Polis makes wilderness plan public | VailDaily.com

Polis makes wilderness plan public

Dominique Taylor | Daily file photo

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – Wilderness opponents say the latest Hidden Gems proposal is an improvement for recreation, but they’d be happier if there was no proposal.

Rep. Jared Polis, a Boulder Democrat running for re-election, Wednesday released a discussion draft of legislation to create 171,000 acres of new wilderness and special management areas in Eagle and Summit counties. For now, the working title is the Summit and Eagle County Wilderness Preservation Act.

Jack Albright, vice president of the White River Forest Alliance, says his group would be happier if they’d never had to deal with any of it, but they can live with this.

“It shows a lot of development and progress from what was originally proposed,” Albright said. “Congressman Polis has done a good job listening to everyone.”

It’s the latest wilderness proposal, but it might not be the last, Polis said.

“This proposal should by no means be considered a ‘comprehensive’ or ‘Hidden Gems’ wilderness bill,” Polis said. “There is a still an ongoing discussion about other potential wilderness areas, and I will continue working with local governments, residents, and stakeholders on issues and areas that this legislation doesn’t address.”

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Last Friday, Polis’s office e-mailed most of the details to some people both for and against the plan, with instructions to keep it to themselves until Polis publicly released the proposal.

So of course, Hidden Gems campaign director Pete Kolbenschlag issued a press release Monday, frustrating Polis’s staff.

“They jumped the gun,” Lara Cottingham, Polis’s press secretary said from her Washington, D.C. Office.

Many recreation concerns have been addressed and you’re left with the philosophical discussion of whether wilderness is good, Albright said.

“We’re not excited about the proposal, even as it stands, but the work has been diligent by the congressman and his staff,” Albright said. “Early on, my emphasis with the Hidden Gems campaign was to take care of as much of this as possible, and make the congressman’s job as easy as possible. Unfortunately, the backers did not do that, so it was left to us to work with the congressman directly.”

Some areas still need some work, Albright said.

Along Hoosier Ridge above Breckenridge, the town of Blue River still has some concerns. There’s a special management area on Red Table that needs some attention, Albright said.

“If they’re going to make concessions to the mountain bike community to open traditional trails, some consideration should be given to snowmobiles, which are low impact since they’re running over several feet of snow,” Albright said. “With the kinds of snow depths we have around here, the larger game species are out of the area by the time travel would occur.”

The White River Forest Alliance represents a wide range of forest users, ranging from hikers to motorized users. They insist that wilderness designations are too restrictive.

All mechanized travel is banned in wilderness areas, leaving it to those who believe multiple use consists of hiking and snowshoeing.

Polis is proposing nearly 90,000 new acres of wilderness. An additional 80,000 acres would become special management areas or get companion designations. Among the latter are military training areas used by the Colorado National Guard’s High Altitude Army Aviation Training Site, where helicopter pilots from around the world are trained to fly combat missions in high altitude alpine environments.

The discussion draft is not the final bill, which Polis said he hopes to introduce this fall.

In 2003, the U.S. Forest Service waded through a years-long planning process for the White River National Forest, identifying 81,000 acres that met the criteria for wilderness, said Patrick Thrasher, public affairs officer with the White River National Forest. He said that has not changed, and neither his agency’s position.

“We feel that the forest planning process is the proper venue for that to take place,” Thrasher said.

Thrasher said this wilderness proposal is probably about timing and the November election, after which the composition of Congress could change to one far less favorable with this sort of thing.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.