ASPEN - The majority of the Pitkin County commissioners indicated Tuesday that they are ready to pass a resolution in support of the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal.
The board of county commissioners directed staff to draft a resolution in support of adding 62,000 acres of Wilderness in Pitkin County.
"These guys have done a phenomenal job," Commissioner Jack Hatfield said of the environmental groups working on the Wilderness plan.
He said he has long considered himself an environmentalist, but learned through the Hidden Gems work why it is so important to have different types of lands at different elevations in the mosaic of Wilderness to provide the best habitat for wildlife.
Viewing the effects of oil and gas development in western Colorado while flying over in a small airplane reinforces why lands in the mountains need the highest possible protection, Hatfield said.
Commissioner Rachel Richards also voiced support for a resolution in support of the Hidden Gems. She gave an impassioned pitch for the need to protect lands forever.
As the population ages, she said, some people want to make it easier to get to some of the special wild places they visited when they were 25 or 45 years of age. Some want to visit the special places via vehicles with comforts like a stereo and a portable microwave.
She said she believes that there is a responsibility to preserve those special places in the same condition people originally enjoyed it, rather than tinker with nature to make places more accessible.
There was no definitive date on when a resolution in favor of the Hidden Gems will come back before the board, but Commissioner George Newman said the public will get another chance to speak.
The commissioners' direction came after a strong showing of support for the Wilderness plan. Roughly 50 people squeezed into the commissioners' meeting room for Tuesday's 9 a.m. meeting, and the standing-room-only crowd oozed out the door. An undetermined number of people gave up trying to get in and left, while some members of the seated audience departed the lengthy meeting before getting a chance to speak.
Several people who did speak contended enough compromises have been made by Wilderness proponents and that now is the time for action.
"We have already made major, major compromises to try to satisfy everybody," said Charles Hopton, a member of the board of directors of Wilderness Workshop, one of the organizations leading the push for Hidden Gems. "I think it's time to stop compromises."
The Hidden Gems proposal calls for a total of 342,000 acres to be preserved as Wilderness in Pitkin, Gunnison, Eagle and Summit counties. The plan for Eagle and Summit counties have been split off, and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis is circulating draft legislation that would include some of the Gems lands in those jurisdictions.
The Gems proponents hope U.S. Rep. John Salazar will introduce legislation that includes lands in Pitkin and Gunnison counties.
Tony Vagneur, a native of the valley and part of a longtime ranching family, said roads and trails fragment an incredible amount of the backcountry surrounding the Roaring Fork Valley. When people visit him from elsewhere, they ask, "What the hell did you do with this country?" he said.
The time has come to take action to preserve what little remains of what hasn't been spoiled, Vagneur said. "If we don't make Wilderness out of some of this land, there isn't going to be any," he said.
Basalt and Aspen architect Harry Teague said Wilderness cannot just be a fenced-off area at the top of Independence Pass that is used to demonstrate to people what untrammeled land is like. Wilderness must be a large area and contiguous to have true benefit to wildlife - and man, he said.
Tim McFlynn, a Wilderness Workshop board member who has worked on numerous backcountry issues in Aspen during the past 20 years, said the window is closing on opportunities to add to the Wilderness system. Expectations for population growth in western Colorado will make it difficult to add lands in the future, and the political will may falter as the population - and possibly opposition - grows.
Famed backcountry adventurer Aron Ralston, a Hidden Gems supporter, said some areas in western Colorado that were once eligible for Wilderness have now been used and abused for extractive uses such as roads, pipelines and pads for natural gas wells.
"Some of them we've had to cut out [of the Hidden Gems proposal] because we were too slow," he said.
He urged the board to act swiftly to endorse the Hidden Gems plan and help urge Salazar, a Democrat who represents the 3rd Congressional District, to introduce legislation.
Hidden Gems organizers and supporters didn't pussyfoot around the issue of conflicts with some mountain bikers and riders of motorized vehicles in the forest.
Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, acknowledged ongoing "issues" with motorized users. He said Hidden Gems proponents feel they have reached out to other groups and made all compromises necessary. "How much is enough?" asked a slide in his presentation to the commissioners.
Wilderness is also needed to slow the "unbridled growth" and demand for new areas for recreational pursuits, Shoemaker said.
Will Roush, who is helping organize the Hidden Gems effort, said 29 adjustments to proposed boundaries have been made in Pitkin County. More than half of the total adjustments in the Roaring Fork Valley have been made to accommodate mountain bikers and motorized users, he said.
In the Roaring Fork River watershed, which includes all of Pitkin County, there are a total of 153,000 acres included in the Hidden Gems plan. Hidden Gems, if adopted by Congress, would eliminate 9 miles of designated routes currently open to all-terrain vehicles in the Roaring Fork Valley; 2 miles of designated routes for mountain bikes; and a mile of a route designated for full-sized vehicles, according to Wilderness Workshop.
Hidden Gems supporter Johno McBride said Roaring Fork Valley residents must put their differences over their favorite ways to visit the forest aside, and act in the way best for the environment and wildlife. He said he rides dirt bikes and snowmobiles, but also visits Wilderness on foot. Hidden Gems shouldn't be reduced to a fight between "tree huggers versus motorized enthusiasts," he said.
"We're all pretty tough on the environment, no matter how we play," he said.
Some speakers at Tuesday's meeting were opposed to Hidden Gems or had reservations. Mark Nieslanik, president of the North Thompson Cattlemen's Association, said the ranchers he represents are concerned that adding Wilderness will add red tape to the process of leasing public lands for grazing. Anything that transfers decision-making from local Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials to regional or national offices affects ranchers, he said.
Specifically, the ranchers fear local officials in the future won't want to allow ranchers to use chainsaws to clear trails or allow heavy equipment into Wilderness to create stock ponds.
"We rely on those forest permits for our livelihoods," Nieslanik said.
If it gets tougher to use federal lands because of Wilderness rules, the ranches that are preserving so much private open space will disappear within 20 years, Nieslanik predicted.
He urged the commissioners to pass a resolution in support of Hidden Gems, but with strong language saying what rights it wanted preserved for ranchers using the public lands.
Ron Baar, deputy chief of the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department, warned that the proposal creates Wilderness too close to Aspen in the Smuggler Mountain area and could "impinge" on the department's ability to fight a wildfire before it affects town. He asked for revisions to the proposed Wilderness boundary.
A spokesman for a natural gas company said further revisions might be necessary to accommodate companies with valid leases to extract gas.
The Pitkin County meeting didn't attract scores of Gems foes, from motorized user groups, for instance, as earlier meetings did. For one thing, the 9 a.m. start made it difficult for many working folks to attend.
Bob Jenkins of Woody Creek was one of a handful of people wearing a "Public land, public use" shirt at the meeting. The debate over Wilderness is essentially a land-use and zoning issue, he said. He said he doesn't believe Wilderness - which creates the greatest restrictions - is the proper designation in many of the areas.
The commissioners directed county staff to look into issues such as wildlife mitigation and ranchers' needs when drafting a resolution, but none raised concerns over the effects of Wilderness on motorized uses.