Written by Scott Braden, Wilderness and Public Lands Advocate 

Photography is one of my favorite hobbies, and it can sometimes make wilderness work seem easy. That is certainly the case for the Continental Divide campaign. The pictures of mountainous wilderness dreamscapes from a bevy of photographers like John Fielder and so many others come easy to this landscape.

While the beauty of the Continental Divide proposal is undeniable, the quest to win permanent protection for these remaining unprotected lands of the White River National Forest has been hard fought. For the past eight years, a collaboration of conservationists, local leaders, mountain bikers, sportsmen, veterans, and other interests have come together to forge a proposal that balances protecting wilderness quality lands with sustaining the recreational economy on which the local communities depend. This balance of natural and recreational qualities is what attracts people from the world over to Summit and eastern Eagle county to visit, to play, to be in nature, and to live a higher quality of life.

The Continental Divide proposal would designate 58,000 acres of the White River National Forest as a mixture of wilderness, the highest level of federal public lands protection, and more flexible special management areas designed to balance conservation and sustained recreational access. New wilderness areas would be added to the Tenmile Range and the Williams Fork Mountains, while existing designated wildernesses such as the Holy Cross and Eagles Nest would be expanded.

Holy Cross Wilderness

Unlike the stunning photography, this effort has not always been easy, but it is surely worth the effort. With Colorado’s population predicted to double by 2050 and competing uses for lands only likely to increase, it is prudent and even our responsibility to conserve and protect our wild lands while they are still in that condition. On top of that, climate change is already placing additional stresses on the plants and wildlife of the region, increasing the need to link and protect habitat for species on the move.

Fortunately, the Continental Divide has strong allies. U.S. Representative Jared Polis has introduced the Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act in the U.S. House while, Senator Michael Bennet has recently announced that he will be introducing a similar bill in the U.S. Senate. We sincerely hope that Senator Cory Gardner will reinvigorate Colorado’s legacy of bipartisan action on wilderness by lending his support.

Though the U.S. Congress is often dysfunctional, there is reason for hope. Last year, the long drought for conservation lands bills broke and Colorado’s Hermosa Creek, as well as a quarter million acres around the West, were protected.

Even more recently, Congress moved in a Republican-led effort to protect another quarter million acres in Idaho. So we can get this done.

You can help make this happen by adding your voice to demand that we safeguard our mountains of the Continental Divide so they remain a haven for recreation and wildlife for many, many years to come.

For wild Colorado,

Scott Braden
Wilderness Advocate

Cover image by Devon Balet

Written by Micha Rosenoer, Southwest Field Organizer

The recent disaster on the Animas is news to no one at this point. Headlines across Colorado and national outlets have spread this recent development far and wide; the Animas turned orange, and that’s a big problem. That’s true — an abandoned mine leaking toxic chemicals into one of Southwest Colorado’s primary rivers, which sustains countless residents’ livelihoods, is a tremendous problem.

This is a tragedy. There’s no doubt about that. We’re all angry and profoundly saddened to see the lifeblood of Southwest Colorado spoiled. And the question on most of our minds is: how on earth was this allowed to happen?

So what actually happened?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was trying to clean up the Gold King Mine when a plug failed, which sent 3 million gallons of yellow toxic sludge into the Animas. Efforts at Gold King are one of many projects the EPA is undertaking to clean up the thousands of abandoned old mines that remain from Colorado’s mining legacy.

Yep, that’s right — there are thousands of mines like Gold King across our state, and many are like ticking time bombs. As anyone who has lived in Southwest Colorado for longer than a few years will tell you, the region is no stranger to mining-related catastrophes. This time around, the EPA’s hand happened to be on the shovel, but disasters like this one demonstrate the need to recognize our history of reckless exploitation.

What can we do to confront that history?

Quite a bit, actually. Here are some ways we can prevent future disasters, and how YOU can get involved:

  • Support efforts of local science-based groups conducting independent monitoring in conjunction with the EPA
  • Get involved — contact your elected representative and engage in public comment opportunities like town hall meetings and opportunities to speak with elected officials
  • Get involved with current and future BLM planning processes. Many of these plans  invite public input on where and how industry should be allowed to mine and drill within our communities. Strong standards and limitations for industry could prevent accidents like this one decades down the road.

Remind me again why we’ve been having to deal with such rampant pollution?

It’s because, in the late 19th century, westward expansion was largely about mining. People broke their backs to glean their wealth out of the ground in the form of gold, silver, or other metals. And they found that wealth in mineral-rich Southwest Colorado, which led to an explosion in mines in the area.

Here’s the big problem; many of these mines were established far before environmental protections were even a part of our country’s vocabulary. But they continued to provide welcome financial support to the area, so the mining industry continued until the 1990s. After a they ceased to be financially viable, those mines largely closed, but cleaning up their toxic sludge has fallen to the EPA, which leads us to our current situation.

Looking ahead

At this point, it is absolutely imperative that we work together to find solutions. The legacy of mining in the Southwest and across Colorado is a massive problem, but it’s a solvable one. We need to ensure that the mining industry is held accountable for the messes they make. They’ve been allowed to pass the buck for far, far too long.

One silver lining in this disaster is that it has brought worldwide attention to the sorry state of our mining legacy here in Colorado and the thousands of mines that pose similar unacceptable risks to our water, recreation, and wildlife. While the spill is awful, the Animas has struggled with water quality for decades thanks to runoff from mines like Gold King across the watershed.  It’s unfortunate that the river turning such an alarming shade was required to increase our sense of urgency on this issue, because conditions have been deplorable for a long time. Whenever it rains reasonably hard in Southwest Colorado, zinc and cadmium levels go up 100% on the Animas. This is not a hazard that we should be comfortable with in Colorado. So while it’s a shame that it took an incident of this magnitude to generate the appropriate alarm and urgency, perhaps we will see some real improvements as a result.

The best result from this disaster would be political will to take decisive action to clean the mines around Silverton and developing long term solutions for the hundreds of miles of Colorado rivers currently impacted by mine drainage.  Returning to the status quo of ignoring pre-spill contamination levels is not good enough for our town or the future of Colorado’s rivers.

For more detailed information on the spill and its roots, click herehere, and here.

Your Southwest Field Organizer,

Micha Rosenoer