Spanish Peaks Tops Congressional Agenda

by Mark Pearson, Wilderness Committee Chair

Legislation to finally protect the Spanish Peaks as wilderness tops the agendas of several Colorado legislators. "The Spanish Peaks Wilderness Area will be a big priority in the upcoming year," said 3rd District Congressman Scott McInnis (R-CO) in late December. Staff of Senator Wayne Allard (R-CO) have indicated his interest in moving forward similar legislation in the Senate. A bill to designate 18,000 acres surrounding the Spanish Peaks as wilderness passed the House of Representatives last August, but stalled in the Senate. With the swearing in of a new Congress in January, legislators must begin anew and reintroduce bills into both the House and Senate.

The Spanish Peaks tower above the prairie near La Veta and Trinidad in southern Colorado. Last year, Rep. McInnis was joined by now-retired Rep. David Skaggs (D-CO) in sponsoring legislation to designate Spanish Peaks as a wilderness area. Senator Allard expressed interest in sponsoring a Senate companion bill once lingering concerns about a four-wheel-drive road and potential for coal-bed methane gas extraction were satisfied.

In November, Allard sponsored a town meeting in Walsenburg to hear citizen comment and concerns about wilderness. An overwhelming majority of the hundred local citizens attending the meeting supported prompt action on wilderness designation.

Huerfano County Commissioners raised concerns related to a now-closed, and extremely rocky, four-wheel-drive route that once went as far as abandoned Bulls Eye Mine. The road has been closed by the Forest Service to prevent further erosion and resource damage. Whether it should also be incorporated within the wilderness boundary is the remaining question.

The County Commissioners also expressed concern that wilderness not preclude potential exploration for methane gas associated with the area’s deep coal beds. Some exploration and development has occurred on private ranchlands north of the Spanish Peaks, and several geologists postulate the gas beds might encroach on the northernmost flanks of East Spanish Peak. The national forest lands in this area are not open to gas leasing, so some might consider the issue a moot point. To soothe the commissioners’ fears, Congress may slightly adjust the wilderness boundary by a few hundred acres to leave open the remote possibility of future methane gas exploration.

The 1993 Colorado Wilderness Act created the Spanish Peaks Planning Area and directed the U.S. Forest Service to evaluate the cost and likelihood for acquisition of approximately 825 acres of private land in seven parcels. These private parcels created concern that Spanish Peaks could not be successfully administered as wilderness if designated as such because private land owners might propose development activities on their private land that conflicted with goals of wilderness management.

The Forest Service study was completed and distributed in 1995. Congress further directed that Spanish Peaks receive protection for an interim three-year period. This interim protection period expired in August, 1996.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service has acquired two key interior parcels comprising 250 acres. A non-profit land conservation organization, The Wilderness Land Trust, has recently purchased the last significant inholding within the proposed wilderness, a 55-acre block of patented mining claims along South Trujillo Creek. The two largest remaining parcels (200 acres and 207 acres) are situated on the area’s boundary and are readily excluded from the proposed wilderness. Another 80-acre parcel has been offered to the Forest Service as part of a pending land exchange. An additional 30-acre parcel of patented mining claims has been excluded from the proposed boundary by "cherrystemming" afour-wheel drive road to it.

The Spanish Peaks are a National Natural Landmark in recognition of their unique pattern of volcanic dikes that radiate outward from the peaks like the spokes of a wheel. East and West Spanish Peaks constitute the easternmost peaks of the Rocky Mountains. These attributes create unique conditions for endemic plant communities. Lofty 13,626-foot West Spanish Peak creates a prominent landmark visible across the high plains for many miles.

What You Can Do:

Write Senators Allard and Campbell, and encourage them to introduce the Spanish Peaks Wilderness Bill. Also, write and thank Rep. McInnis for his leadership on this issue.

Senator Wayne Allard and Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510

Rep. Scott McInnis
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515