Wilderness backers say they’re making progress | SummitDaily.com

Wilderness backers say they’re making progress

Scott N. Miller
vail daily
Daily File PhotoThis area near Basalt Mountain is one of the areas proposed for Wilderness protection under the Hidden Gems plan.

EAGLE – The Eagle County commissioners don’t have the authority to create new wilderness. But they’re being asked to support a plan to do just that.

Backers of the “Hidden Gems” wilderness proposal have asked local governments in Eagle, Summit, Pitkin and Gunnison counties to endorse the plan, which would create roughly 400,000 acres of new wilderness in the region. Those local governments – as well as local ranchers, mountain bikers and other interest groups – have also been asked to provide advice about water rights, forest management, trail use and other issues.

Hidden Gems supporters this week provided the Eagle County Commissioners with an update of their work over the last few months.

And a lot of work has apparently gone into the proposal. Campaign representatives Susie Kincaid and Steve Smith told the commissioners they’ve talked to local residents and governments, and adjusted the proposed wilderness boundaries in response to questions and comments.

“We went into the field,” Kincaid said. “We’ve resolved specific issues that were brought to us.

The Colorado National Guard has pored over maps of the proposed wilderness to see how it might affect operations of the High Altitude Army Training Site, which trains military helicopter pilots from all over the world in the fine points of flying at high elevations.

“We want to be sure that whatever they need, they get,” Smith said.

That’s being done mostly with adjustments to the wilderness boundaries, Smith said, as well as proposed changes to military regulations about flying over wilderness areas.

The Colorado Department of Transportation has also weighed in on some of the proposed wilderness boundaries, Kincaid said, and Hidden Gems supporters are working with that agency about how best to accommodate the future needs of the state’s highway department.

Most of the changes Kincaid and Smith talked about involved changing boundaries, or keeping trails and roads open.

Some of those boundary changes have been extensive. Smith said an entire Summit County mountainside was removed from the proposal in order to better protect the water supply. He added that the proposal’s language is being adjusted so local communities can better deal with pine beetle-killed areas and almost-inevitable fires that will ultimately destroy those trees.

Smith and Kincaid said they’ve also been working with people representing ATV and snowmobile users to keep some of their more popular areas out of the wilderness.

Commissioners Jon Stavney and Peter Runyon complimented Smith and Kincaid for the amount of work they’ve done so far, but had some reservations, particularly when Hidden Gems is combined with a wilderness bill Denver Rep. Diana DeGette has been trying to pass for the last 10 years and the prospect of still more wilderness legislation thought to be coming from Rep. John Salazar’s office by the end of 2010.

And, while DeGette has introduced her bill again and Salazar is believed to be working to introduce his bill next year, Smith and Kincaid acknowleged they don’t yet have a congressional sponsor for Hidden Gems.

Despite that, Smith said Hidden Gems backers want Congress to take up their proposal next year.

After the meeting, some of the dozen or so Hidden Gems opponents who attended the meeting said they remain unconvinced about the need for the proposal.

“I believe the (U.S.) Forest Service and the (Bureau of Land Management) ought to have the right to manage the land they’re in charge of,” Greg Noss of Carbondale said.

While Hidden Gems backers point to the relatively small loss of trails and roads in their proposal, Noss said more wilderness would further erode the number of trails and roads available to ranchers and people who use the forest for motorized fun.

“We lost a lot in the 1990s,” Noss said. “And they want to take more now.”

Stephen Burns’ family has ranched, logged and mined in the area for three generations now. Now the New Castle-area resident believes families like his are being penalized for their good stewardship.

“Over 100 years we’ve taken care of this land to the point that it looks like wilderness, and now we’re going to get locked out of it,” Burns said.

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