Conservationists Expand BLM Wilderness Proposal

by Mark Pearson, Wilderness Committee Chair

Colorado conservationists increased the Citizens BLM Wilderness Proposal by two areas, based on field studies and new data collected last fall. The new areas total 70,000 acres and include one of the most recognizable whitewater rafting segments in Colorado: the Dolores River past Snaggletooth Rapid. The other new area is the Roan Plateau, which rises dramatically above I-70 near Rifle. Neither area was under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management when the agency conducted its wilderness studies 20 years ago. In the intervening years, Congress has enacted laws transferring administration of these areas to the BLM.

The newly-proposed 31,648-acre Snaggletooth Wilderness encompasses 35 miles of the Dolores River from the Bradfield Bridge launch site downstream past Snaggletooth Rapid. The river corridor offers startling contrasts of a clear, mountain river flowing through stately groves of ancient ponderosa pines set below cliffs of brilliant red Wingate sandstone. The ponderosa forest, dense at the Bradfield Bridge boat launch on the wilderness area’s upper boundary, thins dramatically below the Dove Creek pump station boat launch and is replaced by overhanging clumps of box elder which offer refreshingly cool and secluded campsites for river runners.

The entire segment of the Dolores River flowing through the proposed wilderness was studied and recommended for designation under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in a study completed in 1976. The recommendation was forwarded to Congress but no congressional action was ever taken. A temporary mineral withdrawal associated with the Wild and Scenic study expired in 1981 leaving the river corridor susceptible to road construction, mining, and other activities incompatible with the river’s extraordinary scenic and recreational values.

The Snaggletooth unit was never inventoried for its wilderness potential by BLM because the Dolores River Canyon below Bradfield Bridge consisted of alternating, intermingled BLM and Forest Service jurisdiction up until 1983, when Congress passed a law to modify boundaries of the San Juan National Forest. The law transferred 22,717 acres of Forest Service lands below Bradfield Bridge to the BLM, and created a large, contiguous block of roadless lands managed by a single agency that now qualifies as wilderness.

The 38,941-acre Roan Plateau Wilderness proposal includes lands normally managed as Oil Shale Reserves by the U.S. Department of Energy. In 1997, Congress passed legislation that eliminated the reserves and transferred the lands to the BLM. Because this area also was not under BLM jurisdiction when the original wilderness studies were performed in the late 1970s, it too has never been reviewed for its wilderness potential.

The Roan Plateau offers one of Colorado’s most dramatic, and unique landscapes. Several large streams drain the Plateau’s top, and waterfalls at their lower ends have created isolated, and protected, upstream refuges for thriving populations of native Colorado River cutthroat trout. Rolling aspen stands and sagebrush meadows define the Plateau, with dense pockets of douglas fir along the streams. Shale badlands below the Plateau’s cliffs offer sanctuary for a variety of rare plants and plant communities.

The Sierra Club and other organizations are urging BLM to formally study both these areas with an eye to inventorying their wilderness qualities and proposing formal protections for them.

With the addition of these two areas, the Citizens Wilderness Proposal now stands at 50 areas totaling almost 1.4 million acres. In comparison, the BLM manages about 8.4 million acres of arid canyons, mesas, and plateaus in western Colorado. The BLM proposes wilderness protection for less than 400,000 acres.