Hidden Gems 2.0 earns support of Pitkin County commissioners
Pitkin County moved closer Tuesday to recommending Congressional protection for 62,846 acres of backcountry land even though the election clouded the future of the Hidden Gems Wilderness Proposal.
The county commissioners credited Wilderness Workshop and other proponents of the wilderness plan for the work they performed since last appearing before the board on Sept. 21.
“They have taken our direction and worked like heck” to work out differences with various forest users, said Commissioner Jack Hatfield.
The proponents called this latest plan “Hidden Gems 2.0” after adjusting boundaries.
The commissioners unanimously directed their staff to bring back a resolution of support for formal consideration on Nov. 17.
Even with that endorsement, the road for Hidden Gems is unclear. U.S. Rep. John Salazar was unseated last week by Republican challenger Scott Tipton. Salazar, who represented the district that includes Aspen, was being lobbied by environmentalists to sponsor a bill to create the Hidden Gems Wilderness lands in Pitkin and Gunnison counties.
Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, acknowledged it will take a lot of work to convince Tipton to sponsor a bill. However, he noted, Salazar didn’t support wilderness when first elected but went on to sponsor wilderness bills for lands in other parts of the state.
“He didn’t like environmentalists. He said it while he was campaigning the in valley,” Shoemaker said.
Hidden Gems has support of Republicans as well as Democrats and independents, Shoemaker said. Some of the Republicans supporters have said they will try to provide a conduit to Tipton to get him to consider Hidden Gems, according to Shoemaker.
In addition to Tipton topping Salazar, Republicans gained control of the House, leading the commissioners to wonder if wilderness bills have a chance of approval. Shoemaker remained upbeat.
“I’m glad people are more optimistic about the future Congress than I am,” said Commissioner Rachel Richards.
The county’s support came with special provisions for ranchers and firefighters. The county resolution specifically urges Congress to include wording that will allow ranchers to use vehicles and mechanized tools, like chainsaws, to maintain and repair their facilities in new wilderness areas.
The county recommendation urges the Hidden Gems proponents to work with the Aspen Fire Department to create a wilderness boundary that won’t interfere with fire prevention or firefighting efforts in the Smuggler Mountain area.
The commissioners were not swayed by a last-minute proposal by the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association (RFMBA) to tweak the proposed boundaries of the Hidden Gems plan for Pitkin County.
The proposal sent to the county said the members of the biking community understand the urge to preserve additional lands through wilderness protection. However, negotiations between Hidden Gems proponents and RFMBA stalled.
“Our negotiations for Pitkin County proposal areas have reached a point where we must agree to disagree,” RFMBA’s letter said. The cyclists object to areas in Hay Park, near the base of Mount Sopris, and near Aspen and Carbondale being included in the proposal.
They submitted a counterproposal called Hidden Gems 3.0 that keeps the same amount of acreage but protects areas revered by the cycling group.
“We believe that the boundaries we are proposing have the potential to garner wide community support and begin healing the contentious atmosphere that the often controversial Hidden Gems proposal has caused over the past several years,” the proposal said.
Shoemaker said the Hidden Gems proponents will likely be “disinclined” to accept the counterproposal.
“It’s framed as, we’ll trade you an acre for an acre, but not all acres are created equal,” Shoemaker said. “For us, the trade doesn’t balance.”
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