Vail Valley: Wilderness backers push expansion | VailDaily.com

Vail Valley: Wilderness backers push expansion

Sarah Mausolf
smausolf@vaildaily.com
Vail, CO Colorado

Kristin Anderson/Vail DailyMountaineer Aron Ralston speaks in Colorado's Vail Valley on behalf of the Hidden Gems Wilderness Proposal on Monday at Fly Fishing Outfitters in Avon. The proposal hopes to protect 400,000 acres of new wilderness

VAIL VALLEY, Colorado –In Colorado’s Vail Valley Monday, famous mountain climber Aron Ralston says he explored most of the land that would become protected wilderness under the Hidden Gems proposal.

He spoke in favor of Hidden Gems during a press conference Monday at Fly Fishing Outfitters in Avon.

Ralston was the first person to climb all of Colorado’s 14ers solo in winter. He fell into the national spotlight in 2003 when he was forced to cut off the lower part of his arm because it was trapped under a boulder during a mountaineering trip in Utah.

Ralston joined a local hunter and an avid mountain biker at the press conference to voice support for preserving more than 400,000 acres in Eagle, Summit, Pitkin and Gunnison counties. The plan would close those lands to snowmobiles, ATVs, mountain bikes, and other motorized and mechanized vehicles. The press conference sought to rebut claims by some opponents that Hidden Gems will hurt the local economy and prevent a large percentage of visitors from using the land for recreation.

Ralston lamented the damage he says motorized vehicles have made to wilderness. He said frequent and often illegal use of motorized vehicles has carved ruts into trails and eroded hillsides.

“That happens everywhere, and the longer we wait to protect the places that we have left, the less there is to protect,” he said.

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Ralston said some of the best memories of his adult life have happened in remote areas like those earmarked in the Hidden Gems plan.

He remembered spotting wolves on the west side of Mount Massive.

“Here come three full-sized wolves down the hillside within less than 100 feet of me as I’m emerging into a willow flat,” he said. “Looking over, they don’t even see me yet. They’re charging, playing, they’re romping down the hillside. It’s totally out of ‘Where the Wild Things Are.'”

Hidden Gems also got support from longtime hunter Jim Gonzalez, a Minturn resident and former chairman of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. He argues that Hidden Gems will protect mid-level elevation areas where wildlife feed.

“I think the biggest threat is: Colorado is growing so fast,” he said. “All these people come here with their snowmobiles, mountain bikes, ATVs. They all want a piece of the pie and they’re not making any more wilderness.”

Jack Albright, vice president of the White River Forest Alliance, a group opposed to Hidden Gems, said he’s surprised to hear about a hunter in favor of the campaign.

“The Hidden Gems proposal is going to make that land hard to access for hunters,” he said. “A lot of those hunters hunt in terrain that may be wilderness areas but they use mechanized means to get there. There are a lot of guys who use ATVs to get back to the edge of wilderness and then hunt into terrain.”

But Gonzalez argues that ATVs chase wildlife away and reduce the success rate for hunters. And he says dedicated hunters are willing to hike into wilderness to access it.

Edwards resident Lee Rimel, an avid mountain biker, said if Hidden Gems passes, plenty of land will be left for cyclists.

“From my very simplistic point of view, it looks like there’s enough to go around,” Rimel said.

More than half a million acres in the White River National Forest and Bureau of Land Management will still be available for all forms of recreation, Hidden Gems proponents say. Also, most of the roads and trails that would be closed under Hidden Gems are slated to be closed anyway through a proposed Forest Service travel management plan, Hidden Gems proponents say.

Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, an organization leading the Hidden Gems campaign, argues a majority of people who visit the proposed Hidden Gems land for recreation will not be affected.

Snowmobiling is the primary activity of just 1 percent of the people who recreate in the White River National Forest, he said. Also, “low impact” users like hikers, backpackers, climbers, kayakers, cross country skiers and snowshoers outnumber snowmobilers, mountain bikers, motorcycle riders and ATV riders by a factor of 4 to 1, he said. He was citing a 2007 survey conducted by the U.S. Forest Service.

Albright said that analysis is misleading.

“Depending on how the questions were asked, I think it can be a misleading thing,” he said. “Independent numbers I’ve seen don’t reflect that.”

“You can’t deny the number of mechanized users is significant,” he added. “Shoving somebody out, preventing access to even one contingent, can effect the economy in an unpredicted way.”

He says retailers like mountain bike shops are already struggling because of the economy.

“If you reduce the amount of terrain, or the quality of terrain that’s available to those users, then less people will come to visit, and if you have 10,000 fewer visitors in this region, there’s an economic impact,” he said.

Shoemaker disputed that, saying non-motorized recreation generates $10 billion each year for Colorado’s economy, and that Hidden Gems will help to protect the resources that support that tourism.

“Snowmobiling represents a tiny portion of the recreation-based economy in Colorado,” he said. “In Eagle County, there’s just one snowmobile and ATV shop, while there are dozens of outfitters, anglers, rafting guides, sporting goods, equipment and sport clothing retailers.”

Staff writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 970-748-2928 or smausolf@vaildaily.com.