The Intersection of Infrastructure Maintenance and Federal Wilderness Designation

The proposed wilderness boundaries of the Red Table Mountain area near Basalt, were adjusted to address concerns of landowners, snowmobilers, ranchers and the Town of Gypsum. Photo by Sloan Shoemaker.

Wilderness designations rarely come without controversy,” wrote Allen Best in the Fall 2010 issue of Headwaters magazine. At the time he was writing about the controversy over the Hidden Gems wilderness campaign— a campaign that has since morphed into a 2010 bill drafted by Congressman Jared Polis, which Polis reintroduced just over a year ago as the Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act. More recently, Senator Mark Udall has been developing a similar proposal: The Central Mountains Outdoor Heritage proposal— both proposals are still on the table.

The intersection between maintenance and federal wilderness designation is at issue in the Hidden Gems proposals– but it certainly isn’t isolated to our fair state of Colorado– and reaches into a greater political realm of water disputes involving public agencies.

A present-day Western has been playing out in Tombstone, Arizona as the city battles the U.S. Forest Service along with local ranchers over water-line maintenance in a federal wilderness area. A recent CNN article outlines the conflict:

Re-enactment of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corra...

Re-enactment of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Tombstone, Arizona (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The city sits in the desert but gets most of its water from springs in the Huachuca Mountains. Some of the springs are in a wilderness area protected by the U.S. Forest Service. From the Huachucas, the water runs 26 miles east to Tombstone through one of the longest gravity-fed water systems in the country.

Tombstone’s water line was damaged in last year’s massive Monument fire. The city says the feds are blocking emergency repairs that are critical to its survival.

In court papers, lawyers for the federal government say there’s no emergency. Instead, they contend, Tombstone is using the fire’s aftermath as an excuse to “upgrade and improve” its water system.

Kathleen Nelson, the acting ranger in charge of the Coronado National Forest, says the Forest Service has been letting Tombstone do some work, as long as it complies with the 1964 Wilderness Act.

In the wilderness, Tombstone can dig with shovels, not bulldozers. The new pipe can come up the mountain on horses, not in trucks.

The 1964 Wilderness Act poetically sets aside land “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Typically, wilderness areas are found in the deep back-country, buffered from civilization. However, in both Tombstone and the Hidden Gems proposal, the controversy revolves around access to these remote areas for water and infrastructure maintenance.

“The Tombstone issue certainly strikes a nerve with us and probably any other entity with water rights or infrastructure that originate or pass through federal lands,” said Diane Johnson, Communications and Public Affairs Manager for the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District (ERWSD). In 2010, when Polis proposed his wilderness legislation, ERWSD and other water entities worked with Polis to adjust the proposed wilderness boundaries so they would exclude known diversion points and foreseeable future diversion points. The sanitation district also made a case for allowing “watershed values” to be explicitly addressed in any proposed wilderness legislation, Johnson said.

As Best wrote of the Hidden Gems proposal:

What Gypsum and other water providers fear are sediment problems like those Denver Water has battled at its reservoirs and water-treatment plants in the wake of Hayman and other fires in the South Platte drainage. They want motorized access to manage and protect the resource pre- and post-fire. Although, if a fire were to burn, Hidden Gems advocates maintain that ATVs and chainsaws would be permitted, in accordance with the Wilderness Act, to confront the emergency.

Johnson echoed those concerns: “Some of the lands included in the wilderness proposals have been heavily impacted and don’t have the water quality normally associated with wilderness areas. We’re very interested in improving water quality. However, natural processes are likely to take too long to see this benefit so we’d like to be able to make significant human-assisted rehabilitation efforts,” Johnson said. “If there are explicit allowances in the legislation, or some designation other than ‘wilderness’ is proposed – such as ‘special management area’ – it may yield better results for the land and watershed.” Udall is still working on his proposal and incorporating feedback before introducing the legislation.

These battles over wilderness raise larger questions about federal land and politics in the West. As CNN reported on the Tombstone conflict:

That kind of bureaucracy sounds all too familiar to many Westerners. Forty years ago it fueled the Sagebrush Rebellion over federal control of millions of acres of land in a dozen states. Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of the Republican Party, told voters at a 1980 campaign stop in Utah that he was a proud Sagebrush Rebel.

The rebellion faded but never really died. Riding in the political dust stirred up by the tea party, the Sagebrush Rebellion is re-emerging this election year. Bills to seize control of federal land are burbling in Wyoming and Utah, and they’re talking about it in other states, including Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico.

Tombstone is now at front and center of the movement.

“Forget the O.K. Corral. This is the ultimate showdown,” said Christina Sandefur, a lawyer with the Goldwater Institute, which is representing Tombstone free of charge. She said it’s a classic case of federal meddling.

Because the case raises constitutional questions about the relationship between local, state and federal governments — issues of power and authority — it is likely to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

These federal, state and local issues are also seen in a current court case between the National Ski Areas Association and the U.S. Forest Service, a case that’s of particular interest to Coloradans. “Locally, the current issue with the US Forest Service and the ski areas is a big deal and certainly parallels the type of threat that Tombstone is dealing with,” Johnson said. Tombstone wants to protect its water supply in a federal wilderness area. Ski areas want to protect their water supply on federal lands. “It’s a short walk from permit holders like ski areas to permit holders like ERWSD, which has reservoirs and other water infrastructure located on federal land via special use permit as part of their municipal water system,” Johnson said.

What do you think? Is there reason to be concerned about maintaining watersheds and water infrastructure in wilderness areas? What about concern around water rights and ownership of that infrastructure on public lands?

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