Eagle County Commissioners about done with Hidden Gems | PostIndependent.com

Eagle County Commissioners about done with Hidden Gems

Scott N. Miller
Vail Correspondent
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

EAGLE, Colorado – After four years of work, the Hidden Gems wilderness proposal has been submitted to Rep. Jared Polis. That means local government is about out of the debate.

Local government never did have a stake in the final decision – that’s always been up to Congress. But the Wilderness Society and other Hidden Gems backers have asked local governments for letters supporting the proposal. That’s meant several local, sometimes-heated, public meetings. The plan has drawn vocal opposition, primarily from people who go into public land using motorized devices from snowmobiles to motorcycles to four-wheelers.

With Wilderness Society representative Steve Smith on the Eagle County Commissioners’ afternoon agenda, but no public comment scheduled, local resident Randy Guerra took a few minutes during the board’s morning session to express his worries about the proposal.

Guererro said wilderness protection would keep many people out of public property.

“It’s a land of many uses,” he said. “Don’t close it down.”

In the afternoon session, Smith and local resident Susie Kincaid detailed the changes to the proposal that had come from the recent meetings.

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“We think this is ready for the next level of discussion,” Smith said. The proposal sent to Polis, as well as Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, is the result of years of work and meetings, Smith said.

Much of that work has been done since the end of last summer. Smith said proposal backers have met with local governments and the U.S. Forest Service about fire plans and how the wilderness might affect local water supplies. Smith also said the Wilderness Society has been meeting often with representatives of the High Altitude Army Aviation Training Site at the Eagle County Regional Airport to make sure that training center can continue to do its job if more public land has wilderness protection.

Talking to Guererro in the morning session, Commissioner Peter Runyon said that’s going to be crucial to the proposal’s success in Congress.

“There’s no more environmentally sensitive senator in Washington than Mark Udall,” Runyon said. “But if [the training site] isn’t taken care of, he’ll oppose this.”

Smith acknowledged that wilderness backers haven’t worked out everything with the military, but is confident an agreement can be found.

Smith and Kincaid also said they’ve had some positive meetings with motorized recreation groups, primarily the White River Forest Alliance.

After a heated meeting in Eagle Oct. 28 at which opponents essentially shouted down wilderness supporters, Hidden Gems backers held several meetings with those groups.

Kincaid said she had a New Year’s Eve meeting with alliance members.

“I have to give them a lot of credit for overcoming some principled opposition,” Kincaid said. “We got our organizations together.”

As a result, more than 500 acres of snowmobile play area on Red Table Mountain were taken out of the wilderness proposal. Some land on Basalt Mountain was also taken out of the proposal to help snowmobilers.

Working with snowmobilers included people riding out to their favorite areas with GPS devices to see exactly where people are playing.

Boundary adjustments were also made in other areas, some at the request of land owners whose property is adjacent to the proposed wilderness.

While the proposal is in the feds’ hands now, Smith said it’s still a “draft.”

Nissa Erickson, Polis’ representative in the mountain counties in his district, said there’s still more work to do. Erickson said Polis plans to hold several public meetings, and the proposal itself will probably be adjusted through that process.

While backers hope to have legislation passed this year, Polis doesn’t plan to have public meetings until June. That leaves little time for legislation, since Congress will all but shut down during the fall campaign season.

“We don’t have legislation drafted now,” Erickson said. “We’re reviewing the draft to determine which areas are and aren’t suitable.”