Guest Commentary | PostIndependent.com

Guest Commentary

Elise Jones, Bryan Martin,
Sloan Shoemaker and Steve Smith
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

In preserving some of our most precious landscapes with wilderness designation, the Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act honors Colorado’s heritage of environmental protection, agricultural stewardship, healthy communities and recreational opportunities.

Wilderness protection ensures that future generations will have their imaginations sparked by untamed areas that look largely the same way they did when Colorado was originally settled. It means our children and grandchildren can share the sense of exhilaration and wonderment that so many of us experience when we leave our vehicles behind and walk or ride a horse into the backcountry.

It’s difficult to imagine what communities like Breckenridge, Vail and Aspen would be like today if the Ptarmigan, Eagles Nest, Holy Cross and Maroon Bells-Snowmass areas had not been protected with wilderness designation. For these wilderness areas add immeasurable economic, environmental and spiritual value to those communities and the lives of the people who live in or visit them

As leaders of the four partner organizations leading the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign, we are confident that the same will be true for the new areas protected by Congressman Jared Polis’ Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act once it is passed by Congress and signed into law.

The idea of protecting these gems of our public lands as wilderness has been thoroughly debated by a wide variety of groups in numerous venues over the last few years. Everybody who has stake in and opinion on the backcountry has had their say about the Hidden Gems proposal, which laid some of the groundwork for Congressman Polis’ bill.

Water agencies around the state want unfettered access to water in the Eagle Valley to allow for future development. The military wants to be able to train helicopter pilots, which everyone agrees is critical to our national security. Some snowmobilers want to go wherever their increasingly powerful sleds will take them. Some mountain bikers advocate for expanding on their already plentiful riding opportunities. Important and diverse views and requests have also come from ranchers, fire districts, wildlife officials, transportation planners, local governments and individual landowners. Wilderness has always run into philosophical opposition from a few.

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But in most cases, discussions between wilderness advocates and the people representing various interests have revealed that either they actually have no conflict with the proposed wilderness or their concerns can be accommodated with boundary adjustments or policy clarifications. When the dust settles, many former opponents come to the conclusion that these places are worth protecting.

As people think about areas that are already protected with wilderness designation and learn about the areas that are proposed by our organizations, they often realize that the most important question to ask is this: “What’s best for the land?”

Wilderness designation is great for the land. It protects our water sources. It provides a dramatic and scenic backdrop to our communities and to our daily lives. It keeps important habitat intact, so the elk and deer and big horn sheep and bears and other creatures we share these mountains with have a place to thrive. In wilderness areas, we have a place to visit that is in a truly natural state, largely untouched by human progress. Our economy and quality-of-life benefit greatly, as well. As Colorado continues to grow, wilderness ensures that the backcountry remains wild, protected and available to current residents, visitors, and future generations.

Those of us who advocate for wilderness believe the Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act will benefit surrounding mountain communities and the state of Colorado immensely. We thank Congressman Jared Polis for his vision and leadership in introducing this important bill.

– Elise Jones is executive director of Colorado Environmental Coalition, with offices in Denver, Grand Junction and Craig. Bryan Martin is director of conservation of the Colorado Mountain Club. Sloan Shoemaker is executive director of Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop. Steve Smith is assistant regional director of the Central Rockies office of The Wilderness Society. All four groups comprise the coalition that is working on the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign.