperity of those urban foxes probably also relates to the nearby presence of national forests. The public lands behind the Flatirons are somewhat developed, with roads, old mines, livestock fences and other accoutrements of civilization. But they are not filled with houses and the structures of human commerce, Although that habitat would be better with fewer roads, wildlife has a fighting chance there.

Above our regular national forests in Boulder County is a designated Wilderness, Indian Peaks. In addition to serving as a protected playground for people, it also offers excellent habitat for the creatures that prosper in such high altitude places. Its preservation helps ensure that the waters below run clean.

In Colorado, we've protected a large percentage of these high country places as Wilderness. This is a credit to our society, a noble achievement. However, the Wilderness proponents are absolutely correct to complain that the National Wilderness Preservation System is too much "rock and ice." According to The Wilderness Society, the System represents only 157 of the 261 ecosystem types of the United States. Beyond that statistic, the science of conservation biology is teaching us that Wilderness is necessary but not sufficient for the long-term survival of wildlife. Wild places must be surrounded by buffers and connected to one another with corridors.

In recent years a group of people put a lot of effort into the preservation of another rocks-and-ice habitat above Boulder, the lands surrounding James Peak. While much of that landscape deserves Wilderness status, that effort came with a cost. The time and funds of conservation advocates are limited, and I hope we can focus on places and natural resources that matter to our most threatened wildlife species and populations (such as prairie dogs, in this locale).

Another cost was the potential alienation of a growing group of people who otherwise support the protection of lands. I'm a professional mountain bicycling advocate. I worked on the James Peak issue as an employee of the International Mountain Bicycling Association. IMBA supported about 85 percent of that Wilderness proposal, but came into conflict with Wilderness advocates over the remainder. My group wants ALL of that landscape to be protected from development. We also want a small fraction of the Front Range high country, near Rollins Pass, to remain accessible to bicycling, which is prohibited in Wilderness.

The solution was the James Peak Protection Area, a legislative proposal of the Grand County Commissioners that would allow bicycling and prohibit mining, road-building and new trails for the lands west of James Peak. The Protection Area could be better. IMBA advocates tighter rules that would have also prohibited structures and water projects. But it saddened me to see Wilderness proponents at first loudly decrying, and later only begrudgingly accepting the Protection Area concept.

Just as we need and prosper from diversity in our human culture, our public landscape can gain strength from diversification of the tools of land protection. We should recognize that there is already a substantial diversity, with several nearby examples. Foremost, there is Rocky Mountain National Park. Also on the list are the St. Vrain Wild and Scenic River, the Boulder City and County open spaces, Eldorado State Park, and a scattering of private properties that have conservation easements.

Those non-Wilderness, but nevertheless protected places serve as key elements of a splendid conservation system. Some of them are pristine and might qualify as Wilderness, but a variety of factors have dictated the use of other legal tools to protect those lands.

As the year 2001 comes to a close, we can celebrate the passage of the James Peak Wilderness and Protection Area bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. To some, the absence of Wilderness on the west side of this proposal was a bitter pill. Yes, some of that land that should be designated Wilderness rather than Protection Area. But let's focus on the success, the resolution of conflicting desires and ideas through a civil political process, which led to a broadening and diversification of land protections in our area. We should congratulate Representatives Mark Udall and Scott McInnis for working this out.

Let's also praise our local officials who this year added more open space lands to our non-federal conservation system. We have many blessings and we can celebrate diversity.