Wilderness proposal still in limbo
Summit County Correspondent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis’ newly introduced and pared-down Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act has received mixed criticism from Summit County citizens.
It’s been labeled a controversial bill, with some standing firm against it and others saying it’s a commendable effort at mediation and compromise.
“The Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act seeks to add new designated wilderness areas in the White River National Forest within Summit and Eagle Counties to the National Wilderness Preservation System,” Polis’ website said. “Designated areas would hold the highest level of land protection, with public access and usage still available, but certain types of development and activities prohibited.”
The goal of the legislation is to preserve Colorado’s wild areas by designating some as wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964 and designating others as special management or companion use areas.
The bill was introduced on Sept. 29, just before Congress voted to adjourn for the fall campaign. It’s on hold until the House reconvenes, which could be with an entirely different makeup of Democrats and Republicans. Polis’ constituents include Summit County, which is in Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District. It’s unknown when action will take place, as nothing can be done while the House is in recess.
Nearly 88,000 acres in Eagle and Summit counties would be designated as wilderness while another 78,000 would be deemed “special management areas” under the Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act. Special management areas have greater protection than most public lands but aren’t as strict as rules for wilderness.
Several high-profile areas were taken out of the original proposal, such as Elliot Ridge in Summit County, which has been a contentious area in discussions.
The goal, Polis’ website says, is to create consensus, bringing users together to establish ways to protect Colorado’s gems while allowing various types of recreation where appropriate and bolster the Colorado economy without unintended conflicts.
By bringing different users together, from snowmobilers to hikers, several areas have been removed from the original Hidden Gems proposal. Several environmental groups suggested the congressman carry a bill that created 244,000 wilderness acres – not including additional land in Pitkin and Gunnison counties.
Areas not included in wilderness designation include 12,150 acres on Basalt Mountain as well as an extension of wilderness on Elliot Ridge. Areas of Hoosier Ridge didn’t get the high level of protection, either.
Mountain biking isn’t allowed in wilderness areas, according to the language of the Wilderness Act. So, when several popular trails were included in the original Hidden Gems proposal, the Summit Fat Tire Society pushed back.
According to a statement on the Summit Fat Tire Society website, for two years, they worked with Hidden Gems proponents to find common ground and balance areas where they didn’t agree.
What came out of the discussion was the idea of “companion designations,” which is a relatively new way to protect land while still allowing certain uses.
“We believe companion designations offer the opportunity to protect lands around Wilderness but also create areas where bikes are allowed,” the Summit Fat Tire Society website says.
Still, members of the Summit Fat Tire Society are working to fine-tune the boundaries and alignments of various designations “where we don’t see eye-to-eye,” their statement says.
“Where needed, we will work hard to continue to push for more protection and access to mountain biking. Until then, we’re proud of the ultimate agreement to bring companion designation to fruition, which is really the definition of progress for any group,” the statement continues.
Tom Jones, owner of Wilderness Sports and a resident of Evergreen who recreates in Summit County, also voiced support for the mountain biking compromises.
“I support protecting as much pristine land as possible from motorized use,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Once it has been degraded by motorized access, it will never go back to the way it once was. Pristine land is absolutely a finite, limited resource.”
Currie Craven, chair of the Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness, commended efforts to include all users in the federal proposal as it evolved from a citizen proposal.
“It’s a unique approach,” he said. As an advocate of encouraging stewardship of the forest above all else, Craven hopes bringing stakeholders together at the same table may dispel myths that different users “have horns and tails” and are people who enjoy recreation, too.
“If people are working together and helping maintain the resources, … people find out it breaks down barriers between user groups that may be somewhat arbitrary,” he said.
Craven pointed to several areas where compromises were made, such as the companion designations for mountain bikers, “over the snow” motorized travel designations in some areas and not adjusting the motorized travel boundary at Elliot Ridge.
Areas such as that around Hoosier Ridge have biological reasons for being established as wilderness, Craven added. Rare plant species there aren’t found anywhere else on the planet, he said, which would mean it’s probably not appropriate for snowmobile traffic. He felt that was honored in the proposal.
Yet he personally wishes for more wilderness designations, such as the area above the Eisenhower/Johnson tunnels.
“Maybe the definition of a compromise is that no one is happy,” Craven said, but he added that everyone had a say.
“We’re all Americans and this is all public land,” he said. “We have to consider what the generations in the womb of time will get.”
Rick Warren, the president of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Sierra Club, said he vocally supported Polis’ proposal at a meeting months ago in Breckenridge. Now, he’s glad to see give-and-take to form a bill that’s palatable for many of the affected parties.
“Hidden Gems did a good job,” he said. “When it first came out, there was a lot of push back from mountain bikers and snowmobilers. … But they worked it out and there were concessions.”
Chuck Ginsberg, president of the Summit County Off-Road Riders, said the wilderness proposal doesn’t much affect the single-track motorcycle riders. But he still doesn’t support it. He and other SCORR members believe better protection for land can come from the U.S. Forest Service’s travel management plan, which began several years ago and isn’t complete.
“More thought has gone into it,” Ginsberg said. “I support a well-thought-out plan. We would have to make sacrifices, with many areas we’re used to riding that could be off-limits. But I’m OK making sacrifices for something that’s thought out.”
State Sen. Dan Gibbs commends the work done to find common ground in the wilderness proposal, but said “the real work begins once the bill is introduced.”
“I applaud Polis and stakeholder groups for coming together to find common ground” among user groups, he said. “It means dramatically different things for different people.”
But now, it’s up to Polis to present the bill on the House floor and translate conversations had in Summit and Eagle counties to the language of Washington, D.C.
“I’ll be interested to see how it will unfold,” Gibbs said.
The reporting of the Aspen Times’ Scott Condon contributed to this story.
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