A funny thing happened on the way to a small expansion of the nation's prized system of wilderness. In Colorado, the state's largest national forest wilderness proposal in nearly two decades is being ambushed by the U.S. military.
At stake is the gorgeous Red Table Mountain area in central Colorado between the valleys of the Roaring Fork River, home of Aspen, and the Eagle River, home of Vail. The bill has strong supporters: The Forest Service has studied Red Table and recommended it for wilderness, and the Colorado Division of Wildlife values the area for its lower elevation wildlife habitat. The landscape is also home to corridors that connect migrating wildlife populations.
Red Table covers 55,000 acres -- 86 square miles of uninterrupted wildlands. Unlike many of the more spectacular, high-elevation wildernesses nearby, Red Table consists of red-rock cliffs, glacial cirques, lakes and timbered land lying mostly below 11,000 feet. It is precisely the kind of land that conservationists fight hard to add to the Wilderness Preservation System, which was always intended to protect more than just rocks and ice. It was meant to include the best of the best of our public lands -- from peak to prairie, ocean to rivers, tundra to swampland, desert to mountaintops. Red Table's ecological and landscape diversity makes it one of the best of the best mid-elevation areas around.
The rub is that the U.S. Army uses Red Table for high-altitude helicopter training. That is not a problem for conservationists in the area, however, and they fully support the helicopter training. They have suggested adding statutory "grandfather" language to the legislation to allow the training to continue, not an unusual precedent for wilderness bills created by Congress. The Wilderness Act itself recognizes pre-existing aircraft and motorboat use. In addition, many of the nation's most celebrated wilderness areas have specifically grandfathered in aircraft and motorboat use where such use predated a wilderness designation. The famed Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho has more than 5,000 aircraft landings each year.
In this case, however, the military is telling Colorado's congressional delegation that federal regulations could prevent them from implementing such a grandfather clause. This is simply untrue. The military is obliged to obey the law like everyone else. Agency regulations -- even military regulations -- cannot thwart what Congress legislates, and Congress writes the laws for the National Wilderness Preservation System.
Yet the Army insists that if Congress grandfathers in its training at Red Table, it might then be forced to alter over-flights elsewhere. This is not a legitimate fear. Congress has the power to limit a grandfather clause to Red Table only. Wilderness supporters have suggested such language to our delegation to do just that, but for some reason military representatives refuse to talk to wilderness proponents.
All this fuss is needless, a simple grandfather clause gives the military 100 percent of what it needs and forever preserves Red Table as part of the wilderness system. But the military is behaving like a overgrown child in a temper tantrum, by refusing to negotiate at all.
We are told it would be a hassle for the Army to deal with Red Table while two wars are being fought. True, but a current Department of Defense website indicates that "more than 3 million employees" are on the job. Surely one of them has the time to draft a few simple sentences exempting Red Table from certain regulations if Congress so instructs. But no, the military insists, Red Table would better be called a "special management area" and excluded from the wilderness system.
The precedent here is alarming. If spurious arguments with no legal basis can derail 55,000 acres of Forest Service-recommended land from being added to the wilderness system, what area is next? Do we really want the military dictating how we use our public lands? In the past, wilderness champions such as Arizona Rep. Mo Udall, Ohio Rep. John Seiberling and California Rep. Phil Burton resisted "special management area" designations because of the slippery slope the term represented. They thought it made little sense to forego wilderness status and create a second-class area with lesser status.
Fortunately, citizens can help preserve Red Table Mountain. Hearings have not yet been held in Congress, and those interested in wilderness protection can learn more about the issue by contacting those members of Colorado's delegation who are on record as supporting the bill: Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet and Reps. Jared Polis and Diana DeGette, all Democrats. There's still time to do the right thing and preserve this magnificent area as wilderness for future generations.
Connie Harvey is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She has been a Pitkin County rancher since 1962, and writes a column every other week for the Aspen Daily News.