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By Mark Esper
Trout Unlimited unveiled plans last week for a proposed Alpine Triangle National Conservation Area for 126,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land, including all the BLM land in San Juan County not currently set aside as wilderness study areas.
It’s part of a proposed wilderness bill that would also convert the seven wilderness study areas totaling another 60,000 acres in the Alpine Triangle into full-fledged wilderness areas, including American Flats, Handies Peak and Red Cloud Peak
Ty Churchwell, backcountry coordinator for Trout Unlimited in Colorado, said the San Juans are “truly a Colorado treasure” and Trout Unlimited, with its mission of protecting cold-water fisheries and watersheds, sees it as a high priority for protection.
But he noted National Conservation Area rules are very flexible and exactly what rules would apply to the Alpine Triangle, which includes BLM land along the Lake Fork of the Gunnison north of Lake City and most of the area covered by the Alpine Loop, would await input from various stakeholders.
“The Alpine Triangle is quite simply a recreational and sportsman’s paradise,” Churchwell told county commissioners from San Juan, Ouray, Hinsdale and San Miguel counties at a meeting in Ridgway¡ on Friday, Oct. 2.
An estimated 19,000 deer and elk inhabit the area and it is the headwaters for five world class trout rivers — the Animas, San Juan, Rio Grande, Lake Fork of the Gunnison and the Uncompahgre.
Churchwell said future generations deserve to enjoy the resources of the San Juans.
“It’s their heritage. It’s what we owe them as citizens,” Churchwell said.
Churchwell said he expects at least a two-year process for a bill to be introduced in Congress for the National Conservation Area, which would include wilderness designation for the wilderness study areas.
“We’d like to see federal legislation, but it’s up to the communities,” Churchwell said. “We’re hopeful you’ll embrace this campaign,” he told the county commissioners.
“This is the very beginning,” he said. “We’re reaching out to communities and asking that they participate in these conversations.”
Churchwell emphasized Trout Unlimited’s goal of protecting cold-water fisheries and watersheds. He said that for Trout Unlimited, it is no about partisan politics, “it’s about the science for us.”
He said that some of activities that occur in public lands do have potential to have negative impact on big game and trout habitat.
“Mining is a valid use of our public lands and does provide for a short-term influx of jobs and incomes,” Churchwell said, but he added that it comes “with some potential backside costs, not only financial and environmental. It is quite simply temporary.
“Our argument is that resources up there in the Alpine Triangle are of much more value long term as a recreational sporting and tourism resource in perpetuity then it is as a short-term mining resources.”
But Churchwell also emphasized that any National Conservation Area designation would not apply to private lands.
“Patented mining claims private property, exempt from national conservation area,” Churchwell said. “As a general rule with these legislative tools, historic uses are grandfathered in. Trout Unlimited is very supportive of private-property rights and historic uses.”
Churchwell said the National Conservation Area designation wouldn’t change much, and that ultimately is the point.
“If we could take a snapshot of the Alpine Triangle today, that’s what we’re trying to do, is keep it the way it is.”