Polis’s plan whittles Hidden Gems lands
the aspen times
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis has prepared a draft wilderness bill that would provide new protections to roughly 70 percent of the lands in Summit and Eagle counties targeted by environmentalists as part of the Hidden Gems campaign.
The proposal excludes some high-profile jewels within the Hidden Gems, including Elliot Ridge in the Gore Range, Basalt Mountain in the Roaring Fork Valley and Lower Piney north of Avon. In some parcels, Polis is proposing less restrictive protection than wilderness designation provides.
Polis released a draft of the “Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act” on Friday evening to parties that participated in the negotiations on the Hidden Gems proposal. It wasn’t intended for release to the public, but word of the draft legislation leaked Monday.
The Hidden Gems coalition asked Polis to designate nearly 244,000 acres in Eagle and Summit counties as wilderness. After holding public hearings and having his staff explore specific areas, Polis pared about 74,000 acres out of the Hidden Gems request. The draft bill proposes wilderness or some other level of protection on nearly 170,000 acres, according to an analysis by Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, a proponent of Hidden Gems.
“In our mind, it’s really a great step forward,” said Pete Kolbenschlag, director of the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign. “We don’t look at it as a disappointment.”
Polis spokeswoman Lara Cottingham said she couldn’t confirm the numbers included in Wilderness Workshop’s analysis. She said the congressman’s office may still refine the proposed legislation before it is introduced.
“This is another step forward,” she said. There is no timetable for its introduction, she added.
Cottingham said Polis will release more information this week on the proposal.
Elliot Ridge excluded
As it stands, Polis’s proposal will get the support of the environmental community even though it doesn’t include everything they want, Kolbenschlag said. Wilderness Workshop sent an e-mail to members Monday hailing the planned action and urging members to voice their support to Polis and other members of the Colorado Congressional Delegation.
“This is a tremendous step that heightens our chance of seeing new wilderness protections in central Colorado by the end of the year,” Wilderness Workshop said in its e-mail. Telephone calls to Wilderness Workshop were referred to Kolbenschlag.
Despite the positive spin, the environmental groups said earlier in the summer they had made all the compromises they were willing to make in their proposal. They said they talked in depth to other stakeholders to refine their proposal.
They ran into stiff opposition over some lands from dirt bikers, four-wheel enthusiasts, mountain bikers and others.
The lands that were at the center of the fight were eliminated by Polis. Elliot Ridge, on the eastern flank of the Gore Range near the northern tip of Summit County, does not appear in the proposed legislation. The area is popular among snowmobilers.
Two vast areas north of Avon – Crazy Horse Creek and Lower Piney – were also eliminated from Polis’s proposal, according to a map circulated by the congressman. Lower Piney spreads out west from the ridge of the Gore Range into Eagle County where Elliot Ridge leaves off. Dirt bikers and four-wheel enthusiasts angrily opposed wilderness designation for those areas in a public hearing held in Eagle in June.
The Hidden Gems coalition wanted 12,150 acres on Basalt Mountain protected. The Basalt Fire Department objected to wilderness designation on about half of the mountain, contending protection would eliminate the ability to reduce dead wood and other fuels as well as impede efforts to fight wild fires.
Instead of eliminating the half of the disputed mountain, Polis’s draft eliminates the entire parcel. Cottingham declined to discuss specific areas included or excluded in the proposal.
In general, she said, the areas included were “the least contentious and have the broadest support.” There is a chance that other, wilderness-worthy lands could be part of a separate legislative effort, she said.
Some Hidden Gems parcels would receive protection under the draft but would not get full-blown wilderness designation. The Tenmile Companion Area and Hoosier Ridge Companion Area, both near the southern tip of Summit County, would be off limits for sale or development, but mountain bikers would be able to use some historic trails there. Also, the Tenmile and Hoosier Ridge boundaries were adjusted to accommodate legal motorized use, according to a copy of Polis’s draft obtained by The Aspen Times.
Wilderness without restrictions on mountain biking is sometimes referred to as “wilderness-lite.”
The single largest chunk of land would still get special protection: Polis wants Red Table Mountain in its entirety to be a special management area that would allow continued use by the Colorado Army Air National Guard for the High-Altitude Army Aviation Training Site (HAATS). The Hidden Gems wanted about 62,000 acres of Red Table Mountain designated as wilderness. Red Table is partially in the Upper Fryingpan Valley drainage.
Polis’s draft said Red Table, Pisgah Mountain and the Castle Peak areas in Eagle County were also singled out for special use areas because there are concerns by water providers and ranchers over their access and rights under wilderness regulations.
Kolbenschlag, though happy with Polis’s proposal, said his organization remains convinced that the omitted parcels still deserve to be protected as wilderness. He stressed that the environmental community views the draft as “an important first step.”
Jack Albright, a spokesman for the White River Forest Alliance, a group opposed to the Hidden Gems plan, was reluctant to speak about the Polis proposal Monday because the congressman’s office asked stakeholders to keep it to themselves until a later date.
Regarding the elimination of Basalt Mountain from the draft, Albright said it was a good indication that the congressman is evaluating the needs of the entire community, including recreation users of the forest.
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