**Updated information about Colorado Public Lands Day can be found on the holiday’s website: www.copubliclandsday.com**

Written by Scott Braden, Wilderness and Public Lands Advocate

Colorado just became the first state in the nation to establish a day celebrating its parks, forests, and other public lands, passing a bipartisan bill that the governor just signed this past week. This means that May 20, 2017 will be the first “Colorado Public Lands Day.”

But what does it really mean?

First, we have to take a step back and understand the context in which this holiday was designated. Debate about public lands have roiled the West, with states like Utah leading the charge to attempt a radical takeover of our public lands heritage by passing or attempting to pass laws demanding that the public lands be turned over to the control of states or private interests.

The politicians pushing this agenda, like Utah Representative Ken Ivory and his organization called the American Lands Council, have an agenda for these lands that would shock most of us: huge increases in drilling, mining, and logging to pay for management of lands now shared by all Americans; increased privatization to make public lands available to developers; and diminution of wilderness, wildlife, and recreation on public lands as they are crowded out by industrial extractive uses. Their agenda could render the public estate unrecognizable to most Americans, who greatly value our nation’s shared natural treasures.

Colorado has not been immune to these threats. Our state legislators have introduced eight bills in the past five years to seize or otherwise undermine control of our public lands. Each has been defeated, and each has been a fight. But this year, something remarkable happened. Senator Kerry Donovan introduced a simple bill to declare a public lands holiday, and, despite a rocky path through the legislature and adding and striking of several anti-public lands amendments, the bill passed and became law.

And that represents a watershed moment not just for our state, but for the whole American West.

Colorado has done what no other state has done.

It has taken a definitive step away from the politics of public lands seizure and instituted a tangible recognition that public lands are an enormous public good. Our public lands support our legendary quality of life and lift our economy. We have changed the tenor and tone of the debate. We have again demonstrated that it is a Western value to collaborate and improve, rather than pursue conflict and bluster.

I believe that the public lands seizure political movement hit rock bottom when armed militants held the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year, spouting the same rhetoric of “returning” public lands to private interests as Rep. Ivory and his acolytes in statehouses across the West. The public watched in horror as the refuge was trashed, new roads bulldozed across wetlands, and Native American artifacts were disturbed by bullies toting semi-automatic weapons. The standoff ended in violence and the confederates are now largely in jail. The seizure movement has been in a tailspin ever since.

So my hope is that with the establishment of the Colorado Public Lands Day, we will have more bills across the West and nation that foster partnership and stewardship of public lands. There is surely room for improvement in the management of these lands, and hopefully this holiday can serve as a reminder that we can work together to solve problems and that enormous benefits accrue to us because of our public lands.

Written by Eliza Carter

The bill to legalize rain barrels has passed both chambers of the Colorado legislature and was signed by Governor John Hickenlooper this month! Soon you’ll be able head out to the store and purchase your very own legal rain barrel.

It’s clear to us that all of our amazing supporters felt very strongly about this issue. Every time we talked to folks in the community, we heard that you all wanted a rain barrel to use your rainwater more efficiently. Part of that is because it seems so silly; whoever heard of a Home Depot product that is illegal in a state where you can buy marijuana-infused gummy bears?

However, rain barrels are also a very important tool for people to become more informed about their water use and our water limitations in the West.  Here’s the thing: water scarcity can be a difficult thing to keep in mind. Many of us know that our water is limited, but very few factors in our daily lives really reflect that limitation. When we need some water at home, we can get as much as we want from the faucet or the shower or the garden hose. Not so with rain barrels. When it’s been raining a lot, a rain barrel will fill up and you’ll have water to use on your garden. But when you leave the spigot open or it’s been dry, that water will be gone before you know it.

But what’s next for water conservation in our state? Rain barrels are a great first step for a more empowered public, but that’s just part of ensuring a healthy water future and there are many more steps to take.

Colorado is facing some staggering challenges when it comes to our water supply. And until recently, we didn’t have a plan in place on how we were going to meet our growing water needs in light of population growth, climate change, and other stressors.

People are moving to Colorado by the thousands every month, and our water supply is not going to increase to meet the demand. Further, climate change is exacerbating drought and  threatening to dry up our rivers. So we need to get smart about how we use our water. Fortunately, Governor Hickenlooper recently released the final Colorado Water Plan, which will serve as a road map for how we manage our water for years to come. It contains some strong goals and that, if met, will help us ensure that future generations will have enough water and our rivers will stay healthy and flowing. The plan recognizes that increasing water conservation in our cities is one of the easiest ways we can help protect the health of our rivers.

But we’ve got to make sure the plan is implemented. It’s possible that this plan will simply get filed away, and we really can’t let that happen. If we’re going to confront the water challenges we face, we need to put in the work and buckle down, right now.

So what can you do?

Well, a whole lot, actually.

First, we should thank the governor for signing the bill!

Second, we’ve got to ensure our legislators know that this is a priority for their constituents. Over the summer, legislators on a water committee will be meeting to discuss possible legislation for next year. At this we should ensure that our elected officials make conservation and implementation the water plan a priority.

Third, you can tell the Colorado Water Conservation Board you want conservation to be a priority for them as well.

You can also keep all this in mind this November. If Colorado is going to confront its water future in smart and innovative ways, we need our elected officials to support conservation. So read up about the candidates on our elections page and vote for the folks who will keep our rivers healthy and flowing!

Finally, go buy your new rain barrel and encourage your friends to do the same!

Written by Conservation Colorado staff

Whether it’s obvious or not, Latinos are conservationists and have been connected to madre tierra for generations. That’s because our Latina moms are constantly reminding us to conserve, recycle, and enjoy the outdoors. We may miss the message when it comes from trained environmentalists, but not when it’s from nuestras mamás. Here are four examples of how Latinos conserve every day to save money and resources.

While a climate expert will tell you to reduce your carbon footprint by using less energy, nuestras mamás teach us about energy conservation by having us turn off the lights when we don’t need them… Simple, right?

Conservation is part of our culture. For example, nuestras mamás always remind us to never throw things away that can be used to save leftovers – reusing everyday items saves money and helps preserve our natural resources.

Latina moms will always encourage us to enjoy parks and play outdoors – especially in the beautiful state of Colorado! So yes, Latinos agree that recreating outside is good for keeping us active and healthy. Incidentally, it’s also pretty good for our economy: public lands add $24 million to our state’s economy every year!

We are taught to conserve water by nuestras mamás as they time our showers and tell us to cerrar la llave de agua. Saving water in our communities will help save water on the state level, so we can prevent water shortages and costly projects to move water from mountains to cities!

As can be seen, trained environmentalists and nuestras mamás share the same values, we just express them differently. Coloradans want to reduce our carbon footprint, preserve our natural resources, improve our quality of life, and be smart about water use. We understand that protecting madre tierra is not all about science and numbers; as we have learned from our moms, we have to act now to protect Colorado for future generations!

Written by Conservation Colorado staff

How do public lands sustain Colorado’s outdoor industry?

Over 90% of Coloradans participate in some form of outdoor recreation every year, and in 2012, Colorado’s national public lands hosted over 45 million visits. Demand for recreation in Colorado’s national parks surged in 2015, with Rocky Mountain National Park becoming the third most visited in the country, behind only Great Smoky Mountains NP and Grand Canyon NP. These visitors form the foundation for Colorado’s outdoor industry, a $13.2 billion industry employing over 125,000 Coloradans. This industry has made a such a notable impact on the state’s economic landscape and quality of life that Governor Hickenlooper recently created the Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry in response

Why are businesses choosing to advocate for public lands protection?

Outdoor companies see the connection between healthy, well-managed public lands, accessibility by all, and staying open for business. They know their voices add credibility to the public lands conservation, as decision makers appreciate a stakeholder community that includes representatives of economic concerns. By lending their voices and representing non-traditional conservation constituencies, businesses help broaden, diversify, and strengthen campaigns for public lands protections and the economic interests they sustain.

How do we know this works?

Many recent conservation victories exemplify this trend, with Colorado businesses playing pivotal roles in propelling campaigns to success. The Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act, which protected 108,000 acres of land for hunting, fishing, mountain biking, snowmobiling, hiking, and wildlife, relied on over 100 businesses that signed a letter of support for the bill. This conservation win was widely lauded for its success in uniting a diverse constituency and leveraging those voices to achieve a long sought-after goal. Decision makers recognized and respected that this conservation effort represented more than a coalition of conservationists, but rather a diverse array of voices from southwest Colorado, all with unique reasons for valuing a healthy, protected watershed.

This victory, alongside the drive to designate Browns Canyon National Monument, highlights the hallmarks of a modern, sophisticated, and successful conservation campaign – it must be stakeholder-driven and represent a diverse constituency of voices with myriad reasons for valuing public lands. Conservation Colorado and our coalition partners have continued to prioritize this in our ongoing efforts to pass the Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act, introduced by Representative Jared Polis. That’s why businesses like John Land Le Coq’s Fishpond have spoken out in support. And Osprey founder and co-owner Diane Wren recently demonstrated similar leadership by supporting a comprehensive Master Leasing Plan on BLM land in southwest Colorado.

What issues will we be working on moving forward?

These campaigns have proven how pivotal business voices are in demonstrating to decision makers that public lands protections reflect the best interests of Colorado’s local economies and communities. Now is the time to capitalize on these victories and build a durable, notable public lands advocacy presence for Colorado’s outdoor industry. COBA will advocate for public lands protections on local, state, and federal levels, utilizing Conservation Colorado’s experience, relationships with policymakers, and ability to engage in electoral work to ensure policy decisions reflect the interests of local communities and the outdoor industry.

COBA and its members will focus their collective voice to support sensible, stakeholder-driven public lands protections that support a sustainable outdoor recreation industry by advocating for:

How does COBA differ from other outdoor business alliances?

Conservation Colorado wields decades of experience developing relationships with elected officials at the local and state level, ensuring that COBA’s work complements the efforts of our allies and partners in this space.

Here are a few of our allies and how COBA fits with their work:

  • Our partners at the Outdoor Industry Association leverage the weight of the national outdoor recreation economy to affect policy change on a broad array of issues ranging from international trade to manufacturing to economics. Public lands represent one piece of their work, and COBA will build on the strong partnership between OIA and Conservation Colorado by adding a more nimble complement to OIA’s presence in Colorado focused exclusively on public lands.
  • Conservation Alliance works across the country to connect businesses with environmental issues by using membership dues to fund conservation efforts, including some of Conservation Colorado’s campaigns. Within Colorado, the Conservation Alliance hosts annual events to unite members and grantees and uses its voice on advocacy efforts. COBA brings Colorado businesses into the conversation, elevating their voices directly on the issue, and includes small businesses without the resources to contribute financially to support conservation.
  • Outdoor Alliance works across the country on many of the same issues like public lands seizure. In doing so, it speaks for many segments of the outdoor recreation community, representing its membership of user groups like the Access Fund, American Whitewater, and the Colorado Mountain Bike Association. COBA complements OA’s work with outdoor recreation user groups by incorporating business and industry voices more directly into the conversation.
  • The Colorado Advantage Business Council, a recent addition to the Colorado business and public lands advocacy space, focuses principally on engaging the high tech sector and other members of the emerging economy to highlight public lands as a competitive advantage. We’ll be working alongside each other to ensure that the outdoor industry has a similar presence.

Written by Audrey Wheeler

You’ve probably seen the headlines.

It’s no secret that water is scarce and highly controversial in Colorado and across the western United States. Because this issue has such a broad scope and is so complicated, it is notoriously difficult to reach compromise. We face increasing demands, shrinking supply, threats to our agricultural economy, and concerns over pumping more from our river to quench the urban thirst.

No wonder it earned the motto: “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.”

But in Colorado, we’re committed to tackling these challenges. After an extensive — and collaborative — process, the state released the first-ever Colorado Water Plan last November. The Plan strives to change the way we manage and value water here in Colorado. Water is an invaluable resource that defines who we are as Coloradans and the place we call home, and it needs to be recognized as such in our policies. The Plan embeds water values that must be reflected into policy, like a productive economy and a strong environment. It also makes conservation a priority by setting a statewide conservation goal.

So how will we meet this new conservation goal? It’ll take technology combined with changes in behavior. But one easy way to conserve water is still illegal in Colorado: Rain Barrels!

Rain barrels are common-sense tool for sparking behavioral change in terms of water use. They were considered inconsistent with our prior appropriation system of water rights that tightly controls our water. But legalizing rain barrels is overwhelmingly supported: it’s had bipartisan support in the legislature and has become popular with the public, as evidenced in an online poll recently run by the Denver Post (below).

State Representatives Jessie Danielson and Daneya Esgar have been working tirelessly to lift the ban on rain barrels and let people use this conservation tool in their backyards. Their bill, House Bill 16–1005 for “Residential Precipitation Collection”, recently passed the House in an incredible 61–3 vote.

This kind of bipartisan support is somewhat of a unicorn for Colorado — especially when talking about water. So how did they do it?

It wasn’t a walk in the park. Before the House voted on the bill, Reps. Danielson and Esgar put in herculean efforts to keep the door open for stakeholders to make their voices heard throughout the process. They reached out to numerous groups including farmers, ditch companies, water providers, local municipalities, conservation groups, and other stakeholders. They presented at Colorado Water Congress’ State Affairs meeting (where water resources policy and legislation are vetted and discussed), and they did public outreach to make sure they got it right. Committed to hearing concerns from their opposition, the legislators agreed to amend the bill to address concerns that urban rain barrel use would impact downstream users downstream uses (though a study by CSU found rain barrels have no measurable impact).

Meanwhile, outside the Capitol there has been a groundswell of support and interest in this bill. Nearly every major newspaper in the state has issued an editorial in support of the bill. This is in addition to the countless articles, letters to the editor, emails and calls to legislators in support.

The Denver Post’s Joey Bunch with a rain barrel. Watch his video here.

And it’s working.

In fact, several representatives who previously voted against the bill actually got up and voiced their newfound support when it was up for vote on the House floor.

“This is a responsible way to look at rain barrels and also respects our prior appropriation system.” — Rep. John Becker (R)

“I voted against it last year but given the hard work and thoughtfulness that’s gone into this I can now be a yes vote.” — Rep. Paul Lundeen (R)

As Rep. Crisanta Duran put it on the House floor, “We’re voting on peace, love, and rain barrels.”

Deb Neely, Colorado urban gardener, uses rain barrels to water her plants. Photo by Michael Ciaglo for The New York Times.

But lifting the ban on rain barrels is not a done deal yet. The bill will next work its way through the Senate, where it died last year due to just one Senator stalling it in his committee. Fortunately, after the promising start in the House, there’s a good chance it’ll do well in the Senate. Senator Michael Merrifield is carrying the torch and is committed to getting this bill passed in the Senate.

So, in the name of peace, love, and rain barrels — here’s to hoping we can legally catch this summer’s downpours to use for something good.

Read more: Supportive editorials from around the state

(3/05) EDITORIAL: It’s still a crime to catch the rain — Colorado Springs Gazette

(3/03) Rain barrels — Durango Herald

(3/01) Editorial: Colorado should allow rain barrels — Loveland Reporter-Herald

(2/22) Tribune opinion: Arguments against rain barrels don’t hold water — Greeley Tribune

(2/23) Rain barrels and runoff — Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

(2/13) Colorado should give green light to rain barrels — Denver Post

(1/21) When in drought, stop holding residents over a rain barrel — Aurora Sentinel

Written by Scott Braden, Wilderness and Public Lands Advocate

Americans love our rugged outdoor spaces, as demonstrated by the record number of people visiting national parks, the booming outdoor recreation industry, and the high proportion of hit movies with stunning scenery as a focus.

But some opponents of public lands have been raising their voices — and even their guns — to take away these shared outdoor spaces that belong to all of us and turn them over to private owners or the states. From armed militants in Oregon to a fringe group of elected officials in statehouses around the West, we’re seeing threats to our beautiful wild places from monied interests with some very deep pockets.

In response to the bullying antics of the Bundy family, militias, and elected officials who are trying to enact the Bundy agenda in Western state legislatures, Coloradans are fighting back — with a holiday.

Senator Kerry Donovan and some of the sweeping natural beauty in her district.

Conservation champion state Senator Kerry Donovan, whose district includes over four million acres of Colorado’s most prized public lands, is sponsoring a bill in Colorado’s legislature to set aside a Public Lands Day to celebrate our public lands. This idea is backed by a majority of Coloradans who favor keeping public lands in public hands, and believe that these places are essential to both our economy and quality of life.

A Public Lands Day is about as uncontroversial an idea as there could be. It would not cost the state a dime, as it’s not a holiday that would close schools or the government. At most it would cause an increase in volunteerism on the holiday. It provides Coloradans — and the entire West — with a positive antidote to the negative sentiments swirling around this issue.

People enjoying Colorado’s public lands in every season.

Unfortunately, this celebratory bill has been derailed by Senate Republicans, led by anti-public lands Senator Jerry Sonnenberg. They’ve added amendments that are antithetical to the spirit behind the bill, which is that Coloradans support and enjoy our public lands. Instead, the new amendments use language copied from the playbook of the Koch Brothers-funded American Legislative Exchange Council that erode the president’s ability to protect national parks and national monuments, even though 84% percent of Coloradans support such actions.

Most Americans know our public lands are a uniquely American concept. Public lands boost tourism and local economies; they contain some of our nation’s most iconic, historic, and beautiful places.

“This uniquely American idea, that lands should be set aside to not belong to one person but instead the collective good, is a foundational feature of our state. Public lands support our quality of life and our state’s economy — we would be a different state without them.” — Senator Kerry Donovan

While the sentiment of “giving land back to the people” may be an enticing message, the truth is that these lands already belong to the people. Here in Colorado, we love sharing places like Pike’s Peak, the Maroon Bells, and Rocky Mountain National Park with the rest of the country, and we encourage visitors to come enjoy our incredible lands.

But we need to speak up for our public lands in order to protect them. Public Lands Day for Colorado would do just that — show extremists that Colorado’s public lands are invaluable to the people of our state and our nation. We’ve got our work cut out for us to get the bill across the finish line and make Colorado’s Public Lands Day a reality.

For more information, read Sen. Kerry Donovan’s article about the bill.

Cover image by John Fielder

Written by Theresa Conley

When I first heard about a state water plan, I was skeptical as to how useful it would be. I thought about how notoriously difficult it can be to change water policy in Colorado; meetings are long, technical, and only have one person (among as many as 50) representing environmental interests.

However, two things made me optimistic about the plan.

First, the Executive Order required that the plan, and our water policies, reflect our water values. Second, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) stated that we needed a water plan because “our current statewide water trajectory is neither desirable nor sustainable.” So the plan presented an opportunity for change.

Since Coloradans overwhelmingly prefer solving water challenges through conservation and recycling over diverting more water from our Western Slope rivers, we set out with four basic principles that guided our outreach to citizens and decision-makers alike. The plan needed to:

  • Keep Colorado’s rivers healthy and flowing
  • Increase water conservation and recycling in our cities and towns (e.g., statewide conservation goal)
  • Modernize agriculture and water sharing practices
  • And avoid a new, large transmountain diversion.

We advocated strongly for these principles at water planning hearings, one-on-one meetings with designated planning representatives, and the public. We heard from roundtable members that they needed more information and data on how to best protect their streams. We heard pushback that a statewide conservation goal was impossible because it would be seen as a “mandate” and “one size fits all” requirement. We heard that more Colorado River water needed to be transported to the Front Range. We kept hearing these things but we kept pushing our principles.

We persevered.

This first iteration of Colorado Water Plan is an important step forward for Colorado because it reflects Coloradans’ values and priorities.  The plan:

  • Sets the first-ever statewide urban water conservation goal;
  • Addresses the importance of preserving and restoring our rivers and streams including proposing annual funding for river assessments and restoration work;
  • Makes new, large, and controversial large trans-mountain diversions, which harm rivers and local communities, a lot less likely.

We are seeing conservation prioritized as never before, expanded language on reuse and water banking, and incentives and funding toward “alternative transfer methods” which replace water providers buying up agricultural land and then taking the irrigation water for municipal use. There is broad support for and a greater focus on stream health across the state including funding and the importance of preserving and restoring the environmental resiliency of our rivers and streams.

We’re excited about the plan and are now focusing our attention to getting it implemented.

The plan must be executed properly to be effective for Colorado. We also need more detailed and thorough water project evaluation criteria that determine which projects get state support (and which do not). We need to ensure that any tweaks to the state’s permitting authority maintains the strong environmental safeguards that protect our rivers and drinking water.

As the state implements this plan and looks to make changes to it, we will continue to advocate for what is best for Colorado and best for our rivers. Thanks to Governor Hickenlooper for tackling such a contentious issue as water and developing the first ever state plan!

Written by Sasha Nelson, Field Organizer based in Northwest Colorado

Our Conservation Colorado team scored a major touchdown on September 22, when Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced that Greater sage grouse do not need the protection of the Endangered Species Act. That same day, the Bureau of Land Management released Records of Decision for their grouse management plans.

At Conservation Colorado, we have been working for over a decade to conserve sagebrush landscapes that are important habitat for grouse and over 350 other plants and animals. Our engagement on this issue has extended far beyond policy and politics; we’ve developed a successful economy around grouse tourism, aided in essential scientific data collection, and put boots on the ground to affect meaningful conservation measures.

Wins:

1. The Bureau of Land Management’s Northwest Colorado plan for Greater sage grouse closes all areas within one mile around active Greater sage grouse leks to new fluid mineral leasing.

2. 80,600 acres of Greater sage grouse habitat on state land have been protected by the state of Colorado.

3. 926,700 acres of BLM and Forest Service land in Colorado have been designated as “Priority Habitat Management Areas” and  will be managed to limit or eliminate surface disturbance.

4. 742,900 acres of BLM and Forest Service land in Colorado are now designated as “General Habitat Management Areas”, meaning that habitat impacts from development will be avoided, minimized and compensated.

5. Governor Hickenlooper’s 2015 Executive Order on sage grouse establishes the “Colorado Habitat Exchange”, a program to allow private landowners and industry to work together to create a program of compensatory mitigation.

6. As a result of the collaborative conservation that has already occurred and favorable weather conditions, Greater sage grouse populations have already increased by 60% in Northwestern Colorado the past few years.

Secretary Jewell’s recent announcement and the release of these critically important plans are as exciting to many of us as a Broncos touchdown. And while we’re spiking the ball and doing a funky chicken dance in the end zone, it’s important that we don’t leave the ball at the line of scrimmage.

In the coming years, US Fish and Wildlife Service will review our collective progress by periodically assessing the health of the Greater sage grouse population. If we don’t continue to see real recovery of the species, an ESA listing could be revisited. So for this work to really matter, we must play through the 4th quarter for the win.

Work still to be done:

1. Continue bringing people together to conserve sagebrush.

2. While we will no longer offer grouse lek tours, we will continue to work side by side with local business owners to further develop the economic model of Greater sage grouse tourism.

3. Hold the Governor, federal agencies, and local managers accountable to successfully implement these new management plans on state and federal lands.

4. Ensure projects like Transwest Express and Gateway South Transmission lines are done in a way that either avoids harm to our fragile landscape or provides meaningful mitigation measures on public land.

5. Continue to work towards permanent, landscape-level protections for Greater sage grouse habitat in Western Colorado.

So please join us as we keep our eye on the ball and continue to work toward permanent conservation of sage grouse landscapes.

For wild Colorado,

Sasha Nelson

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