Wilderness plan hitting a few snags in Summit County
November 23, 2009
SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado – An ambitious proposal to add thousands of acres of new wilderness to the White River National Forest has hit a few snags in recent months, including a letter from the Town of Breckenridge to Congressman Jared Polis citing concerns about wildfires and impacts to mountain biking.
The town expressed general support for expanding wilderness in Summit County, but said that, as currently envisioned, the proposal could hamper efforts to protect the town from wildfire threats. The town also expressed concerns about how the wilderness proposal would affect mountain biking in the Upper Blue Basin.
The wilderness advocacy groups backing the plan would like to add at least 30,000 acres of wilderness territory in Summit County. Local mountain bikers, and to some degree, motorized users, are concerned that the designation would affect their ability to recreate on public lands.
The wilderness plan unleashed a stronger flood of opposition in Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties, were motorized users have been very vocal in their opposition. The Mesa County commissioners have gone as far as adopting a resolution opposing the wilderness plan.
A dialogue between the various factions has been in a stop-and-go mode during the past few months, while the new White River National Forest supervisor also weighed in on the issue recently, saying that there are bigger issues facing the forest.
In its letter, the town wrote that, “(O)ur elected officials will need to feel comfortable with specific entitlement language written into the wilderness designation legislation that would allow for the necessary proactive fuels mitigation work, immediate emergency wildfire response, and post-fire watershed protection (which may include structures and roads) in order to support the wilderness proposal.”
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In Summit County, local mountain bike advocates like Ellen Hollinshead and Dave Rossi have been pushing for consideration of other land-use designations that would protect areas from development, but still allow for bike trails.
“The dialogue is still going on,” said Hollinshead. “We finally got a response back from them as to what they’re willing to give,” she said, referring to negotiations over very specific trails in this area.
Wilderness backers have said the plan would help protect some key areas for wildlife habitat and other natural resource values. They cite increasing pressure on public lands as a key reason for setting aside new areas with high levels of protection.
The U.S. Forest Service has stayed mostly neutral on the issue. In the past, most of the agency’s officials have said that it’s a decision that’s driven by citizens and by Congress.
But in an October interview with The Aspen Times, incoming White River forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the wilderness proposal is not a big priority for the agency. Instead, he encouraged community groups to collaborate and focus on big-picture issues like forest health and potential impacts from climate change.