Q&A: U.S. Sen. Mark Udall on balancing wilderness uses

We caught up with U.S. Sen. Mark Udall at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market. Hear what he has to say on wilderness areas, conservation funding and more.
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2013 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show July 31 – Aug. 3. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

Select industry leaders met with Sen. Mark Udall (D, CO) at a Summer Market 2013 lunch hosted by Polartec’s Gary Smith. We talked with Udall before the event about some of the issues facing public lands today. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

MarkUdall_ORSM2013

Colorado has been an epicenter for debate over wilderness designation, especially around the controversial Hidden Gems proposal in central Colorado. As we look to the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act in 2014, do you see it as a time to double down on wilderness efforts or as a time to rethink the meaning of wilderness? 
Certainly there’s more work to be done to protect our public lands, and it involves an approach that’s based on sustainability. The Udall 11th commandment is, “Thou shalt protect the environment.” A variation that I like is, “We don’t inherit the earth from our parents, we’re borrowing it from our children.” In addition, this trade show points out powerfully the strong economic reasons to protect these lands.

We have rebranded what we’re now calling the Central Mountains Recreation and Heritage Act [formerly Hidden Gems], and, in particular, we’ve been working with the mountain bike community to try and understand where the balance is. I’m heartened by that community’s willingness to think again about what the best mix of use is. I’m close to introducing a piece of legislation this fall that would take into account all of those stakeholder groups and provide for some additional multiple use.

Protecting public lands has become more contentious as interest groups have become more polarized. How do you address this?
There’s been more of a bottom-up effort to engage communities than perhaps in previous decades. I’ve used that approach to lead on at least two very significant wilderness bills in Colorado. One is the James Peak Wilderness, which we set aside about 10 years ago. East of that area, the stakeholders really wanted “big W” wilderness designation. We worked with them and that’s the way the bill was crafted. On the west side, Grand County, they didn’t want “big W” wilderness. We created a recreational use category with a couple of existing uses grandfathered in. If I had insisted on “big W” wilderness on the west side, we wouldn’t have the kind of protections that we have today.

The centennial of the National Park Service is coming up in 2016, and while visitation is strong, funding has lagged. How do we leverage the parks visibility to address that?
There’s a lot of bipartisan support for a celebration that would not just involve balloons and firecrackers and some speeches but a reinvestment in our national parks. There have been some proposals to redirect some of the Land and Water Conservation Fund [LWCF] monies into the enormous maintenance backlog. I’m wary of that idea right now because the LWCF monies have long been used for urban forestry, for stateside projects and for federal lands. However, the LWCF has only been fully funded one time. To me, that’s unconscionable.

I want to see the federal government’s interest in protecting lands through the LWCF met as well as the maintenance backlog. The government has a whole host of trust funds that, in my opinion, haven’t been used in the way they were designated to be used. The biggest trust fund is called Social Security. If we were going to protect Social Security going forward, then we ought to protect a trust fund like LWCF and fully fund it on an ongoing basis. That could be part of a larger budget deal.

There are also ideas to create more of a public-private partnership to endow the Park Service so that it has the resources in a tough budgetary environment. I believe that when people really focus on the opportunity to celebrate national parks we will infuse them with additional focus, interest, and, most important, resources.

What was your first request of new Interior Secretary [and former REI CEO] Sally Jewell?
I asked her to work with me on fully funding the LWCF.

Did you discuss this indoors or on a hike?
I’m scared of going hiking and climbing with her! She’ll dust me. She’s phenomenal.

--Cindy Hirschfeld

Editor’s note: Sen. Udall plans to finish climbing the 100 highest peaks in Colorado later this summer when he attempts 13,809-foot Dallas Peak in the San Juans.

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