Eagle County wilderness bill introduced in Congress
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – The Hidden Gems wilderness proposal has a new name and a new audience: Congress.
Rep. Jared Polis, the Boulder Democrat who represents Eagle County in Congress, late Wednesday introduced a bill, the “Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Presevation Act.” If it ultimately passes the House and Senate and lands on President Obama’s desk, the bill would create about 166,000 acres of new wilderness in the two counties.
A release from Polis’ office states that the bill was crafted “after an intense public review and consensus building process.”
That process included a handful of contentious public hearings in both counties.
After those hearings, Polis and his staff adjusted the proposal that the Hidden Gems campaign submitted to his office earlier this year, cutting areas and proposing others for “Special Management Area” designation, a lesser category than full wilderness, but one that still restricts mechanized access to the area.
Those areas – on Red Table and Pisgah Mountain in Eagle County – were created in large part to accommodate training flights for the Colorado National Guard’s High Altitude Aviation Training Site, which is based at the Eagle County Regional Airport.
But the Red Table area is also the town of Gypsum’s watershed, which has had town officials worried.
Gypsum Fire Chief Dave Vroman said a Special Management Area is better than a wilderness area from his perspective.
“There are still obstacles to getting in, but those can be solved at the local or regional level without having to go through the Department of the Interior,” Vroman said.
What worries fire and water districts is the ability to get into an area before and after a wildfire to either rehabilitate or restore damaged areas that affect local streams and reservoirs, Vroman said.
In Vail, Eagle River Water and Sanitation District Assistant General Manager Linn Brooks agreed with Vroman, and said from the district’s perspective, more work needs to be done on the bill.
Brooks said one of the district’s worries has been that some of the property proposed for wilderness protection isn’t pristine now. Some property in the Spraddle Creek area is crisscrossed by logging roads. Those roads can put silt and sediment into streams and reservoirs, Brooks said. If they aren’t re-planted, they’ll continue to do that if they’re simply abandoned.
“We’d like some language in (the bill) for the ability, under U.S. Forest Service oversight, to do some of those watershed projects,” Brooks said.
The water district has asked for a two-year delay on wilderness designation so the district can identify areas that need restoration, then get into those areas to do the work.
While merely introducing a bill doesn’t ensure its passage, Pete Kolbenschlag with the Hidden Gems campaign said this week’s news was welcomed by his group.
“It’s a huge step,” Kolbenschlag said. “We’ve been working on this for years.”
From Brooks’ perspective, though, there’s still work to do before the bill introduced this week is acceptable to her district.
“We’re going to continue to work on it,” Brooks said.
Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or firstname.lastname@example.org.