Hidden Gems: Cost of protecting land debated at Breckenridge forum
summit daily news
Vail, CO Colorado
BRECKENRIDGE – People shared a spectrum of opinions Friday on a proposal to expand Summit County’s wilderness areas during a forum U.S. Rep. Jared Polis moderated at Colorado Mountain College.
The proposal would extend areas banning mountain bikes and motor vehicles by about 43,000 acres. Cyclists recently worked out an agreement with advocates for the Hidden Gems wilderness campaign to ensure access to areas for existing and future bike-trail development.
But users of snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles say they’re being squeezed out of areas they hold dearly.
“It’s my goal to include your expertise in deciding what to do with this proposal,” Polis said.
A crowd of people on both sides of Hidden Gems attended the CMC forum, hashing out numerous concerns during the three-hour discussion. Existing wilderness land encompasses more than 750,000 acres in eight areas.
“Wilderness is forever, which is what I don’t like,” Rich Holcroft, president of High Country Snowmobile Club said, adding that he’d prefer to see one area opened as another is closed or wait for the forest service to develop its Travel Management Plan.
He said the existing proposal would leave open only areas off Tiger Road and on Vail Pass open to snowmobiling.
“The proposal gives us no room for anything in the future,” he said.
Holcroft was one of seven panelists representing stakeholders that also included wilderness advocates, firefighters and the U.S. Forest Service. They answered questions from the public and some shared opinions.
Many people who spoke Friday appeared to be in agreement that while they wanted their mountain bikes, ATVs and snowmobiles to have access to the forest, mining and commercial development are bad for the areas.
“We all feel like we’re not the enemy,” said Mike McCormack, president of mountain bike group Summit Fat Tire Society. “Commercial development is the enemy; resource extraction is the enemy.”
A representative with Climax Molybdenum Company said that everyone in attendance uses molybdenum, and the industry brings about $1.2 billion to Colorado annually. He said the company opposes the Tenmile proposal area – on which it owns inholdings – because of potential impacts to operations.
Kurt Kunkle, Summit County Hidden Gems coordinator, said the company’s concerns were taken seriously, “but in the end we didn’t see a lot of conflict.”
He added that the properties the mining company owns there will increase in value if the area becomes wilderness.
The Hidden Gems debate – ultimately aimed at Congressional approval – has an inherent political nature wider in scope than user groups. On one side, people are backing government action to permanently protect treasured land from destructive human impacts. The opposition wants freedom to use public lands without discrimination.
The wilderness area divides users, allowing access to people on foot, horseback or skis but prohibiting bikers and motorized users.
John Warnick of Blue River said that the proposal impedes individual liberties.
“This proposal is anti-people,” he said. “I’m not going to fight my neighbors. You’re not going to divide my community.”
Local author and historian Mary Ellen Gilliland said she’s become “pretty intimately connected” to the forest in part from writing Summit and Vail hiking guides.
She said the term “user” is bothersome, for the intention of Hidden Gems is to protect land’s value.
“I am a visitor who treads in awe upon the beauty and awesome nobility of the land that we all share and use,” she said.
Some people said the snowmobilers don’t bother the skiers.
Jonathan Kriegel of Silverthorne said he doesn’t “believe for a moment there is no conflict of interest out there on the trails; that’s nonsense.”
He said that he’s been out on skis at high elevations where snowmobilers speed by and practice high-marking (riding as far up a steep slope as possible before turning around).
“You are ruining other peoples’ experience and degrading experiences for other people and quiet users,” Kriegel said.
One man said the 5,090 acres of wilderness proposed for Elliot Ridge – north of the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness area – include an area that would be a huge loss to snowmobilers. He said it’s about 8 miles in, which is farther than most people would travel on foot anyway.
Robin Theobald, a fifth-generation local of nearly 59 years, said that while he’s been “extremely supportive” of wilderness areas in the county, he doesn’t back the proposal. He said the forest service’s plans for White River National Forest have been created through “a tremendous amount of community input.”
“Compared to the development of the forest plan and the travel management plan, this proposal has been very, very, very rushed,” he said.
Kunkle said he apologizes to the snowmobilers for not contacting them sooner. He said the Hidden Gems people remain open to dialogue with them. He also said the proposal has been in the works since 2000 and was expected to be ready by late last year.
“We feel like we’ve taken our time and created a great proposal,” Kunkle said.
While the Summit County Fat Tire Society has been well-organized for many years, local off-road motorized user groups have only recently become active.
One man said he’s become an active ATV rider since a degenerative disease made it more difficult to go hiking – and ATV is his preferred means for enjoying much of the land.
The Hidden Gems advocates have taken about 27,000 acres out of their proposal because of requests from a variety of groups. Cyclists alone have negotiated to save nearly 16,000 acres for their use, while motorized users have gotten about 2,600 acres removed.
Trish Holcroft said she’s concerned about protecting her Blue River neighborhood from wildfires.
Jeff Berino, deputy chief with Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue, said the proposal was changed to accommodate more separation between the boundaries of neighborhoods and the start of wilderness area.
“We are allowed to engage in wildfire suppression in wilderness land,” he said, adding that permission from the feds is needed, and there are limits in terms of equipment they can use.
The Summit County Hidden Gems proposal was reduced by nearly 3,000 acres to accommodate requests for fire, according to information from the Hidden Gems campaign.
The Summit County Wildfire Council has reviewed and OK’d the proposal.
Scott Fitzwilliams, forest supervisor with White River National Forest, said that in terms of fuels reduction, prescribed burns might be the only allowed method in wilderness areas.
“That’s dicey,” he said, commenting on the vast amount of trees killed by the mountain pine beetle on land stretching to Wyoming.
He said that the way a person treats the 500 feet around one’s home can have a more positive effect than much of what can be done in the forests.
Robert Allen can be contacted at (970) 668-4628 or firstname.lastname@example.org.