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Conservation: not always about denying access

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There is a host of bills pending in Congress that together would lock up millions of acres of public lands in the name of conservation. Supporters of these bills argue that preventing mechanized use is the only way to ensure the land is kept unspoiled for future generations.

However well intentioned, these bills miss the important point that conservation is a paradox. The goal of conservation serves as a reason to keep lands open and accessible to all, as opposed to locking them up.

Instead of thinking of conservation as only protecting land, it should be thought of as preventing the loss of a resource.

Since the passage of the Multiple-Use and Sustained Yield Act of 1960 and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the federal government has mandates recreation be viewed as a resource. As a result, decisions that affect it must be factored into the National Environmental Policy Act’s decision-making process.

My hope is that environmentalists and those who use public lands for recreation will begin to view recreation in the same manner.

Since recreation is a resource, limiting access to millions of acres of public lands is a failure to conserve the resource of recreation. Denying access does not conserve the rights of millions of Americans to continue to visit public lands in diverse ways, such as on a bike, in a wheelchair, in a car or by off-highway vehicle.

Some Wilderness bills – such as America’s Red Rocks Wilderness Act – would not conserve our nation’s public lands. These bills would make those lands accessible only to those with the equipment, knowledge and prior experience necessary to enter the Wilderness – remember no cars, bikes, OHVs or any mechanized mode of transport allowed. The additional land put aside would be on top of the 110 million acres already part of the National Wilderness Preservation System.

This is not conservation to many users who donate their time to area conservation efforts.

However, there are well-crafted bills in Congress that balance the opposing sides of conservation. H.R. 1893 and its Senate companion, S. 841, would create a federally protected OHV area alongside new Wilderness – conserving both OHV access and the pristine nature of Colorado’s Hermosa Creek Watershed. Similarly, the Clear Creek National Recreation Area and Conservation Act, H.R. 1776, would re-open the Clear Creek Management Area to OHVs and simultaneously create the Joaquin Rocks Wilderness.

These bills have strong local support, and each has had favorable hearings in Congress.

As this Congress quickly burns through its remaining legislative days, my hope is that elected officials from each side of the aisle will come together and begin to view conservation for what it really is – protection of limited resources.

When this happens, bills that protect access and bills that create new Wilderness areas will be written in such a manner that they can pass both chambers of Congress and true conservation can occur. Then, and only then, would the National Wilderness Preservation System continue to grow – as it has in nearly every year since 1964 – while still conserving recreational opportunities for the millions of Americans that visit non-Wilderness areas.

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