EAGLE COUNTY — When U.S. Rep. Jared Polis announced his new wilderness expansion bill in Breckenridge on Sunday with a handful of local partners, some interested parties were not present, including a Vail Resorts representative and a member of the motorized sports community.
Polis’ bill would designate about 40,000 acres of new wilderness in Summit and Eagle counties and more than 10,000 acres of recreation management areas in Summit, mostly along the Tenmile Range near Breckenridge and Frisco as well as the Porcupine Gulch area near Arapahoe Basin Ski Area.
Advocates say the plan would provide much-needed protections to mid-elevation habitats in Colorado, since much of the state’s existing wilderness land is high-elevation rock and ice.
Federal wilderness designations aim to create lands “untrammeled by man.” Wilderness areas, once designated by Congress, allow for non-motorized recreation, livestock grazing and scientific research, while mineral development, oil and gas drilling, logging, ATVs, snowmobiles and mountain bikes are forbidden. Firefighting activities are allowed, but they require approvals beyond what is necessary on public lands not designated as wilderness.
The recreation areas in Polis’ bill would be managed like wilderness except they would allow all the motorized recreational uses that are currently permitted.
According to a statement released this week by Vail Resorts communications director Russ Pecoraro, the company supported Polis’ previous efforts to conserve wilderness areas and now is working with his staff on the latest bill.
Scott Overland, communications director for Polis’ staff, said he is optimistic that once Vail Resorts reviews the bill, the company will strongly support it as it did in the past.
Snowmobilers on the other hand have not been fans of the legislation.
In 2010, people who enjoy snowmobiling on national forest land in the high country voiced strong concerns and objections to Polis’ original proposal, which was then an effort backed by several conservation groups known as Hidden Gems.
Mountain bikers also had issues with earlier versions of the proposal that have since been resolved. A staff member of the International Mountain Biking Association, based in Boulder, attended the event Sunday and spoke about parts of the proposal that had been changed to accommodate mountain bikers.
A representative for snowmobile or off-highway vehicle enthusiasts, however, was absent.
“The mountain-bike community, the OHV community, they should probably work together, but they don’t,” said Mike Stoveken, owner of Silverthorne Power Sports.
Rich Holcroft, president of the High Country Snowmobile Club, said Tuesday he has been involved in crafting the legislation since the beginning.
“Polis is doing a pretty good job with backing out boundaries to kind of accommodate everybody,” said Holcroft, 44, of Blue River. “I’m still not very psyched about the proposal.”
His club has about 50 members paying dues, but he thinks there are more snowmobilers than that in the county, he said.
When he checked with Colorado Parks and Wildlife a few years ago, the county had about 3,000 snowmobiles registered to operate on public lands.
In Summit, he said, people wanting to snowmobile on national forest land have just a handful of places they can legally ride. That can create problems with overcrowding and damaging trails, he added, though his group and Summit County Off-Road Riders work to educate their members on responsible riding and help the Forest Service maintain trails and keep riders in designated areas.
However, Holcroft said Polis’ bill would permanently close areas to motorized users that were closed two years ago without much say from those users, who now hope to discuss creating more places where they can ride the next time the Forest Service travel management plan is reviewed.
“This makes those decisions permanent, which is unfortunate for motorized users,” he said.
“I see it from both directions,” he said, explaining that he understands the desire to protect and preserve land for future generations but he feels Summit County already has enough wilderness.
The bill is better than it used to be, he said. “They can’t make everyone happy all the time.”