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Public Statements

Reintroduction of Rocky Mountain National Park Wilderness Act

Location: Washington, DC



* Mr. UDALL of Colorado. Mr. Speaker, today I am again introducing a bill to designate as wilderness most of the lands within the Rocky Mountain National Park, in Colorado.

* This legislation will provide important protection and maagement direction for some truly remarkable country, adding well over 200,000 acres in the park to the National Wilderness Preservation System. The bill is essentially identical to one previously introduced by my predecessor, Representative David Skaggs, and one I introduced in the 107th and 108th Congresses. Those bills in turn were based on similar measures earlier proposed, including some by former Senator Bill Armstrong and others.

* Over a number of years my predecessor and I have worked with the National Park Service and others to refine the boundaries of the areas proposed for wilderness designation and consulted closely with many interested parties in Colorado, including local officials and both the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and the St. Vrain & Left Hand Ditch Water Conservancy District. These consultations provided the basis for many of the provisions of the bill I am introducing today, particularly regarding the status of existing water facilities.

* Since I introduced the bill in the 108th Congress, the communities which surround this park have been considering this wilderness proposal.

* The Town of Grand Lake, located west of the park, held a public meeting this month to gauge public opinion. Most of those speaking expressed support for the wilderness designation. Immediately following this public testimony, the Grand Lake Town Council voted unanimously to support wilderness designation, something that they have communicated to me and the other members of Colorado's Congressional delegation in a letter dated June 29, 2005.

* This week the Town of Estes Park, located east of the Park, held a similar town meeting to gauge public support for the proposal. Again, the community members who spoke at this hearing strongly supported wilderness protection for the Park. My understanding is that because of that public support the Estes Park Town Council also expressed general support and has directed their staff to prepare a resolution of support for the wilderness proposal as reflected in the bill I am introducing today.

* The only differences between this bill and previous versions are that the new bill has a different map reference and does not include an exact acreage number.

* Omission of an acreage number reflects the fact that in their letter of support the Grand Lake Town Council requested that the wilderness boundary be adjusted to facilitate work to remove some materials in order to reduce and manage forest fire risks and to accommodate some other concerns. My intention is to work with the Council, the National Park Service, and other interested parties in order to develop a response to those requests--an outcome that likely would require a change in the exact acreage figure.

* Less important than the exact acreage is the fact that the new wilderness will cover some 94 percent of the park, including Longs Peaks and other major mountains along the Great Continental Divide, glacial cirques and snow fields, broad expanses of alpine tundra and wet meadows, old-growth forests, and hundreds of lakes and streams, all untrammeled by human structures or passage. Indeed, examples of all the natural ecosystems that make up the splendor of Rocky Mountain National Park are included in the wilderness that would be designated by this bill.

* The features of these lands and waters that make Rocky Mountain National Park a true gem in our national parks system also make it an outstanding wilderness candidate.

* The wilderness boundaries will assure continued access for use of existing roadways, buildings and developed areas, privately owned land, and areas where additional facilities and roadwork will improve park management and visitor services. In addition, specific provisions are included to assure that there will be no adverse effects on continued use of existing water facilities.

* This bill is based on National Park Service recommendations, prepared more than 25 years ago and presented to Congress by President Richard Nixon. It seems to me that, in that time, there has been sufficient study, consideration, and refinement of those recommendations so that Congress can proceed with this legislation. I believe that this bill constitutes a fair and complete proposal, sufficiently providing for the legitimate needs of the public at large and all interested groups, and deserves to be enacted.

* It took more than a decade before the Colorado delegation and the Congress were finally able, in 1993, to pass a statewide national forest wilderness bill. Since then, action has been completed on bills designating wilderness in the Spanish Peaks area of the San Isabel National Forest as well as in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, the Gunnison Gorge, the Black Ridge portion of the Colorado Canyons National Conservation Area, and the James Peak area of the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forests.

* We now need to continue making progress regarding wilderness designations for deserving lands, including other public lands in our state that are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. And the time is ripe for finally resolving the status of the lands within Rocky Mountain National Park that are dealt with in the bill I am introducing today.

* All Coloradans know that the question of possible impacts on water rights can be a primary point of contention in Congressional debates over designating wilderness areas. So, it's very important to understand that the question of water rights for Rocky Mountain National Park wilderness is entirely different from many considered before, and is far simpler.

* To begin with, it has long been recognized under the laws of the United States and Colorado, including a decision of the Colorado Supreme Court, that Rocky Mountain National Park already has extensive federal reserved water rights arising from the creation of the national park itself.

* This is not, so far as I have been able to find out, a controversial decision, because there is a widespread consensus that there should be no new water projects developed within Rocky Mountain National Park. And, since the park sits astride the continental divide, there's no higher land around from which streams flow into the park, so there is no possibility of any upstream diversions. And it's important to emphasize that in any event water rights associated with wilderness would amount only to guarantees that water will continue to flow through and out of the park as it always has. This preserves the natural environment of the park, but it doesn't affect downstream water use.

* The bottom line is that once water leaves the park, it will continue to be available for diversion and use under Colorado law regardless of whether or not lands within the park are designated as wilderness.

* These legal and practical realities are reflected in my bill--as in my predecessor's--by inclusion of a finding that because the park already has these extensive reserved rights to water, there is no need for any additional reservation of such right, and an explicit disclaimer that the bill effects any such reservation.

* Some may ask, why should we designate wilderness in a national park? Isn't park protection the same as wilderness, or at least as good? The answer is that the wilderness designation will give an important additional level of protection to most of the park.

* Our national park system was created, in part, to recognize and preserve prime examples of outstanding landscape. At Rocky Mountain National Park in particular, good Park Service management over the past 83 years has kept most of the park in a natural condition. And all the lands that are covered by this bill are currently being managed, in essence, to protect their wilderness character. Formal wilderness designation will no longer leave this question to the discretion of the Park Service, but will make it clear that within the designated areas there will never be roads, visitor facilities, or other manmade features that interfere with the spectacular natural beauty and wildness of the mountains.

* This kind of protection is especially important for a park like Rocky Mountain, which is relatively small by western standards. As nearby land development and alteration has accelerated in recent years, the pristine nature of the park's backcountry becomes an increasingly rare feature of Colorado's landscape.

* Further, Rocky Mountain National Park's popularity demands definitive and permanent protection for wild areas against possible pressures for development within the park.

* While only about one tenth the size of Yellowstone National Park, Rocky Mountain sees nearly the same number of visitors each year as does our first national park.

* At the same time, designating these carefully selected portions of Rocky Mountain as wilderness will make other areas, now restricted under interim wilderness protection management, available for overdue improvements to park roads and visitor facilities.

* So, Mr. Speaker, this bill will protect some of our nation's finest wild lands. It will protect existing rights. It will not limit any existing opportunity for new water development. And it will affirm our commitment in Colorado to preserving the very features that make our State such a remarkable place to live. So, I think the bill deserves prompt enactment.

* For the information of our colleagues, I attach a fact sheet on this bill.

1. Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park, one of the nation's most visited parks, possesses some of the most pristine and striking alpine ecosystems and natural landscapes in the continental United States. This park straddles the Continental Divide along Colorado's northern Front Range. It contains high altitude lakes, herds of bighorn sheep and elk, glacial cirques and snow fields, broad expanses of alpine tundra, old-growth forests and thundering rivers. It also contains Longs Peak, one of Colorado's 54 fourteen thousand-foot peaks. 2. Congressman Udall's Rocky Mountain National Park Wilderness Bill

The Udall bill would:

Designate about 94 percent of the lands within Rocky Mountain National Park as wilderness, including Longs Peak--the areas included are based on the recommendations prepared over 24 years ago by President Nixon with some revisions in boundaries to reflect acquisitions and other changes since that recommendation was submitted.

Designate about 1,000-acres as wilderness when non-conforming structures are removed.

Add non-federal inholdings within the wilderness boundaries to the wilderness if they are acquired by the United States.

The Udall bill would not:

Create a new federal reserved water right; instead, it includes a finding that the Park's existing federal reserved water rights, as decided by the Colorado courts, are sufficient.

Include certain lands in the Park as wilderness, including Trail Ridge and other roads used for motorized travel, water storage and conveyance structures, buildings, developed areas of the Park, and private inholdings. 3. Existing Water Facilities

Boundaries for the wilderness areas are drawn to exclude: existing storage and conveyance structures, thereby assuring continued use of the Grand River Ditch and its right-of-way; the east and west portals of the Adams Tunnel and gauging stations of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project; Long Draw Reservoir; and lands owned by the St. Vrain & Left Hand Water Conservancy District, including Copeland Reservoir.

The bill includes provisions to make clear that its enactment will not impose new restrictions on already allowed activities for the operation, maintenance, repair, or reconstruction of the Adams Tunnel, which diverts water under Rocky Mountain National Park (including lands that would be designated by the bill), or other Colorado-Big Thompson Project facilities. Additional activities for these purposes will be allowed, subject to reasonable restrictions, should they be necessary to respond to emergencies.

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