Rep. Polis announces wilderness expansion bill in Breckenridge
BRECKENRIDGE — Volunteer wilderness rangers in the high country soon could have thousands of acres more to roam if a new bill passes through Congress.
Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness would appreciate that, said Currie Craven, board chairman of the nonprofit. The organization has about 50 volunteers who help the Forest Service in the Eagles Nest and Ptarmigan Peak wildernesses in Summit County and the Holy Cross Wilderness in Eagle County.
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, came to Breckenridge on Sunday and announced the introduction of a conservation bill that would designate 60,000 acres of national forest land in Summit and Eagle counties with federal wilderness and recreation area protections.
“This proposal will benefit wildlife, strengthen our local businesses and economy and protect our beautiful wilderness in order to ensure it can be enjoyed by generations to come,” he said. “We’re going to continue to work until we pass this ball into law.”
The Rocky Mountain Recreation and Wilderness Preservation Act would designate 40,000 acres of new wilderness and expansions to existing wilderness areas including the Eagles Nest and Holy Cross wildernesses.
Sen. Mark Udall is reviewing public comments, making adjustments and crafting legislation that closely resembles Polis’ bill but adds Pitkin County. Udall is expected to introduce it in early 2015.
According to Conservation Colorado, the bill is a critical step toward a larger Central Mountain region effort to protect 250,000 acres in and around the White River National Forest, the most highly visited national forest in the country.
DITCHING AN OLD NAME
Conservationists have been promoting similar legislation, formerly known as the Hidden Gems Wilderness Proposal, for at least eight years.
In 2010, advocates formally proposed 244,000 acres of new wilderness designation in Summit and Eagle counties after about four years of study, vetting and deliberation.
That proposal sought wilderness designation for about 43,000 acres of federal land in Summit County and for 379,000 total acres in Summit, Eagle, Pitkin and Gunnison counties combined.
Advocates argued the plan would provide much-needed protections to mid-elevation habitats in Colorado, since much of the state’s existing wilderness land is high-altitude rock and ice.
Between 2006 and 2010, Hidden Gems went through 86 drafts and proponents removed more than 97,000 acres.
The movement gained momentum when Polis and Udall jumped on board with parallel bills in the U.S. House and Senate.
Polis unsuccessfully pushed the Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Act in 2010 and 2011 and faced local criticism from mountain bikers and snowmobilers worried about losing access to favorite trails, as motorized recreation is prohibited in federally designated wilderness areas.
Some opposition also came from those charged with protecting communities from wildfire.
For the past two years, Polis has worked with local governments, water providers, land managers, constituents and conservation and recreation organizations to address comments and concerns.
That collaborative process led to a recreation- and conservation-oriented bill, reflected in the proposal’s new name. The bill would not close any motorized routes or access points currently open to public use.
Instead, some areas would be labeled with “companion designations,” meaning they are wilderness buffers in which motorized recreation and resource extraction would be prohibited but mountain biking and fire-protection work would be allowed.
Though companion designations were part of Polis’ original legislation, the areas named have been clarified and boundaries adjusted in response to feedback.
This latest bill would designate about 40,000 acres of new wilderness and more than 10,000 acres of recreation management areas in Summit and Eagle counties.
INCLUDING THE RIDERS
New to the proposal this year is the Tenmile Recreation Management Area, which would be divided into two parts, with one stretching southwest from Frisco and the other spreading south of Breckenridge Ski Resort.
Aaron Clark, conservation manager with the International Mountain Biking Association in Boulder, said he was excited about the Tenmile Recreation Area and proud of the work that has gone into carefully crafting its boundaries.
He called the proposed area a great example of bringing the qualities aspired to in wilderness together with other recreational uses.
According to the Outdoor Industry Association, headquartered in Boulder, outdoor recreation in Colorado generates $13.2 billion in consumer spending and is responsible for 125,000 jobs that pay $4.2 billion in salaries and wages.
A-Basin COO Alan Henceroth said he was particularly excited about the wilderness designation around Porcupine Gulch between A-Basin and Keystone Resort.
One of the proposed wilderness areas at Hoosier Ridge is home to a plant variety that researchers say is found almost nowhere else on earth, said Craven, with Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness,
People sometimes snowmobile there, he said, threatening the plant, and the wilderness designation could educate people about the importance of preserving the area. He added that snowmobilers could still enjoy riding on trails on both sides of Hoosier Pass, and he applauded Polis’ inclusion of snowmobilers’ wishes when he excluded Elliot Ridge in Eagles Nest Wilderness in this bill.
Snowmobilers and bikers sometimes ride on public lands where they’re not allowed, said Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier, but the bill wouldn’t close any trails or areas designated for motorized use to those users.
Some people will always be philosophically opposed to the idea of wilderness, she added, but people should know these public lands are for the enjoyment and benefit of everyone.
LOCAL SUPPORT BUT HURDLES IN D.C.
How do you put a dollar number on clean air and water?
A report prepared by Wild Connections, a Colorado conservation nonprofit, quantified the ecosystem services each acre of wilderness provides in terms of water and air purification, and the 60,000 acres proposed in this bill would amount to nearly $10.5 million.
After years of discussions, the latest version of the proposal seems to have broad public support, said Scott Braden, wilderness advocate with Conservation Colorado.
His colleague Susie Kincade lamented that a new wilderness area hasn’t been designated in Colorado since the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness in 2009, despite efforts like Polis’ and historically bipartisan support.
“The sad part about that is, as these bills languish in Congress, the lands are disappearing,” she said. “Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
For more information about Polis’ bill, including detailed maps of the proposed areas, visit http://www.polis.house.gov/wilderness.