Hidden Gems protestors gain Congressman’s ear in Aspen | VailDaily.com

Hidden Gems protestors gain Congressman’s ear in Aspen

Janet Urquart
Vail, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – Roughly two dozen protesters endured the bitter cold Sunday evening in Aspen for a chance to gain the ear of a U.S. congressman. The effort paid off.

Rep. John Salazar, in Aspen to receive an award at the Wheeler Opera House for his efforts to dedicate new Wilderness areas in Colorado, stepped across the street to shake hands with protesters and briefly listen to their concerns about the Hidden Gems proposal to protect additional lands in western Colorado as Wilderness. Most of the protesters appeared concerned about the potential loss of lands for motorized use; federally-designated Wilderness is off-limits to mechanized uses, including snowmobiling, four-wheeling and mountain biking.

Salazar assured several in the group he has taken no position on the Gems proposal.

Herb Weisbard of Missouri Heights said he was surprised that Salazar gave the protesters a bit of his time, leaning across the barricades to hear what they had to say.

“I think he’s on our side,” Weisbard said afterward. “He understands where we’re coming from.”

Some of the protesters had been standing on the corner opposite the Wheeler for close to 90 minutes by the time Salazar appeared. Though police had braced for a crowd of perhaps 200 or more, a large throng did not materialize. It was a peaceful demonstration, punctuated by occasional shouts of “No Hidden Gems!”

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Rick Cheney of Carbondale, among the first protesters to arrive, said he hoped his presence would make a difference in the debate over which, if any, additional lands become Wilderness.

“I think John Salazar, hopefully, he’s open-minded. Hopefully, he’ll listen to both sides,” Cheney said.

“We just want to show him we’re serious enough to stand here in the cold and freeze. We’re his constituents, too,” said Stephen Burns, a New Castle resident and Aspen native.

Ginger Gage of Rifle came with extra protest signs, distributing them to those without one, and handed out a letter to passersby outlining the concerns of Gems opponents. Shivering, she vowed to dash across the street to the front door of the opera house to hand the congressman the letter if he didn’t venture over to the group.

Gage said she has sent 10 letters via e-mail to Salazar’s office since August, receiving form-letter acknowledgment of their receipt just twice. She figured Sunday’s event was her best shot to get a letter directly into his hands.

The event at the Wheeler included the premier of a documentary, “Forever Wild: Celebrating America’s Wilderness,” by husband-and-wife filmmakers Chelsea Congdon and James Brundige of Old Snowmass. A reception with Salazar, landscaper John Fielder and the filmmakers preceded the screening; the congressman was honored for his work in the recent dedication of the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness Area in Colorado and for introducing legislation that would dedicate more in the San Juan Mountains.

Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, the organizer of Sunday’s event, is one of the organizations pushing the Hidden Gems proposal, along with The Wilderness Society, Colorado Mountain Club and the Colorado Environmental Coalition.

The Gems plan would give some 400,000 acres of land Wilderness protection. Proponents are looking for a member of the state’s Congressional delegation to take the legislation forward at some point.

For opponents, the best strategy may be to make the proposal so controversial that no elected representative will “touch it with a 10-foot pole,” Gage said.

Filmmaker Brundige, observing the gathering of the first few protesters, said he hopes the recreation groups that aren’t happy with the proposal come to the table to help negotiate a plan that works for everybody.

“If there are really important trails we should be talking about, let’s talk, instead of just bashing the whole thing,” he said.