Message from Mike Matz: Sharing the Wilderness Experience

It's our natural heritage, it's a magnificent experience, and we should pass it on."

-Mike Matz, director, Campaign for America's Wilderness

Colorado's Lizard Head Wilderness in the western San Juan Range (map) gets its colorful name from a mountain rising above the pass between Rico and Telluride that bears a striking resemblance to a reptilian noggin. Although its elevation sits too high to be suitable habitat for lizards, elk, black bears, mountain lions, and lynx haunt its 41,309 acres of grassy parks and steep glades, the spruce- and aspen-cloaked valleys and draws of the upper San Juan and San Miguel Rivers. Its craggy peaks, including Mount Wilson and El Diente, are each over 14,000 feet.

Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, both Democrats from Colorado, have introduced legislation, S. 1635, that would expand the Lizard Head Wilderness by 3,300 acres, add 21,250 acres to the Mount Sneffels Wilderness, designate 8,600 acres around McKenna Peak as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, and establish a 21,600-acre Sheep Mountain Special Management Area.

We often work to protect places we might never visit because just knowing they are set aside in their natural state is reward enough. They will be there for our children to hike or hunt, climb its peaks, or fish its cold, crystalline creeks. This land will remain as it is: untrammeled and remote habitat that supports healthy populations of wildlife.

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The Lizard Head Wilderness, however, is terrain with which I'm familiar. Last month I was there, camped at 10,600 feet with a couple of hunting partners, for elk season. We gazed with awe at a star-filled sky until the half moon rose and washed out all but the brightest. We felt the joy of watching the sun hit the top of a peak in the crisp morning air, hearing the red squirrels chattering awake, and observing the flocks of juncos flitting from their roosts.

A week before the hunting season began we led two horses loaded with gear through nearly a foot of snow from an early storm to the edge of a meadow to set up our wall tent. The intervening weather was warm, which melted some; but a fair amount still blanketed shaded spots in the forest when we returned a day before the opener. Elk tracks were abundant.

While I never fired my rifle, I reveled in being out to see the sun rise and set for five days. I saw fresh mountain lion tracks across a patch of snow while I walked slowly and quietly through a dense stand of spruce and fir. I watched a pair of ravens dip and dive at a goshawk sailing over the tops of the trees along the side of a mountain.

I did help my friend, Steve Kandell, who works for Trout Unlimited, belay four quarters down an incline at 11,400 feet to a level knoll where we could load the meat of an elk he felled into the panniers of the horses for the hike back to the trailhead. His was the kind of animal that can only be found where the road ends and the game trails begin, far from the roar of all-terrain vehicles, away from the lights of towns, in places undeveloped and undisturbed.

I'd like to take my son, Carson, to a spot like that when he is old enough, so he can hike above the treeline in pre-dawn darkness with the Milky Way visibly tracing an arc directly above, if he wants, just to see mountain lion tracks or catch a glimpse of a goshawk. And for us to have the chance to track elk together, if it turns out he likes to hunt. That's just one, very personal, reason why Congress should pass S. 1635, and the more than a dozen-and-a-half other wilderness bills that have been introduced by Republicans and Democrats alike. It's our natural heritage, it's a magnificent experience, and we should pass it on.

Read the entire November 2011 edition of Your Wilderness.