Vail Daily letter: Hiddens Gems wilderness plan is sensible, proponents reasonable |

Vail Daily letter: Hiddens Gems wilderness plan is sensible, proponents reasonable

Lori Russell
Vail, CO, Colorado

I have been reading many inflamed letters in the paper about the Hidden Gems wilderness proposal, and wondered what all the hubbub was about.

Why were so many people — who apparently use our open spaces regularly – against adding to our wilderness cache?

On the other hand, why did so many people feel we need more wilderness designation when we already have so much beautiful open land and rich forests available on all sides to use for our recreation? Do we really need more land protected? How much is enough? And what is the difference between all that national forest out there and a “wilderness” designation?

I’m all for wilderness. That’s why I moved here, as did so many of us — to access miles and miles of trails, high mountains and pristine lakes, to hike, camp, ski, view the wildlife, and enjoy all the fun activities and that our mountains offer. I’m a mountain biker too. And I love jeeping.

I heard some arguments that these new proposed wilderness areas would greatly restrict the use of tracts of Eagle county forests; that hunters in jeeps and ATVs and snowmobilers would no longer be able to access certain areas; that mountain bikers could not use their bikes on the trails inside wilderness areas; that you can’t use a chainsaw to cut firewood in wilderness.

But Hidden Gems doesn’t stop us from using any mechanized items in the neighboring national forests. So I wondered, what would this proposal restrict me from doing?

So I took my questions and concerns to the Hidden Gems presentation and learned what I needed to make an informed stand on the issue.

I now understand that national forests are managed for multiple uses and recreation and wilderness are only a couple of them. Other uses benefit industry, including: mining extraction, gas drilling, timber, road building, resort building, damming, livestock grazing.

So it may only be a matter of time before our lovely forest lands are put to “good use” for the benefit of commercial industries. Certain uses and leases of these forests by various industries jeopardize my access to their leased areas, that is if they do not become so degraded that I still want to go there.

Wilderness, on the other hand, is a natural environment that has not been significantly modified by human activity. It may also be defined as: The most intact, undisturbed, wild, and natural areas left on our planet-those last truly wild places that humans do not control and have not developed with roads, dams, drilling rigs, pipelines or other industrial infrastructure. These areas are considered important for the survival of certain species, biodiversity, ecological systems, watersheds, conservation, and solitude. Wilderness is deeply valued for our community health, cultural, spiritual, moral and aesthetic reasons.

Everyone can use wilderness areas, even those needing wheelchairs. I just can’t bring my bike or my snowmobile or my ATV or my chainsaw. I would have to leave those toys at the boundary. I get it, and it seems OK, but just what mountain bike trails might I lose?

I have biked and hiked almost all the trails between Vail Pass and Independence Pass, so I studied the proposal map in detail. These maps (found at are based on the new U.S. Forest Service Travel Management Plan that is going to be in place within months.

It turns out there are really no areas being proposed as wilderness in Eagle County that would affect anyone’s use of existing mountain bike trails, and less than five miles of 4-wheel roads are affected by this proposal.

The Hidden Gems people have done tons of outreach with ECO Trails, snowmobilers, jeepers and other forest users to work out a plan that protects forests, watershed and wildlife, and affects little or none of the bike/jeep terrain. Instead of closing jeep roads or bike trails, Hidden Gems uses them as boundaries so you can still easily access these lands.

Another opposing argument says once we designate an area to wilderness and restrict its use, it cannot be reversed without a vote of Congress. Well I guess that’s really the idea — to select the few remaining pristine forest tracts to preserve forever in an effort to maintain a few areas of healthy ecosystems on this planet.

By restricting these few areas to extractive industries like logging and mining, we help ensure a healthy ecosystem for neighboring forests where we can continue to bike, jeep, and snowmobile. Isn’t that what we really want here in Eagle County?

After scrutinizing the maps and learning the facts, I now believe that the Hidden Gems is a huge opportunity for those of us who live, work and play here to be visionaries of our generation and help ensure the health of our forests. These are areas where we can’t legally bike or jeep anyway so there is no loss. And we still have hundreds of thousands of acres and 2,300 miles of roads and trails for biking in the White River National Forest!

Ultimately, I’ve come to realize wilderness protection is not about me. It’s not about which trails to I like to bike, or about giving me unrestricted access. It’s about the health of the forests and the planet, and ultimately, the health of our communities, today and in the years to come.

Lori Russell


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