SUMMIT COUNTY - Conservationists released a formal proposal Monday for 244,000 acres of new wilderness designation in Summit and Eagle counties after about four years of study, vetting and deliberation.
Organizers of the Hidden Gems Wilderness Proposal delivered the document to U.S. Rep. Jared Polis's office Friday, in hopes that it will someday be introduced in Congress.
Several dozen Hidden Gems opponents packed a town hall meeting Polis held in Frisco Monday night to express their anger over the proposal. The walkway to Vinny's restaurant, where the meeting took place, was lined with signs urging, "Stop the land grab! Aren't forests for everyone?" and, "No Hidden Gems! Equal access for everyone."
People came to the meeting from within Summit County and from as far away as Carbondale and New Castle, and many urged the congressman to abandon the proposal altogether. Most of those who spoke objected to the prohibition of motorized recreation that would come with wilderness designation.
"If you make this a wilderness area, you're keeping me out, and you're keeping a lot of my friends out," said a man in his 70s, who said he is unable to travel by foot for long distances.
Polis said polls have shown strong public support for the proposal, and he believes wilderness boundaries could be drawn in ways that leave popular off-road-vehicle areas as they are.
"I strongly believe that there are enough of our beautiful federal lands that all of us can be happy," Polis said. "I think there is room enough for everybody."
Advocates say the Hidden Gems plan would provide much-needed protections to mid-elevation habitats in Colorado, since much of the state's existing wilderness land is high-altitude rock and ice.
"We feel there are a lot of areas that should be protected," said John Taylor, board member of the Friends of the Lower Blue River, which has signed on in support of the campaign. "I think they've had a good process, and they've worked through a lot of issues with a lot of people."
The lower Blue River Basin, which runs north of Silverthorne to the headwaters of the Colorado River, is home to five of the would-be wilderness areas. Several proposed parcels extend Ptarmigan Peak Wilderness or Eagles Nest Wilderness area into forested lands.
"The Lower Blue - it's real Colorado, in terms of the ranches and the high mountains. When you come down Ute Pass and look across the valley to the Gore Range, it's pristine. You don't see a lot of homes and roads," Taylor said.
The Hidden Gems proposal includes 2,860 acres of proposed wilderness along Ute Pass.
Currie Craven, president of Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness, supports the proposal partly for its habitat values.
"Critters need to have areas to move, unimpeded by human disturbances," Craven said. "It's interesting that (the Hidden Gems process) has gone on so long. I'd sure like to think people will keep an open mind."
Lance Trujillo, president of the Holy Cross Powder Hounds, a snowmobiling club in Eagle County, said he thought Hidden Gems organizers didn't consult enough with the general public, and he was disappointed that his group didn't get to see the final proposal until it was already in Polis's hands.
"It's really hard," Trujillo said. "We don't want to see backcountry access taken away from snowmobiles and other recreation."
Trujillo also said that some of the proposed areas don't have wilderness character and shouldn't be included.
"Some of these places have already had the impact of man. In some places, it makes sense. In some places it doesn't," he added.
Jack Albright, vice president of the White River Forest Alliance (WRFA), echoed Trujillo's sentiments.
"I think it's unfortunate that the proposal has been forwarded on to Rep. Polis's office prior to having public meetings," Albright said. "Once it's in the congressman's hands, it's going to be more difficult for people directly impacted by the changes of these lands from Forest and Bureau of Land Management lands to wilderness designation."
Hidden Gems proponents have had many meetings with WRFA members, who advocate for a multitude of recreational uses on Forest Service and BLM land.
Polis assured attendees at Monday night's meeting that the process would indeed be open and public. He said he plans to have forums during the summer in both Eagle and Summit counties. Furthermore, his offices will accept comments from members of the public as well as from local government entities and interest groups.
Hidden Gems organizers claim the process to develop the proposal was extremely open and set a "new standard for public and stakeholder outreach."
Between 2006 and 2010 the Hidden Gems Wilderness Proposal in Summit and Eagle counties went through 86 drafts, and proponents removed more than 97,000 acres from the original proposal.
Still, that wasn't enough for some, including Basalt and Rural Fire District Chief Scott Thompson. His organization passed a formal resolution objecting to wilderness designation for Basalt Mountain and Frying Pan Valley.
"We've been concerned about that piece of property since the mid-1990s, and we're concerned it could have drastic impacts on the town of Basalt," Thompson said.
Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-4630 or firstname.lastname@example.org.