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The missing facet of Colorado’s Hidden Gems

John Gardner
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Kelley Cox | Post IndependentSean Martin is the president of the Mount Sopris Recreational Riders snowmobile club.
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GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – On Friday, Jan. 15, Sean Martin enjoyed a late morning snowmobile ride deep into the White River National Forest.

Martin joined a group of the Mount Sopris Recreational Riders Club, of which he is president, on the SP trail near Thompson Creek. The SP trail runs east and west for close to 150 miles, from Sunlight Mountain resort area to the Powderhorn Ski Area on the Grand Mesa. The trail is maintained by the club. It’s also one of their most heavily used trails.

“It’s a great day to be out for a ride,” Martin said.

The crisp snow was magnified by the brilliant sunny day.

Martin, along with his wife and stepson, were out on the sleds that day, as any other family might enjoy bowling. Thompson Creek is an area that they have enjoyed for years.

“This is why we do this,” he said. “To get out here, in the forest, and enjoy the land.”

Neil Palazzi, the club’s vice president, was also on the trail that Friday.

“This is usually the only time we get together,” Palazzi said. “Sometimes this is the only place we get to see one another. Everyone gets busy. But we all enjoy doing this so we get together and do this.”

Snowmobilers like Martin and Palazzi enjoy riding snowmobiles in the forest land near their homes. But they claim that the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign threatens to close access to much of the area that they’ve enjoyed for years.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t give it much thought at first,” Martin admitted.

But about a year ago, when the campaign started gaining momentum, Martin started paying attention.

“It was a real eye opener,” he said.

The Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign, which seeks wilderness designation for approximately 400,000 acres of land spanning Summit, Gunnison, Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties, has received its share of opposition from rock climbers to motorized users.

The campaign seeks to add and extend wilderness areas in the White River and Gunnison national forests and nearby Bureau of Land Management lands.

The proposed Clear Fork Divide Wilderness is the largest area of new wilderness included in the Hidden Gems proposal. At 110,000 acres, the area includes Clear Fork, Hayes Creek, East Willow, and Thompson Creek, the majority of which lies in Pitkin County.

Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, one of the four organizations involved in the campaign, recently released a statement saying that it was removing a large portion of Thompson Creek from the proposal due to rancher opposition.

“The Hidden Gems Campaign intends to drop 32,166 acres from its wilderness proposal in the Thompson Creek area … to accommodate ranchers who aren’t willing to support wilderness designation for the public lands in the Thompson Creek where they graze cattle,” the statement read.

Wilderness designations requires an act of Congress and protects public lands from energy development, mining and logging, and prohibits the use of motorized vehicles and equipment. But Congress has made exceptions to motorized rules for maintenance of grazing allotments.

Sue Rodgers, owner of the Crystal River Ranch, and Bill Fales and his wife, Marj Perry, who own the Cold Mountain Ranch, are two Carbondale-area ranchers who have reached a compromise with proponents on the Thompson Creek area.

According to Fales, he agreed to support the 25,000 acres on Assignation Ridge where he and other area ranchers have grazing allotments on Bureau of Land Management lands.

Fales said that he supports the designation on Assignation Ridge because they manage the land by horseback, and it would not affect their work.

“The wilderness designation won’t interfere with management of that land,” Fales said.

Fales, who is a co-chair for the Thompson Divide Coalition, a group of local ranchers, farmers, hunters, fishermen, recreationalists, and conservationists who oppose oil and gas development in the area, is also president of the North Thompson Cattlemen’s association. He said that he hasn’t taken a personal stance on the proposal, but speaks for the cattlemen’s association whose main concern is to protect the land from energy development. And the wilderness designation is a good way to do that.

“I feel that oil and gas development in the area is the biggest threat,” Fales said.

But he also would like to see some protection of the land from recreationalists as well.

“Motorized technology today is making it possible for vehicles that will go everywhere, and there seem to be a hugely growing population in Colorado,” Fales said. “There needs to be some limit so that we don’t love the ground to death.”

Fales didn’t offer a suggestion on how exactly to limit motorized use of the land but said that it should be addressed.

“I don’t know what the limitations should be,” he said. “But, if they have total free reign as to ride as many machines as long as they want, everywhere, I don’t think that is good resource management.”

Mount Sopris Recreational Riders Club President Martin has his opinion on the campaign.

“I think their proposal has some real merit to it,” he said. “I think, in order to appease us all, it’s got to be somewhere more in the middle than where it’s at.”

Martin said that the rancher’s support, like Fales, illustrates the bias of the organizations behind the proposal.

“It only accommodates those ranchers,” he said.

And he feels that snowmobilers and other recreationalists will end up a casualty if the Gems moves forward as currently proposed.

“I don’t really think that snowmobiles bother too much,” he said. “But to get that wilderness designation you have to get everybody gone. And if you break a few eggs, that’s just the way it goes.”

Martin admits his bias on the issue. Obviously, he enjoys being able to ride his snowmobile miles deep into the White River National Forest, including Thompson Creek. He said that the proposal aims to lock out the people, like the snowmobile club members, who enjoy the area as much as the other groups. And that the proposal accommodates only select groups such as hikers. However, he, too, agrees that the land needs to be protected.

“The majority of people – 100 percent – want to see it protected,” he said. “We just have different takes on how it gets protected.”

Carbondale resident and four-wheel advocate Greg Noss agreed with Martin that maintaining the lands that recreationalists use is a better option than locking people out.

“Most of the land that is going into this, people have been recreating on it for years, and it’s still good enough to call wilderness,” Noss said. “So, why do we have to go backwards and say it’s wilderness and kick everybody out?”

Noss said that he thinks the BLM and Forest Service should determine how the land is used and how it’s managed. Noss said that his interest is keeping existing roads open, but that this proposal will just shut off access for motorized users, altogether.

“We are grassroots people just trying to keep the roads open that have been open,” he said. “That is why most of us moved to an are like this, because we enjoy recreating in these areas.”

However, the biggest issue for most motorized users like Martin, Noss, and Mike Thuillier, owner of KTM of Aspen near Carbondale, is that they claim to have been excluded from conversations with organizers of the proposal. And, Martin said, they would just like the same consideration that other user groups have been given.

“If they would have reached out, maybe we weren’t going to see eye to eye on everything, but in the long run, I think it would have helped their whole thing a heck of a lot more if they would have reached out to more groups,” Martin said. “Not just groups that agree with them.”

Glenwood Springs resident Steve Smith, regional director for the Wilderness Society, one of the four organizations behind the proposal, said that there are a lot of misconceptions going around regarding the Hidden Gems. Particularly the misconception that they have not been accommodating user input.

“It is a misconception,” Smith said. “I would characterize the dynamic we’ve had [with motorized user groups] more that the motorized recreationalists have not participated in the discussion about how to modify this wilderness proposal.”

The recent decision to remove part of the Thompson Creek area from the proposal would illustrate the organizations’ willingness to work with users to adjust the proposal in order to meet the needs of all involved.

Fales’ statements supported Smith’s claims. And, Fales said, his dealings with the Wilderness Workshop were constructive.

“They have been very accommodating to our requests,” Fales said.

Smith says that since they first revised the proposal two years ago, the four organizations including the Wilderness Society, The Colorado Mountain Club, the Colorado Environmental Coalition and Wilderness Workshop have sought input from as many people and user groups knowledgeable about the lands in the proposal, for further refinement. Smith says that opponents are against wilderness areas in general, and that some are unwilling to compromise.

“Not only are we not excluding the motorized folks, we have invited them to participate,” Smith said. “We also are not saying that we are going to toss you off the land. We simply want to know the areas they use, so that we can make adjustments.”

Smith agrees with Martin that more conversations are needed in order to create the best proposal for every party involved.

“We can’t just sit back and throw snowballs at each other, we need to sit down and talk,” Smith said.

The Wilderness Workshop, in its December newsletter “Wild Works,” stated that the reason for more wilderness is simple; to protect areas from drilling, logging and the greatest threat of all, “the ever-growing pressure of recreation.”

The group argues that further fragmentation of roads and trails in the areas is the greatest threat to wilderness.

Smith said that one of the major points of the Hidden Gems proposal is to stop that fragmentation into these areas, not to limiting access to them.

“We are not proposing wilderness for all of the forest,” Smith said. “Only for the most untraveled portions of the forest.”

In many instances, according to Smith, existing trails and roads establish a boundary to the proposed wilderness areas.

“We are not out to throw people off the land,” he said. “We are trying to build this proposal around those uses.”

However, accommodating all different groups has proven difficult. Smith said that the same argument from motorized users is similar to nonmotorized users who support portions of the proposal.

“We want to make sure that those aspects get attention, too,” Smith said.

The foundation for Hidden Gems, according to Smith, is to ensure a balance of use on public lands to not only accommodate motorized users. And more importantly protect lands that are considered critical seasonal wildlife habitat, land in need of water quality protection, lands that are important as scenic backdrops, and quiet recreation opportunities.

“We are giving a lot of attention to water, bicycling, climbing, agriculture and motorized use, but we also want to make sure that everybody gives attention to the untraveled values that are another important component of our national forest, and of the lands around our communities,” Smith said.

jgardner@postindependent.com


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