Wilderness proposal unearths debate in Vail Valley region
VAIL VALLEY, Colorado – A season has started in Colorado’s Vail Valley and the surrounding region that promises to deliver lots of hard hits, adept maneuvers and maybe even a punt or two.
No, it’s not the pro football season, which started last night. It’s the kickoff of the Hidden Gems campaign to create more protected wilderness lands in western Colorado.
Wilderness advocates have worked behind the scenes for a couple of years to determine which additional public lands in Eagle, Pitkin, Summit and Gunnison counties should be protected. The resulting Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign went public this summer and is stirring strong sentiments from friends and foes.
Supporters contend between 400,000 and 450,000 acres in the White River and Gunnison national forests deserve the wilderness designation to prevent logging, mining and natural gas exploration. Foes are angry because a Wilderness designation prohibits all mechanical uses, from mountain biking to four-wheeling.
Supporters of the Hidden Gems plan are lobbying county commissioners and town councils to support their plan. If they earn the support, they will try to convince Colorado’s congressional delegation to introduce a bill this session.
A crowd of about 200 people, mostly against the Hidden Gems plan, attended a Carbondale Parks and Recreation board of directors meeting Wednesday night to speak against the proposal for more wilderness. The opponents object to being shut out of additional public lands in the White River National Forest, which surrounds the Vail Valley and has about 2.3 million acres. About 750,000 are already wilderness.
The contest for the public lands is just getting started. Public meetings by various governmental bodies will be held over the next few months. It might take years for Congress to take action, if action is taken at all. The following is a guide to the debate’s major players:
Organization: Wilderness Workshop
Role: Leader of a coalition of environmental groups that is lobbying for wilderness protection for 400,000 to 450,000 acres of public lands in Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield, Summit and Gunnison counties. The other partners include the Colorado Environmental Coalition, Colorado Mountain Club and The Wilderness Society.
Position: Wilderness Workshop performed an inventory of the White River National Forest earlier this decade. It concluded the U.S. Forest Service wasn’t doing enough to protect roadless areas and mid-elevation lands that provide high-quality wildlife habitat. The addition of wilderness requires passage of a bill by Congress. The environmental groups are trying to win support for the concept so a bill will be introduced.
More information on the Hidden Gems plan can be found at http://www.whiteriverwild.org/.
Organization: White River Forest Alliance
Role: The coalition of dirt bikers, snowmobilers and off-road vehicle enthusiasts formed this summer to give its members a voice in the debate. The coalition entered the debate late but is quickly mobilizing its members. The organization is alerting members about public meetings and urging them to attend to speak out against the wilderness proposal.
Position: The alliance’s rallying cry is, “Stop the Land Grab!” On its Web site, the organization says that a group of well-organized people with deep pockets is trying to legally lock out forest visitors who use motorized or mechanized vehicles. “Our time is now to get together and fight for our rights,” the alliance’s website says.
More information about the opposition to the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign can be found at http://www.whiteriverforestalliance.com/.
Organization: Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association
Role: The two-year-old organization is scrambling to prevent the Hidden Gems campaign from closing existing cycling trails or closing areas considered to be good candidates for future expansion of trails.
Position: The mountain bike association has studied the Hidden Gems proposal in detail and made a counterproposal to protect numerous areas as national conservation areas or national recreation areas. Those designations are often called “wilderness with bikes.”
So far, the bike association has endorsed wilderness designation for about 30,000 acres in the Hidden Gems proposal. Spokesman Mike Pritchard said the organization is “fine-tuning” its position. It may end up supporting designation for as much as 150,000 or 200,000 acres as wilderness. However, it won’t be shy about opposing designation of some of the lands in wilderness Workshop’s proposal. The association has drafted a letter it intends to send to Colorado’s congressional delegation.
More on the mountain bike association’s position can be found at http://www.rfmba.org/mtb/advocacy.aspx.
Organization: The U.S. Forest Service
Role: During an update of the White River National Forest Management Plan earlier this decade, the Forest Service identified 82,000 acres of additional land its staff felt should get wilderness protection. The 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest stretches from south of Aspen to north of Glenwood Springs, and from Rifle through the Vail Valley to Summit County. Currently, there are 750,000 acres of Wilderness.
Position: Like many federal agencies, the Forest Service shies away from controversy. It hasn’t played a major role yet in the Hidden Gems debate. Congress would likely seek input from the forest supervisor’s office before acting on a wilderness bill.
Key players: U.S. Reps. John Salazar and Jared Polis
Role: Salazar represents the district that includes Pitkin County, and Polis represents Eagle and Summit counties. The positions of the two Democrats will largely determine the fate of the Hidden Gems.
Position: Wilderness Workshop Executive Director Sloan Shoemaker has said that Salazar wants to see broad support for the wilderness designation before he would consider sponsoring a bill. Salazar spokesman Eric Wortman said the congressman’s staff has met with representatives of both sides in the debate. The process is working as it should, with the communities hashing out issues.
For now, the congressman will watch the debate but not participate. “We’re following it,” Wortman said.