ASPEN, Colorado - U.S. Rep. Jared Polis will introduce a wilderness bill that provides some level of protection to roughly 70 percent of the lands targeted by environmentalists in Eagle and Summit counties as part of the Hidden Gems campaign.
But draft legislation released by the congressman shows that some high-profile jewels within the Hidden Gems will be left out of the bill, including Lower Piney north of Avon. In other cases, Polis is proposing a lesser protection than the wilderness designation.
Polis released a draft of the "Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act" on Friday evening to parties that participated in the negotiations on the controversial Hidden Gems proposal. It wasn't intended for release to the public, but word of the draft legislation leaked Monday.
The Hidden Gems coalition asked Polis to designate nearly 244,000 acres in Eagle and Summit counties as wilderness. After holding public hearings and having his staff explore specific areas, Polis pared about 74,000 acres out of the Hidden Gems request. Wilderness or some other level of protection is eyed by Polis on nearly 170,000 acres, according to an analysis by Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, a proponent of Hidden Gems.
"In our mind, it's really a great step forward," said Pete Kolbenschlag, director of the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign. "We don't look at it as a disappointment."
Polis spokeswoman Lara Cottingham said she couldn't confirm the numbers included in Wilderness Workshop's analysis. She said the Congressman's office may still refine the proposed legislation before it is introduced.
"This is another step forward," she said. There is no timetable for its introduction, she added.
Cottingham said Polis will release more information this week on the proposal.
As it stands, Polis' proposal will get the support of the environmental community even though it doesn't include everything they want, Kolbenschlag said. Wilderness Workshop sent an e-mail to members Monday hailing the planned action and urging members to voice their support to Polis and other members of Colorado Congressional delegation.
"This is a tremendous step that heightens our chance of seeing new wilderness protections in Central Colorado by the end of the year," Wilderness Workshop said in its e-mail. Telephone calls to Wilderness Workshop were referred to Kolbenschlag.
Despite the positive spin, the environmental groups said earlier in the summer they had made all the compromises they were willing to make in their proposal. They said they talked in depth to other stakeholders to refine their proposal.
They ran into stiff opposition over some lands from dirt bikers, four-wheel enthusiasts, mountain bikers and others.
The lands that were at the center of the fight were eliminated by Polis.
Two vast areas north of Avon and northwest of Vail - Crazy Horse Creek and Lower Piney - were also eliminated from Polis' proposal, according to a map circulated by the congressman. Dirt bikers and four-wheel enthusiasts angrily opposed wilderness designation for those areas in a public hearing held in Edwards in June.
The Hidden Gems coalition wanted 12,150 acres on Basalt Mountain protected. The Basalt Fire Department objected to wilderness designation on about half of the mountain, contending protection would eliminate the ability to reduce dead wood and other fuels as well as impede efforts to fight wild fires.
Instead of eliminating the half of the mountain that was disputed, Polis' draft legislation eliminates the entire mountain. Cottingham declined to discuss specific areas included or excluded in the proposal.
In general, she said, the areas included were "the least contentious and have the broadest support." There is a chance that other, wilderness-worthy lands could be part of a separate legislative effort, she said.
"We've been working on this trail by trail, area by area," Cottingham said. "The bill will be a product of the congressman's and the staff's hard work. It has been to define the lands on which everyone agrees."
Other areas proposed in the Hidden Gems campaign were given some protection but not full-blown wilderness designation. The Ten Mile Companion Area and Hoosier Ridge Companion Area will get protections that prevent their sale or development, but mountain bikers will be able to use some historic trails in the companion areas and the boundaries were adjusted to accommodate legal motorized usage, according to a copy of Polis' draft obtained by The Aspen Times.
Wilderness without restrictions on mountain biking is sometimes referred to as "wilderness llite."
The single largest chunk of land will still get special protection. Polis wants Red Table Mountain in its entirety to be a special management area that would allow continued use by the Colorado Army Air National Guard for a High-Altitude Army Aviation Training Site, or HAATS. The Hidden Gems wanted about 62,000 acres of Red Table Mountain designated as wilderness.
Polis' draft said Red Table, Pisgah Mountain and the Castle Peak areas in Eagle County were also singled out for special use areas because there are concerns by water providers and ranchers over their access and rights under wilderness.
Kolbenschlag acknowledged that Polis' draft eliminated areas included in the Hidden Gems Campaign.
"We remain convinced they deserved to be protected as wilderness," he said.
Kolbenschlag stressed that the environmental community views the Polis' draft and "an important first step."
Jack Albright, a spokesman for the White River Forest Alliance, a group opposed to the Hidden Gems plan, was reluctant to speak about the Polis proposal Monday because the congressman's office asked stakeholders to keep it to themselves until a later date.
"We appreciate the concessions and adjustments made by the congressman," Albright said. "There is more work to be done. We haven't had a chance to put it before any of our membership."
Vail Daily Staff Writer Randy Wyrick contributed to this report.