Polis beats buzzer with Wilderness bill
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis laid the ground work late Wednesday night to designate nearly 166,000 acres of public lands in Eagle and Summit counties as Wilderness or special management areas.
Polis, D-Colo., beat the buzzer by introducing the bill just a few hours before Congress adjourned to campaign for the November election. Bills cannot be introduced while Congress is out of session.
The Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act would designate almost 88,000 acres as Wilderness and another 78,000 acres as special management areas, which have greater protection than many public lands but not as strict of rules as Wilderness.
Polis said in a prepared statement Thursday that wild places are at the heart of Colorado’s character, and natural beauty is a precious resource that must be preserved.
“After working extensively with stakeholders and examining the areas in question trail-by-trail, I am proud to introduce this legislation that has gained support and backing from the community,” Polis said.
Getting the bill introduced prior to adjournment was important so that the exact wording exists and could potentially be used if a broader Wilderness bill is introduced in Congress, said Lara Cottingham, communications director for Polis. Getting the bill introduced essentially completes a lot of the legwork. She said it is unknown when Polis’ bill will be acted on.
“He would like to see it as soon as possible,” Cottingham said. On the other hand, legislation requires time. “It’s not going to happen tomorrow,” she said.
Polis’ Wilderness bill shaves about 78,000 acres off the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal for Eagle and Summit counties. A coalition of environmental groups that promoted the Hidden Gems asked the congressman to place a Wilderness designation on about 244,000 acres in the two counties. The Hidden Gems campaign also targets additional lands in Pitkin and Gunnison counties.
Polis concentrated on Eagle and Summit counties for his bill, and only on lands where there was a consensus among forest user groups.
Polis’ bill didn’t include about 12,150 acres on Basalt Mountain that Hidden Gems proponents wanted designated as Wilderness. The Basalt fire department opposed designation of about half those lands.
“Basalt Mountain was not included because, after working with stakeholders in the area, it became clear that the study and negotiations around Basalt Mountain would require more time,” Cottingham said. “The congressman is still considering the area for possible Wilderness designation in the future, but decided to move forward with areas that were ready for legislation at this time.”
His bill drew praise from organizations on both sides of the Hidden Gems debate. Pete Kolbenschlag, Hidden Gems campaign director, said the organizations promoting the Gems are “really delighted” with Polis’ bill.
“We’re happy to see legislation moving forward that would protect nearly 166,000 acres,” Kolbenschlag said. Some of the lands are “keystone landscapes” in Eagle and Summit counties, he said.
The International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) posted an endorsement of the Polis bill on its website Thursday. The national organization said months of negotiations among its office, Polis’ staff and mountain biking clubs in Eagle and Summit counties produced a “reshaped” Wilderness bill it could support.
More than 67,000 acres that were once considered for Wilderness were adjusted to accommodate existing mountain biking trails and preserve the potential for future development, IMBA’s statement said.
The cycling organization noted that Polis’ bill would allow the U.S. Forest Service to restore mountain biking access to the Ruedi Overlook Trail, a classic but difficult route from Ruedi Reservoir to Red Table Mountain. The single-track route was closed earlier in the decade when the terrain became a Wilderness Study Area.
IMBA said it is “now ready to support the passage of the bill” but will try to tweak Wilderness designation in a couple of locations.
The White River Forest Alliance (WRFA), an organization that represents forest users ranging from off-road enthusiasts to snowmobiles to mountain bikers, supports the majority of the bill, according to vice president Jack Albright.
“I think there are a couple of areas left that we would like to see addressed,” he said.
WRFA will seek greater freedom for winter travel on the Red Table special management area in Eagle County and Hoosier Ridge in Summit County.
The alliance probably won’t endorse the bill without alterations in those two areas, Albright said, although he was quick to add the Wilderness proposal has “come a long way.” To have it whittled down from 244,000 acres of Wilderness in the Hidden Gems proposal to 90,000 acres of Wilderness and additional management areas in the Polis’ bill is a significant step, Albright said.
There is a lot of speculation that Republicans will regain control of the House in the November election. Kolbenschlag of the Hidden Gems campaign said it’s impossible to say how that would affect passage of a Wilderness bill, if at all.
“I hope that Republicans care about Wilderness, too,” he said.
The Hidden Gems proponents will now concentrate on lobbying members of Colorado’s Congressional delegation of both parties to support Polis’ bill, according to Kolbenschlag.
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