Wilderness no longer?
The legislation also is raising questions about how many exemptions can be made to wilderness protection before the spirit of the 1964 Wilderness Act is violated.
Richard Compton, director of the Carbondale-based White River Conservation Project, says McInnis’ legislation would allow more four-wheelers, snowmobiles and mountain bikes than now permitted on Red Table Mountain, located between Gypsum and the Fryingpan Valley.
“McInnis’ bill would be a step backward in on-the-ground management,” he said.
Blair Jones, McInnis’ spokesman, said McInnis is open to suggestions about the bill.
“It’s simply a starting point … to begin public discussion on protecting this area. The congressman is looking forward to working with the interested groups in a collaborative way to reach a consensus on this wilderness bill.”
McInnis, R-Grand Junction, proposes designating almost 50,000 acres of new wilderness on Red Table Mountain, as well as expanding three existing wilderness areas: Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness in the upper Roaring Fork Valley; Ptarmigan Peak in Summit County; and the Raggeds Wilderness in Gunnison County.
The U.S. Forest Service has recommended all four areas for wilderness in the new White River National Forest plan. But the Forest Service can’t designate wilderness – only Congress can.
The Red Table Mountain parcel is important because of its size and because it would be a new wilderness area rather than an addition. It would also include some lower-elevation terrain, unlike most wilderness in the WRNF. This would result in protections for different kinds of vegetation and wildlife.
Vinnie Picard, public affairs specialist for the WRNF, said McInnis’ Red Table Mountain proposal differs from the forest plan’s recommendation.
“At first blush, Congressman McInnis’ proposal seems to make some changes to what would be traditionally considered a wilderness use of an area,” he said. “In my reading of it, he has wilderness areas that contain motorized-travel corridors, and that’s a different take from how we have looked at wilderness in the past.”
It isn’t uncommon for wilderness areas to have what are called “cherry stems” – stem-shaped boundaries to allow for pre-existing roads deemed too important to close. In these cases, the wilderness typically wraps around the road, which comes to a dead end.
Compton said a legitimate cherry stem is included in McInnis’ bill to provide motorized access to the water supply infrastructure for the town of Gypsum.
But he said the McInnis plan goes further in creating motorized or mechanized travel routes that entirely divide the wilderness area into three parts, and further dissect two of those parts.
“This is a cherry tree; it’s not just the stem,” said Compton.
Conservationists contend that fragmenting wilderness with roads degrades the ecosystem and disrupts animal migration patterns.
Compton said motorcycle trails allowed in McInnis’ bill have steep sections and could pollute streams by tearing up soils.
McInnis’ measure allows 14 miles of roads and 24 miles of motorized and mechanized trails within the wilderness.
The Forest Service closed those roads and trails earlier this year when it identified Red Table Mountain as a wilderness study area, in case Congress wants to designate the area.
As a result, McInnis’ bill would reopen the Red Table Mountain routes through his wilderness bill, Compton said.
“If he doesn’t want the (roads) in the wilderness, then he should redraw the boundaries to cut them out,” he said.
That goes to a deeper issue emerging in connection with the Red Table Mountain measure: If a wilderness bill has so many exemptions that the area no longer resembles wilderness, is wilderness designation worth it?
To Compton, the roads and motorized/mechanized trails in McInnis’ measure run contrary to the point of the Wilderness Act, which aims to create places free from such human uses.
“There is a history of a lot of exemptions being made, particularly for existing uses. At a certain point it does become meaningless,” Compton said of Red Table and other wilderness designations.
Dan Hormaechea, the WRNF’s planning staff officer, said extreme exceptions to wilderness protections can be found, including even an airport big enough for DC-3s in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area in Idaho.
In the WRNF’s Red Table Mountain proposal, as in McInnis’, an exemption is made to protect continued road access to a Federal Aviation Administration radio facility on the mountaintop.
“But beyond that we tried to maintain the proposed wilderness piece intact as best we could,” Hormaechea said. “To continue to make provisions, provisions, provisions is something we didn’t do.”
Hormaechea said fear of fragmenting wilderness is “exactly” why the Forest Service sought to make most roads and trails on Red Table Mountain off limits to motorized and mechanized travel.
“I think that’s the intent of the (Wilderness) Act, is to keep it intact and to minimize the amount of activity that would take away from the wilderness experience,” he said.
The appropriateness of wilderness designation at Red Table Mountain could come into question for another reason besides road and trail management.
The Colorado Army National Guard conducts high-altitude training there, as it does across the Colorado River at Deep Creek in the Flat Tops, another area McInnis has proposed for wilderness designation. The guard’s High Altitude Training Center is located at the Eagle County Regional Airport.
McInnis wants to allow continued helicopter training in both those locations.
In its WRNF plan, the Forest Service initiated a review of its agreement with the National Guard for such operations, with a goal of finding other training locations. Discussions are still ongoing.
An annual review of operations also is planned, to lessen impacts of the training.
Compton would rather not see helicopter operations at the proposed wilderness areas, but is resigned to the possibility that the training will continue.
“Unless an alternative location nearby can be found, it’s a hard thing to make go away,” he said.
That being the case, he said, “It becomes a question of, does this area really have the wilderness values if you have all these helicopters flying in and landing on top of peaks and ridges? Do we want to support this kind of semi-wilderness?”
It could be argued on one hand that there isn’t much pristine wilderness left, and any wilderness designation is better than none, Compton said. On the other hand, he wonders if permitting a pre-existing military use of wilderness now could open the door to new military uses of wilderness in the future.
Setup or starting point?
To environmentalists, McInnis’ initiatives at Deep Creek and Red Table Mountain put them in the position of opposing wilderness legislation, even though they first suggested making the areas wilderness. They withheld support from McInnis’ Deep Creek bill because it would cover less acreage than they preferred, allow helicopter operations and, in their view, fail to adequately protect the water in the creek.
“I think Scott McInnis is setting us up with these things,” Compton said.
Sloan Shoemaker, conservation director for the Aspen Wilderness Workshop, said of the Red Table Mountain legislation, “One is left to surmise that this wilderness bill is a pre-emptive strike strategically designed to manipulate the process. It positions Congressman McInnis as a champion of wilderness and those who think it is a bogus wilderness bill as insincere and uncooperative.”
McInnis said he introduced his legislation after discussions with the Forest Service, county commissioners and other interested parties. However, as in the case of other public-lands legislation McInnis has introduced, environmentalists said he failed to consult with them.
“The way that the congressman sees it is you need a starting ground. The starting ground is his proposal on his bill,” Jones replied. “He’s willing to work with groups who are willing to work with him. The congressman wants to protect this area, and he believes in protecting this area, and that is the purpose of this bill.”