By Michael Brune
Last year, Coloradans suffered in the face of an exceptionally dry summer that birthed the worst fires in the state’s history.
For millennia, natural wildfires have played a role in balancing the landscape, but climate change has created the conditions for more extreme, more dangerous blazes. A thousand Colorado families lost their homes, and the state was choked with smoke. State officials are already bracing for another brutal fire season this year. Unless we take rapid action to address climate change, these wildfires will only grow larger and more destructive.
We have the tools to keep the climate crisis from spiraling out of control — and one of the best lies beneath our feet. Trees, shrubs, and even the desert’s living crust capture about half of the greenhouse gases humans release into the atmosphere, preventing the planet from warming even faster.
Preserving these natural carbon sinks can play a crucial role in limiting climate change, provided we do so at scale. Scientists tell us that we need to preserve at least 30% of our wild places by 2030 to have a chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.
Today, just 12% of American lands and waters are protected.
But Colorado’s senators have the chance to help bridge that gap.
The Colorado Wilderness Act would bring an additional 600,000 acres of wilderness under protection, including dramatic sections of the Dolores River Basin, the Arkansas River canyonlands, the Book Cliffs near Grand Junction, and three 14,000-foot peaks — Redcloud, Sunshine, and Handies.
If Colorado Sens. Michael Bennett and John Hickenlooper choose to support this bill, it would not only help mitigate the climate crisis; it would also protect water supplies and wildlife habitat, support Colorado’s tourism economy, and increase access to nature and outdoor recreation.
As the climate warms, reliable sources of drinking water are coming under increasing stress.
The Colorado River, which provides drinking water to 40 million people, has already lost about 10 percent of its flow due to climate change, and scientists estimate it could lose up to a quarter of its flow by mid-century if warming continues unabated.
With much of Colorado facing drought once again, it’s important that state leaders use every tool at their disposal — including wilderness protection — to safeguard clean drinking water. The Colorado Wilderness Act, for example, would protect undeveloped parcels of land that filter water, as well as waterways and rivers that might otherwise be contaminated by industrial pollutants.
The climate crisis is also putting pressure on wildlife. Up to a million species are at risk of extinction, scientists warn, if we don’t take action to tackle the climate crisis and bring more lands under protection. The Colorado Wilderness Act would preserve vital habitat for rare and endangered species like the kit fox and kachina daisy, as well as iconic Western species like elk and bighorn sheep.
Tackling the climate crisis through protecting Colorado’s wilderness will do more than prevent harm; it will also benefit Colorado’s economy, its people, and its communities. Colorado’s stunning protected landscapes support the state’s vibrant tourism industry. Over 181,000 Coloradans are employed in tourism, which contributes over a billion dollars to state and local tax coffers each year. By bringing more basins, canyonlands, and desert landscapes under protection, Colorado can expand this industry, creating jobs in rural communities.
As we’ve seen during the pandemic, access to the outdoors is a necessity, not just something that’s nice to have. Spending time in nature reduces stress levels and helps us recover from the challenges of daily life. By conferring wilderness protections on hundreds of thousands of additional acres, the Colorado Wilderness Act will ensure that more Coloradans have access to nearby nature and its healing powers–both today and for generations to come.
The Colorado Wilderness Act passed the House in February, but it will languish in the Senate until one of Colorado’s senators requests a hearing on it. Our country’s leaders have spent far too long failing to take action on the climate crisis, depriving their constituents of the numerous benefits of doing so. It’s time for Coloradans to ask Bennett and Hickenlooper what they’re waiting for.
Michael Brune is the executive director of the Sierra Club.