Should Lower Piney be wilderness?
Vail CO Colorado
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – One of the most controversial pieces of the Hidden Gems proposal looks innocent enough on a recent Saturday.
Piney Ridge rises like a spine from this remote land northeast of Wolcott, forming an impressive backdrop as a group of hikers scales Forest Service Road 442. The group pauses in the meadows below the ridge as Hidden Gems hiking guide Collin Steward talks about the importance of high-elevation terrain; elk, deer and lynx migrate through these rolling hills.
“These meadows are full of forage for all kind of species,” Stewart said.
Toward the end of the walk, hikers stopped to sign postcards destined for lawmakers, a reminder that this land, home to so many animals, is also fertile political territory.
Supporters of the Hidden Gems campaign have been organizing these hikes in hopes participants will get behind a plan to designate as federal wilderness some 342,000 acres in Eagle, Summit, Pitkin and Gunnison counties. Recently hikers toured one of the most hotly debated proposals: about 25,000 acres in Eagle County known as Lower Piney.
Ambling along the dirt road on a northern boundary, Edwards resident Dale Mosier, 65, said he sees the logic in protecting this habitat.
“Philosophically, I think it’s clearly the right thing to do,” he said. “Maintaining the wildlife and being able to encourage that – It’s going to be harder as more and more development takes place.”
Others think the main thing this land needs protection from is Hidden Gems itself.
Fear of getting ‘locked out’
Lower Piney has been a flashpoint of anger for some snowmobilers who are drawn to the powder fields north of Moniger Road. The wilderness designation would close Lower Piney to motorized and mechanized uses.
“We’re concerned it’s going to lock us out of an area we’ve always been going to,” Minturn resident Chris Ratzlaff said.
If Hidden Gems passes, it would disrupt a longtime tradition of snowmobilers riding in Lower Piney’s clearings, said Lance Trujillo, president of the Holy Cross Powder Hounds, an Eagle County snowmobiling club.
“It’s probably the biggest snowmobile area for our county other than Vail Pass,” he said.
The club uses a snowcat to groom Moniger road, which forms Lower Piney’s southern boundary and gives snowmobilers access to meadows north of the road. While the road itself would remain open if Hidden Gems passes, some of the meadows would be closed to snowmobilers.
“That area is pretty much home to our club,” Trujillo said.
Hidden Gems removed 2,600 acres along the southern border of Lower Piney in response to snowmobiliers’ concerns, Hidden Gems spokeswoman Susie Kincaid said.
Still, some snowmobilers say Lower Piney remains a sticking point for the opposition.
“That’s the number one area we’ve been fighting for in Eagle County,” Trujillo said.
“If they would work with us and keep Lower Piney out of it, we would be more willing to give other areas in the proposal such as Castle Peak and Bull Gulch.”
Edwards resident Jim Kemp, 68, has been hunting grouse on Piney Ridge for a decade. When he heard Hidden Gems would close Forest Service Road 784.1, a road that climbs the ridge, he worked with campaign backers to remove a section of the road from the proposal. That way, he could continue to scale the ridge on his ATV.
“I can take the ATV to the Forest Service road, up to a higher elevation on the ridge, and then park it and go on foot,” Kemp said.
The Forest Service road that would close is “almost impassable,” Kincaid argues.
“It’s a very dangerous and unmaintained road,” she said. “Occasionally people have to be rescued from driving on it.”
Nonetheless, the road closure doesn’t sit well with Alan Butts, a McCoy resident who shot his first five-point bull elk in Lower Piney. He sees Hidden Gems as an erosion of American freedoms.
“You should have the right to wreck your pickup truck or Jeep in trying if that’s what you want to do,” he said. “You can’t legislate against stupidity or ambition.”
Yet other outdoorsmen like Kemp say Hidden Gems would actually improve their hunting prospects in Lower Piney.
“The birds, I think, will multiply and become more numerous without the intrusion of vehicles,” Kemp said.
Forest Service Road 784.1 is the only road in Eagle County that Hidden Gems would close, Kincaid said. Within the Lower Piney area, the rest of the roads are either closed or set to close under the U.S. Forest Service travel management plan, regardless of whether Hidden Gems passes.
Lower Piney also contains Big Park, a popular hunting area for deer and elk. About two years ago, the Forest Service closed the main road to the park because it was being overrun by ATVs and people, said Janie Pardo, outfitter and guide administrator for Eagle/Holy Cross Ranger District. Although the Forest Service blocked the road with boulders, “I would imagine they’re still finding their way around the closures,” she said.
The Forest Service gives out $250 fines to drivers who ignore the closure. If Hidden Gems goes through, riding a vehicle to Big Park would become even more taboo. The fine would double to $500, Pardo said.
While the opposition has been framing the debate in terms of recreation, Hidden Gems backers say there’s more at stake than human play.
“It’s about something bigger than where we recreate and how we recreate,” Kincaid said.
Lower Piney is only a quarter the size of the neighboring Eagle’s Nest Wilderness, yet the parcel contains four times the wildlife habitat and biodiversity, she said.
“It’s really one of the richest areas in the proposal in terms of wildlife habitat,” Kincaid said.
Piney River crosses through the proposal area, which is ripe with wetlands, she said. The land is home to a host of sensitive species including the boreal owl, sage grouse and Colorado River cutthroat trout, Kincaid said. Lynx also build their dens in Lower Piney, she said.
“Existing wilderness areas are spectacular and iconic but they’re high rock and ice, snowcapped mountains where you don’t see trees,” Kincaid said. “Animals can go there and live there in the summer but very few use that terrain in the winter at all. They all migrate down into lower elevations. It’s these lower elevations that have the food source and habitat to support robust wildlife populations.”
To keep the land wild, Hidden Gems backers say they want to protect it from mechanized and motorized intrusion. Lower Piney has also been assessed as having moderate oil and gas potential, Kincaid said, referencing a map prepared by the Bureau of Land Management and other government agencies.
“For the future, absolutely it could be looked at by oil and gas companies as a place they would like to explore,” Kincaid said.
Only Congress can designate federal wilderness. Proponents of Hidden Gems have been urging U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colorado) to introduce a bill to start the process.
Polis has held public hearings on the proposal and said while he’s optimistic a consensus can be reached, he doesn’t want to rush it.
Lara Cottingham, a spokeswoman for the Polis said his office is “still going through all the areas, piece by piece, detail by detail” to decide which should be included in his wilderness proposal.
“As far as Lower Piney, that’s definitely an area we have gotten a lot of comment on, so we’re looking at it to find out if any of those areas would be appropriate,” Cottingham said.
Staff Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 970-748-2928 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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