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Hidden Gems: No more concessions for recreation

Scott Condon
the aspen times

The environmental coalition promoting the Hidden Gems Wilderness campaign won’t make any more major adjustments to its boundaries for recreation in Eagle and Summit counties, according to a negotiator and spokesman for the group.

Steve Smith, assistant regional director for the Wilderness Society, said 101 adjustments have been made to the Hidden Gems boundaries in the two counties, removing 114,038 from consideration for Wilderness.

“In Eagle and Summit counties, pretty much all compromises have been made,” he said, adding that a couple of mountain biking issues remain to be resolved. “We’ve done pretty much all the adjustments for recreation that we think are warranted.”

Talks continue with Basalt firefighters over boundary adjustments on Basalt Mountain and on Red Table Mountain, he said. Other adjustments are possible to accommodate the Gypsum watershed and training areas for the Colorado National Guard.

Some mountain bikers, dirt bikers, snowmobilers and four-wheel enthusiasts don’t believe the Hidden Gems proponents have compromised enough. They turned out in force last week at a public forum in Edwards hosted by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis to demand that more lands get carved out of the Hidden Gems proposal, or that the proposal be nixed altogether.

Jack Albright, vice president of the White River Forest Alliance, said at the meeting he was surprised at the size of the Hidden Gems proposal when he first heard about it in September 2009. “But the thing that surprised me the most was the blatant dismissal of the recreation community,” he said.

The forest alliance represents people who visit the forest with motorized vehicles, bicycles and everyone else with concerns about the Hidden Gems plan.

About 750,000 acres of the 2.3-million acre White River National Forest, or 33 percent, is already Wilderness, which prohibits motorized and mechanizes uses. Wilderness and roadless lands, where motorized uses are limited, account for about 63 percent of the national forest.

Foes have repeatedly said they aren’t trying to take away existing Wilderness, they just don’t want additional land taken from them.

At last week’s meeting, Kirk Hinderberger of the Roaring Fork Mountain Biking Association said the initial Hidden Gems proposal was “over-reaching” and that some problems in the current version still need to be fixed before it earns the mountain biking group’s support. The group wants to preserve some links between backcountry areas and preserve the possibility of trail expansion in areas close to population centers.

“We’re not trying to be selfish,” Hinderberger said.

Smith said that various recreation groups look at the Hidden Gems plan in terms of what it takes away from them. Their approach, he said, is: “This is where I do my thing and I don’t want Wilderness to get in the way of doing my thing.”

The Hidden Gems supporters view their proposal as a benefit to the forest from an ecological point of view. The environmental coalition believes it has made alterations “as far as the ecological design can take,” according to Smith.

Records provided by the Hidden Gems coalition indicate that five boundary changes, taking out 36,178 acres in Eagle and Summit counties, were made in negotiations with groups representing bicyclists and motorized recreation. And 16 other changes were made exclusively at the request of bicyclists to take another 21,375 acres out the Wilderness proposal.

The Hidden Gems proposal, as amended, would add about 244,000 acres of Wilderness in Eagle and Summit counties.

The Hidden Gems proponents want to show Polis that they talked to forest user groups before forwarding their proposal to him. Polis is assessing whether or not to introduce a Wilderness bill in Congress.

“We listened. We wanted to brag about that,” Smith said.

But several critics claimed Hidden Gems officials didn’t listen well enough, or didn’t act after listening. Albright said in previous interviews he felt like Hidden Gems engaged him in negotiations simply just to say they sought compromise.

Polis has no timetable for deciding whether to submit a Wilderness bill. He has the option of altering the boundaries of the proposal rather than accept the proposal as it was submitted to him.


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