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Additional Wilderness legislation discussions are underway for the Sangre de Cristos

By Christine Canaly, Director

The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC) has been working with the Saguache County Commissioners’ office to support endorsement for the reintroduction and expansion of a Sangre de Cristo/Great Sand Dunes/Baca Refuge/Mount Blanca, Wilderness Bill.  We are also communicating closely with Senators Bennet and Hickenlooper’s offices. 

We believe the County Commissioners have the regional influence to launch the potential expansion for additional Wilderness within the lower reaches of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, including recommended Wilderness within the Great Sand Dunes National Park, the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, and a portion of Mount Blanca. Senator Cory Gardner did introduce a Sangre Wilderness bill in 2020, with Congressman Tipton’s support, that focused primarily on a portion of the Sangres, from Poncha Pass, to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. 

SLVEC is supporting the Forest Service's Management Plan wilderness recommendation for the Sangre de Cristo acreage, but also advocating for wilderness to be included that is currently being recommended within the Great Sand Dunes National Park Management Plan and the SLV Wildlife Refuge Complex Management Plan.

This proposed legislation would designate an additional total of approx. 110,000 acres of Wilderness, adjacent to the existing Sangre de Cristo Wilderness area. Designation would combine the contiguous areas that have already been recommended and managed as wilderness in the Management Plans of the three respective agencies mentioned above. Please see map.

Beginning in 2015, the Rio Grande National Forest was the first Forest in Region (2) to revise their twenty-year Management Plan using the 2012 Planning Rule. The Chapter 70 process (evaluating lands with wilderness characteristics) was completed and the Management Plan, along with the Record of Decision, was approved in 2020. The Rio Grande Management Plan contains approximately 47,000 acres of recommended wilderness, contiguous to the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Act lands designated in 1992. This expanse was excluded from the 1992 Act because of unsettled mining claims, but the mineral rights have since been acquired and there is now an opportunity to move forward with designated wilderness. The Saguache County Commissioners have already supported this additional wilderness recommendation, along with hundreds of personal letters from predominantly local citizens who would like to see the entire Sangre de Cristo range protected.  

Approximately 50,000 acres are recommended for wilderness within the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Management Plan, along with approximately 13,000 acres in the Baca National Wildlife Refuge Management Plan. These areas are contiguous with the Forest Service Sangre wilderness recommendations. SLVEC strongly urges that these additional acreages within National Park and Wildlife Refuge be included within a Sangre de Cristo/Great Sand Dunes/Baca Refuge/Mt. Blanca Wilderness bill.

Mineral Rights

SLVEC is aware that the mineral rights beneath the land acquired by the federal government through the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act of 2000 are still under private ownership. SLVEC does not consider that concern to be an impedance to wilderness designation. There are portions within Rocky Mountain National Park that are designated Wilderness without the mineral rights. 

SLVEC continues to work with multiple agencies regarding mineral acquisition of federal properties (former Baca Ranch) within the area, using financial resources like the Land and Water Conservation fund to finally resolve this split estate issue. Previous efforts by Senator Udall and Bennett’s offices to bring key stakeholders together for the purpose of mineral acquisition showed promise and there was considerable interest displayed by the private mineral rights holder. It can be reasonably argued that once these lands are designated, it will bring needed leverage and provide incentive for the private mineral owner to come back to the table.  

Blanca Peak, as part of the Sangre de Cristo recommended Wilderness, includes two prominent Colorado fourteeners: 14,345‐foot Blanca Peak and its neighboring 14,037‐foot Little Bear Peak. The proposed addition abuts the existing wilderness which is comprised of Lily Lake and the Huerfano River headwaters on the adjacent San Isabel National Forest.

Blanca Peak is revered by many indigenous cultures in the Southwest. The Navajo, Ute, and Jicarilla Apache consider Blanca Peak sacred, and it is also important within the cultural landscape of the Upper Rio Grande Pueblos. The tribes have a strong interest in maintaining the area’s pristine nature. SLVEC has visited the Navajo Preservation Office in Window Rock, AZ and they have supported our wilderness recommendation to the Forest Service. The Navajo Nation has also proposed designation as a Traditional Cultural Property. (Rio Grande NF tribal assessment, 2015)

Blanca Peak also enhances the ecological effectiveness of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness by expanding the size of the protected area. Specifically, it connects to the Huerfano River headwaters and Lily Lake on Blanca Peak’s northern slope, creating overarching protection for the entirety of the Blanca Peak massif when considered in conjunction with the conserved lands on the adjacent private Trinchera Ranch to the south.  SLVEC will continue to advocate for this process moving forward, from compilation to final stages.

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