Bikers wary of Colorado wilderness push
As a youngster in Crested Butte in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Paul Andersen had a foot on the pedal in the early days of mountain biking.
The sport was new and the U.S. Forest Service hadn’t yet clarified its rules on the presence of the machines in specially protected wilderness areas. Andersen, now a Basalt resident and Aspen Times columnist, recalls riding his bike in some of the most gorgeous mountain passes and valleys in the Aspen area, places like West Maroon Pass in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
But the Forest Service tightened up its wilderness rules in the 1980s, banning mountain bikes just as the sport was exploding in popularity.
“There was sort of a mood of upset among my mountain biking brethren,” Andersen said.
He initially shared those sentiments. But as Andersen spent more time out of the saddle and on his feet, he said he saw the “wisdom” of the ban on mountain bikes. They have a greater impact on trails and ecosystems than foot traffic, Andersen said.
“The lighter the use of wild lands, the better,” he said.
Andersen was willing to “sacrifice” some of the trails he was able to ride prior to the mid-1980s. And now he is willing to sacrifice additional routes on federal lands in return for the wilderness designation.
But his willingness to convert isn’t shared by a lot of mountain bikers. They see the efforts to lock them out of more lands as a stab in the back by conservation groups. Mountain bikers are outdoor lovers who, by-and-large, want beautiful landscapes protected from threats of development, mining, and oil and gas production.
The common ground that cyclists and wilderness advocates share is immense, said Mike Pritchard, a member of the board of directors of the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association, an advocacy group formed two years ago.
“We’re both looking to protect the land,” he said. “There’s a minor conflict of no two wheels in the wilderness.”
The ability of the two groups to work together is being put to the test during the campaign to protect between 400,000 and 450,000 acres of public lands in western Colorado, dubbed “the Hidden Gems.” Those lands are located in Pitkin, Garfield, Eagle, Summit and Gunnison counties – resort meccas for mountain biking. Roughly 217,000 of the acres targeted for protection surround the Roaring Fork Valley.
Wilderness Workshop, a renowned wilderness advocacy group founded in Aspen in the 1960s and now based in Carbondale, is heading the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign with heavyweight partners – the Colorado Environmental Coalition, Colorado Mountain Club and The Wilderness Society.
The roots of their effort trace back to earlier this decade, when a new management plan for the White River National Forest was released by the Forest Service. The agency recommended adding 82,000 acres of wilderness to the 750,000 acres already with that management designation.
“We said, ‘That’s a good start, but there’s a whole lot more out there'” that deserves the protection, said Wilderness Workshop Executive Director Sloan Shoemaker.
The environmental groups performed their own inventory to determine what additional lands should be protected. What they came up with are lands Shoemaker called the Hidden Gems. For the most part, those lands aren’t the jaw-dropping, “marquee” sites like the Maroon Bells or Snowmass Lake. Their beauty is more subtle.
While the Gems might not be stunning compared to the high ground that usually gets wilderness protection, they are important as wildlife habitat, Shoemaker said. “From an ecological standpoint, the lower lands are more valuable.”
After identifying the lands they want protected, the conservation groups are now working to get a wilderness proposal bill introduced during this session of Congress. “We’re in full-fledged campaign mode,” Shoemaker said.
U.S. Rep. John Salazar, whose district includes Pitkin and Garfield counties, is viewed as a prime potential candidate to sponsor a bill. But Salazar wants the wilderness advocates to build support and reduce opposition in the affected counties before he attaches his name to the effort.
“We’re trying to work out the conflicts before we get to Congress,” Shoemaker said.
That’s why the schism with the mountain biking community looms large.
The mountain bike association, which has about 400 members, said it will support wilderness designation on about 29,000 acres targeted by the Hidden Gems campaign around the Roaring Fork Valley. It wants a slightly lower level of protection on other lands so its members won’t lose existing trails or potential routes they hope to see developed.
Representatives of the mountain bike association began meeting with Shoemaker in May to try to find solutions that would provide protections for other lands without excluding mountain bikers.
The association believes the National Conservation Area and National Recreation Area designations should be used to protect some of the wilderness-quality lands. Those designations essentially act as “wilderness with bikes” but still provide strong protections, Pritchard said.
The environmental coalition is wary of using those tools for most of the Hidden Gems because they want the strongest protection possible.
So the two sides are at a stalemate. To call it a battle would overstate it, but the two groups are in conflict over what they each see as the best interests of their constituencies.
Wilderness Workshop and its allies want the strongest protection possible, utilizing the Wilderness Act of 1964 and its “wild for good” promise. They believe it is necessary to sacrifice most recreation opportunities for the good of the special lands.
“Everybody says, ‘We like wilderness, just don’t do it where it affects my pursuit, my adrenaline rush, my activity,'” Shoemaker said. “I just ask people to look at higher values than our recreational pursuits.”
Pritchard countered that mountain bikes don’t pose a threat to the lands that Wilderness Workshop wants to protect. Cycling is a clean and quiet sport that brings riders closer to nature and reinforces their environmental ethic, he said.
Many mountain bikers don’t understand why conservation groups would risk alienating them when they share so much in common. Other bikers just don’t buy the assertion that the conservationists’ vision of the land should trump their own.
Longtime mountain biking enthusiasts Glenn Horn of Aspen said he is concerned about the conservation groups’ intent to close trails near populated areas. Additional wilderness lands should be located far out in the backcountry, he said.
“There needs to be balance. There needs to be multiple use in the close-in areas,” said Horn, who doesn’t belong to the mountain bike association or Wilderness Workshop.
He wants different forest users to respect the rights of other groups. He doesn’t believe the conservationists working on the Hidden Gems proposal are honoring that code.
Horn also feels the environmental groups are employing an old political ploy as part of their campaign – they have asked for the wilderness designation on more lands than they really hope to protect.
“They’ve taken an extreme position thinking it will get watered down in the process,” he said.
Wilderness Workshop and the Rocky Mountain Bike Association have already proven they can compromise. Shoemaker said the conservation groups listened to concerns from mountain bikers early in its process and redrew wilderness boundaries to exclude some heavily used trails. “We made exclusions right off the top,” he said.
Learn about the Gems and bikers’ concerns
To learn more about the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign go to http://www.whiteriverwild.org/. The Web site has detailed descriptions of the targeted areas, including size, location, access and “potential threats.” Maps locate the areas within the Roaring Fork Valley and show where proposed Wilderness boundary lines would be.
To learn more about the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association’s assessment of the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign go to http://www.rfmba.org/mtb/advocacy.aspx. The Web site provides the full draft letter to Colorado’s Congressional delegation, outlines trails that would become off-limits and pinpoints affected areas on maps.