ASPEN - The Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign appeared to suffer a setback Tuesday when the congressman being lobbied to sponsor a bill to protect lands in Pitkin and Gunnison counties lost his seat in the election.
U.S. Rep. John Salazar, the Democrat representing Colorado's 3rd Congressional District, was defeated by Republican challenger Scott Tipton.
The environmental coalition promoting Hidden Gems had honored Salazar for his work in conservation and land protection, and was hopeful that he would introduce a wilderness bill in his next term.
Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, an environmental group supporting the Hidden Gems, downplayed the significance of Salazar's loss. Jack Albright, vice president of the White River Forest Alliance, a group opposing Hidden Gems, said his organization is confident Tipton's victory guarantees they will be heard in any debate about wilderness.
"What we think that means for Hidden Gems is there is a voice of reason in Congress for us," Albright said.
Shoemaker said protecting federal lands with a wilderness designation is a bipartisan issue. "Wilderness has a history of getting passed by Republicans and Democrats," he said. During the Reagan administration, for example, 11 million acres of public lands were protected even though James Watt was the Secretary of Interior for some of that time, Shoemaker noted.
In the case of the Hidden Gems proposal in Pitkin and Gunnison counties, the proponents must do thorough research, fully discuss the proposal with different forest users, then make an effective pitch to decision-makers, Shoemaker said. "That really wasn't any different under Tipton or Salazar," he said.
Shoemaker gambled during the campaign and wrote a strongly worded letter, as an individual, in support of Salazar. The letter also took a shot at Tipton.
Shoemaker urged voters to vote for Salazar and "keep our man of the land in office." His letter said: "A win by his opponent, millionaire banker Scott Tipton, will set back conservation efforts on the Western Slope for decades."
Shoemaker said Friday the debate about Hidden Gems isn't about him. "It's about what the constituents in Pitkin and Gunnison counties want," he said. The effort to get land protected as wilderness will be tougher, he said, simply because they are starting over with educating a new congressman about the benefits of the protection.
Wilderness designation can only be granted by Congress. It prohibits mechanized and motorized uses.
Tipton was in Denver Friday putting together a staff and making other preparations to take office in January. He couldn't be reached for comment on where he stands on wilderness issues, specifically those in the 3rd Congressional District.
Albright said he had a chance to discuss wilderness issues with Tipton during the campaign. Based on those discussions, the White River Forest Alliance is convinced Tipton will take a hard look at any proposal, make sure it is properly vetted and that the recreation community will get ample chance for input. That is, "if anything moves forward at all," Albright said.
The forest alliance refrained from endorsing a candidate in the Tipton-Salazar race, but is "excited to have Scott Tipton be the District Three congressman," Albright said.
Shoemaker said the Hidden Gems proponents remain dedicated to the cause and will be persistent in working on it. Nothing usually happens quickly on wilderness bills, he noted.
"We've got our work cut out for us," Shoemaker said.
Pitkin County commissioners, who heard a presentation from Shoemaker in September on proposed additional wilderness within the county, will take up a draft resolution supporting designation of the proposed wilderness lands on Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. The draft resolution has been tweaked to address concerns that have been raised to commissioners regarding water rights, management of historic ranching areas and the ability to fight wildfires where wildlands abut urban areas near Aspen.