Article by: Samantha Lofman (SLVEC Intern)
Date: August, 9th, 2023
Photo: Patrick Myers
SLVEC sees a legislative opportunity to designate an additional 110,000 acres of Wilderness within the lower reaches of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, as well as the Great Sand Dunes National Park (GSDNP) and Preserve and the Baca National Wildlife Refuge.
Within the Rio Grande National Forest there lies a half-mile wide ribbon of land located just south of the existing designated Wilderness. This stretch, spanning over 60 miles from Poncha Pass to GSDNP, covers approximately 50,000 acres of forest land. The forest expanse was excluded from the 1992 Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Act because of unsettled mining claims, but it has been “recommended for wilderness” in the forest’s recent management plan. The Forest Service is no longer encumbered by the mining claims and now has an opportunity to move forward with designated wilderness. Legislation could also add other public lands that are “recommended for wilderness,” including approximately 50,000 acres within the Great Sand Dunes National Park, a 12,500 acre area within the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, and a portion of Mt. Blanca.
These three wilderness recommendations have already been authorized in the management plans of the respective agencies, going back a few decades. If all these areas are connected together and designated as wilderness, the lands will be managed as whole wild places in perpetuity.
“There is a saying that ‘nature bats last.’ When an area is designated wilderness, then humans take a back seat to nature, and humans are not the dominant force on the landscape.” (Andrea Compton, new Superintendent, Great Sand Dunes NP).
By obtaining wilderness status, we safeguard the continuity of the vital species that call this area home, like elk, pronghorn, deer, coyote, birds, fish, amphibians, and the rare Slender Spider Flower, ensuring that their habitats remain unified and pristine. The prohibition of motorized vehicles within wilderness areas further prevents habitat fragmentation and the disturbance of wildlife. This is critical: the more integrity and connectivity we can have on the landscape, the better off other animals and future generations are going to be in terms of adaptation. Wilderness designation will provide unencumbered habitat for the land’s abundant wildlife and better ensure a cohesive ecosystem.
Wilderness designation will be the culminating step in a long history of efforts to protect this land. The area was once part of a private ranch called the Baca Ranch, which was originally a Spanish land grant. Congress passed The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act in 2000, creating a public lands complex from the old ranch boundaries. Almost 50 square miles were converted into public lands, managed by three different land management agencies: the Baca mountain tract went to the Forest Service, the Great Sand Dunes expansion from a National Monument went to the National Park Service, and the valley floor containing water rights and streams went to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
The effort to pass the 2000 legislation was motivated through a bi-partisan effort to redirect attempts by corporate raiders to sell and transport water out of the basin, as they planned to use the water rights from the former Baca Ranch as their main water source for trans-basin diversion. The mineral rights to the land had been severed earlier, when it was still in private hands, with the rights to the subsurface going to a Canadian mining developer. These severed mineral rights continue to be a source of contention. The National Park Service is working through the Land and Water Conservation fund and there may be an opportunity in the future to purchase these mineral rights and retire them, under the lands that were once known as the former “Baca Ranch.” This mineral rights purchase could bring to an end the vulnerability of “mineral/oil and gas” split estate development pressure.
Photos from the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (Patrick Myers), the Rio Grande National Forest (Alex Berger), and the Baca National Wildlife Refuge (WaterWatchAlliance.us)
Throughout the 2000s, SLVEC pushed for parts of these lands to become recommended wilderness. The agencies also saw the relevance and importance of wilderness – in the creation of their own management plans, each of these agencies recommended thousands of acres for wilderness designation.
The wilderness recommendations in the management plans already provide some level of protection for this land. Andrea Compton, the Superintendent of GSDNP, explains that the recommended wilderness area is “managed to ‘do no harm’ to the natural state that the land is in, that would otherwise prevent it from becoming Wilderness.” The land is kept in its pristine state, protected from any disturbances which could harm its wilderness qualities. This is all done with the hope that one day, the land can receive the official designation.
Official legislation will tie together the separate recommendations from the National Park Service, US Fish & Wildlife, and the Forest Service to create a unified Wilderness Area which will be protected in perpetuity. The management plans currently treat the land as wilderness, but these plans last only 20 years before being subject to change. Leadership changes, plans are re-written, and there is no guarantee that these areas currently managed as wilderness will be protected as such in the future. Legislation would codify the protection of the region, ensuring its preservation for generations to come.
To get legislation passed, the Ecosystem Council is starting locally, calling on Saguache county commissioners Liza Marron, Tom McCracken and Lynne Thompson to support the effort for Wilderness Designation. The Wilderness Designation will eventually need to be established by Congress, but Representative Bobert and Senators Bennett and Hickenlooper need to see local support before they will push for legislation. Once a bill is introduced, it will be up to Congress to officially designate this area as wilderness. It will also need to be signed into law by the President.