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Protect our canyon country 

Blessed with rugged high peaks, alpine meadows, snowmelt-fed lakes and fields of wildflowers, Coloradans understand the value of nature and have taken measures to protect much of our unique mountain wilderness.

Yet the fight to preserve wilderness continues. While many areas in the high mountains have been protected, much of our lower elevation canyon country, areas that ironically are often closer to the cities where we live, remains open to development and exploitation.

We cannot be satisfied with only wilderness protection in our high mountains; we must continue our efforts to preserve parts of all of Colorado's varied ecosystems.

In 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act, setting aside hundreds of thousands of acres of unsettled and undeveloped land to ensure that at least some of the wildlands that made America great would exist for scientific, cultural and recreational purposes into the future.

The bill states that, to be considered for wilderness designation, an area must be at least 5,000 acres, have a "significantly unnoticeable" human presence, and contain "outstanding opportunities" for solitude and primitive recreation.

In Colorado, the original 1964 act designated four areas as wilderness, all rugged, relatively inaccessible high peak areas. Since then, nearly 2 million acres have been protected as wilderness. Almost all of these wilderness acres, however, came from National Forests high in the mountains.

Meanwhile, the lower, arid canyon country that makes up a significant portion of the state, controlled mainly by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), has been almost entirely ignored in our wilderness legislation.

The BLM in Colorado controls 8 million acres of land. These public lands offer habitat to species such as mountain lions and bighorn sheep that thrive in the warmer, lower elevations, as well as recreation opportunities unavailable in the high peaks. Since the 1976 legislation that put the BLM on equal footing with the Forest Service, the agency has concluded that 400,000 acres, or 5 percent of its land in Colorado, is fit to become wilderness.

Colorado environmental groups championing the Citizens Wilderness Proposal, however, believe that 1.3 million acres of BLM land in Colorado should become federally protected wilderness.

When so little of their land seems fit for wilderness designation, perhaps the BLM's definition of what should become wilderness is too narrow.

For the most part, they argue that the opportunity for solitude is not outstanding enough to allow it to be wilderness. With sparse vegetation in many of the canyons, one group of hikers can often see another group of hikers, who could be miles away. Such an argument, however, precludes land from becoming wilderness because of its natural characteristics.

Just because a desert has sparse vegetation does not mean that it is not worthy of preservation. The idea of federally protected wilderness may be a human construction, but it should at least include a variety of our native ecosystems.

Three areas near Cañon City, all easily accessible from Colorado Springs, have been mostly passed over by the BLM wilderness survey. The streams running through Beaver Creek and Grape Creek soften the landscape, creating gorgeous green canyons amidst the rugged rocky peaks.

In McIntyre Hills, with few developed trails, a hiker can experience almost untouched wilderness only miles away from the Royal Gorge. When hiking through these areas, one can experience the Front Range as it was before all the houses, shopping malls and movie theaters were constructed.

If these areas were to receive federal wilderness designation, it would ensure their survival into the future. As Denver and Colorado Springs continue to blend together, undeveloped areas in close proximity will become more and more valuable.

The BLM and the federal government need to take action to protect our only remaining pristine, low elevation, Front Range ecosystems.

The only way wilderness ever gets preserved is when there is a strong voice of public support. Our legislators cannot bring up wilderness bills in Congress if they do not believe that the public wants the bills passed.

Get out; see the beauty of these areas for yourself. After one visit to Beaver Creek, Grape Creek, or McIntyre Hills, you will surely be convinced of the necessity of protecting these pristine spots. Let your representatives know that these areas need protection.

Jonathan Langer is a student at Williams College studying Western Expansion, and is currently working in Colorado to protect its remaining wilderness from development. Colorado's members of Congress can be reached via www.house.gov/, and its two U.S. senators at www.senate.gov/.

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