Roaring Fork mountain bike group can’t back wilderness expansion
BASALT, Colorado – An association for mountain bikers in the Roaring Fork Valley has formally come out in opposition to the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal.
The Basalt-based Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association mailed a letter to part of Colorado’s congressional delegation Friday that said it cannot support Hidden Gems “in its current form.” The letter was also sent to the county commissioners in Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties.
“While we cannot support the proposal in its entirety, we have identified specific areas totaling over 94,000 acres that RFMBA could support for Wilderness designation,” the letter said. That represents about 43 percent of the lands in the Roaring Fork Valley drainage that wilderness proponents want protected.
The mountain bike association took a position only on lands in the Roaring Fork drainage. About half of the public land in the Hidden Gems proposal is outside of the valley.
Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop is heading a coalition of environmental groups promoting Wilderness designation for a total of about 450,000 acres in western Colorado. The coalition hopes to persuade a member of Congress to introduce a bill for the Wilderness proposal, possibly later this year.
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The Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association got a jump on the debate by sending its letter to U.S. Reps. John Salazar, Jared Polis and Dianne DeGette.
Mike Pritchard, a member of the bike association’s board of directors, said there is enough community opposition to Hidden Gems that he doubts a bill will be introduced this year. Nevertheless, it was time for the association to take a position after months of negotiations and analysis.
Pritchard said leaders of the mountain bike association outlined their position to Wilderness Workshop about 10 days ago out of courtesy. “Unfortunately, there’s still disagreement,” Pritchard said. “It comes down to philosophy, almost religion.”
A Wilderness designation prohibits motorized and mechanized vehicles and uses from public lands. Proponents of Hidden Gems said many of the lands in the proposal provide excellent, lower-level habitat for wildlife. Those lands need protection from natural gas extraction, motorized vehicle use and mountain bikes to preserve them indefinitely, the coalition contends.
The mountain bike association wants a slightly lower level of protection used on most of the lands targeted as Hidden Gems. Those “companion designations” would protect lands from natural gas development and motorized travel but leave them open to mountain biking.
Wilderness Workshop had previously agreed to seek the a “Wilderness with bikes” designation for an area which includes parts of the popular Arbaney Kittle Trail between Woody Creek and Basalt. But for the most part, Wilderness proponents want the full strength of protection.
The mountain bike association softened its position this fall. As late as Aug. 1, it said it would support Wilderness designation for only about 29,000 acres in the Roaring Fork drainage. It compromised after further analysis, Pritchard said. The association’s letter said the mountain bikers cannot compromise further.
“As advocates for the outdoors, mountain bikers agree that there are some situations where Wilderness designation is the proper tool to preserve outdoor areas,” the letter said. “However, RFMBA’s membership cannot support the blanket use of a Wilderness designation for a number of the Hidden Gems proposal areas because of the permanent ban on recreational bicycling that this would cause.”
Sloan Shoemaker, Wilderness Workshop executive director, was in meetings Monday and not immediately available for comment. Wilderness Workshop launched a campaign in September to win over “average Joe” mountain bikers by showing that Hidden Gems wouldn’t affect any trails that the vast majority of them ride. Shoemaker suggested at the time that the mountain bike association’s position was being formed by a few hard-core bikers.
Mountain bikers have been courted by both Wilderness advocates and motorized user groups in the Hidden Gems debate. They are showing their independence.
“Nationally, mountain bikers want to stick up for themselves,” Pritchard said.