Relations between the granola heads and motor heads are thawing.
After spending the last half of 2009 attacking one another, conservationists promoting the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign and an umbrella organization for forest users who oppose the plan are now exploring compromise.
Representatives of Wilderness Workshop and other environmental groups have been meeting with representatives of the White River Forest Alliance for about six weeks. Neither side is making promises.
Even if it doesn't yield an agreement on a Wilderness proposal, the process has been valuable for building trust and opening communication, said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop and Jack Albright, vice president of the White River Forest Alliance.
"It's a great thawing of what was very polarizing before," Shoemaker said.
Wilderness Workshop and other environmental groups want to place Wilderness protection on additional public lands in Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield, Gunnison, Mesa and Summit counties. Wilderness prohibits mechanized uses, from four-wheel-drive vehicles to mountain bikes.
At one time, Hidden Gems planned targeted 400,000 additional acres. That has been whittled down by an undetermined amount through compromises with rock climbers, mountain bikers, ranchers and - as a result of the latest talks - snowmobilers.
Albright and Shoemaker said Hidden Gems is withdrawing land in the East Willow Creek area, southwest of Carbondale, from Hidden Gems. Shoemaker said the area, south of Thompson Creek, is "snowmobile heaven" so it was pulled out after one of the discussions with the forest alliance and a snowmobile group. Shoemaker said the acreage affected wasn't immediately available.
"It doesn't mean we're going to simply walk away from them," Shoemaker said of withdrawn areas. Alternative protection, but not Wilderness, will be sought for East Willow Creek.
Other meetings will be used to identify concerns of users groups over specific lands in the Hidden Gems proposal. Maps are marked with areas recreational users want excluded. Once all concerns have been identified, the Hidden Gems proponents will "evaluate how do we resolve some of these conflicts," Shoemaker said. There is no deadline for how long the talks will be held. As long as progress is made, the two sides will keep talking.
"I don't think we have any illusions that we'll have 100 percent agreement," Shoemaker said, adding they would be satisfied if the forest alliance didn't oppose the plan.
Albright stressed that the White River Forest Alliance "still stands in opposition" to the proposal. It will reserve judgment until the proponents make their final adjustments and a bill is introduced in U.S. Congress. The alliance may never support or endorse the proposal, he said.
Not all members of the forest alliance support the talks, or what Albright labeled "a collaborative process." Their position is "not a single acre more" of Wilderness. "That's a segment, not a majority," he said.
Regardless of whether a compromise occurs, Albright said the process is democracy at its finest. Citizens have a legal right to pursue the addition of Wilderness. "The people that live and recreate here have a right to oppose it," he said.
The political reality appears that Hidden Gems must try to eliminate conflict with as many user groups as possible. No member of Congress will want to introduce a bill if the issue seems particularly contentious.
However, Shoemaker insisted there has been no change of direction for Hidden Gems proponents. The intent all along was to reach out to forest stakeholders, he said. "This is precisely the process we were hoping to go through."
It didn't always appear that way. In August 2009, Shoemaker told The Aspen Times that only so much compromise was possible. "Everybody says, 'We like Wilderness, just don't do it where it affects my pursuit, my adrenaline rush, my activity.' I just ask people to look at higher values than our recreational pursuits," he said.
Shoemaker and Albright acknowledged there was plenty of rhetoric earlier in the Hidden Gems debate.