Wilderness Act celebrates 50 years | SkyHiNews.com

Wilderness Act celebrates 50 years

by Hank Shell
hshell@skyhidailynews.com

The Never Summer Wilderness adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park is one of six wilderness areas in Grand County.

Not every county has public space so pristine, with such an inviolably wild spirit, that the number of heartbeats in any one place is limited by the federal government.

It would seem, then, that Grand County is very lucky.

And with all or part of six of Colorado's 41 designated wilderness areas, Grand County has reason to celebrate this year.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964 and a milestone in the country's legacy of protecting and managing its wild areas.

“I just like to be out there in areas that are wild, where you can’t hear the mechanized vehicles, and it’s just a feeling of being out there and knowing that it’s not influenced by man and mechanized vehicles and those kinds of things,”
Bob Saint
Grand County Wilderness Group

It was Sept. 3, 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act of 1964, thus setting a new standard for the management and conservation of wild natural areas in the United States.

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Perhaps the most well known part of the act is its definition of wilderness, which is, "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

Grand County is home to parts of Rocky Mountain National Park, Byers Peak Wilderness, Sarvis Creak Wilderness, Indian Peaks Wilderness, Vasquez Peak Wilderness and Never Summer Wilderness.

Each of these areas is further defined as one that has been primarily affected by the forces of nature, which has opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined types of recreation, is at least five thousand acres and contains ecological, geological, educational, scenic or historical value.

It seems like a ubiquitous principle for conservation, but wilderness areas are managed uniquely, said Reid Armstrong, spokeswoman for the U. S. Forest Service's Sulphur Ranger District.

For example, "let nature take its course" is taken literally.

The Sulphur Ranger District manages four of Grand County's wilderness areas in Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests.

Though swathes of these forests are affected by the mountain pine beetle epidemic, the Forest Service isn't allowed to treat timber in affected wilderness areas, Armstrong said. Mountain biking, usually considered a stalwart activity of public lands, is also prohibited in wilderness areas.

Indian Peaks, designated as a wilderness area in 1978, has a "heartbeat limit" of 12, meaning each group can only have 12 heartbeats, whether human, canine or equine.

"We try to keep group sizes small so people really get the idea of wilderness," Armstrong said. "When you go out there you really can have that primitive experience."

It's this idea of solitude and primitiveness that has drawn people like Bob Saint to help maintain these areas.

"I just like to be out there in areas that are wild, where you can't hear the mechanized vehicles, and it's just a feeling of being out there and knowing that it's not influenced by man and mechanized vehicles and those kinds of things," said Saint, president of the Grand County Wilderness Group.

Saint's group, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, assists the Forest Service in maintaining trails in wilderness areas and educating the public about their importance.

"Having certain areas preserved is personally important me, so that I can enjoy, others can enjoy and generations to come can enjoy those areas," Saint said.

Designating areas a challenge

Because of the rigid idea of conservation that a wilderness designation carries, and because each one requires approval from Congress, it can be a challenge to attain a designation.

President Richard Nixon first proposed that Rocky Mountain National Park should become a designated wilderness area in 1974. But it wasn't until 2009 that Congress gave it the stamp of approval.

That's partly because people already felt it was adequately protected, and therefore less of a pressing issue, said Vaughn Baker, superintendent for the park.

"It sat for 35 years because other wilderness designations outside the National Park Service were more contentious, because you were affecting potential uses on public lands," Baker said.

These potential uses include things like timber harvesting and mountain biking, which many communities are hesitant to relinquish.

It's something that the Forest Service took into account when earmarking areas for wilderness designations, Armstrong said.

"The Forest Service is multi-use, and so were looking at all of these different uses, and then our management plan picks different areas and guides our management in those areas," Armstrong said.

Areas with limited recreation and infrastructure are more suitable for wilderness areas, partly because there's no obstruction of preexisting land use.

Rocky Mountain National Park was already being managed as a wilderness area long before its designation.

However, other issues arose during the designation process, Baker said. There were issues of water rights and access that had to be adjudicated before the designation could be approved.

But once the designation was approved, he said it gave the park an additional layer of legal protection.

"Most people saw it as a way to say, 'well it's being managed as wilderness,'" Baker said. "'That's how we want to see it managed in the future.'"

Hank Shell can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19610

List of 2014 Wilderness events

June 21 Wilderness Hike, 8:30 a.m. at Monarch Lake

July 31 Daisy Demolition Day, meet at 9 a.m. at Monarch Lake

August 24 Annual Picnic, 5:30 p.m. at Forest Service AA Barn

October 4 Colorado Wilderness Act of 1993 Celebration, 6:30 p.m. at Church of the Eternal Hills, Tabernash

For a full list of events, visit http://gcwg.org

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