Polis Wilderness plan focuses on ‘consensus’ areas | AspenTimes.com

Polis Wilderness plan focuses on ‘consensus’ areas

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis is leaving the door open to seek Wilderness designation for more lands in the Hidden Gems proposal in the future, but for now he is targeting areas where there is a “broad consensus” for protection.

Polis “hopes” to introduce a Wilderness bill this fall, he said in a statement. The lands selected for the bill were determined after Polis and his staff held what he labeled extensive public outreach.

Polis released a draft bill last Friday that proposes to designate about 90,000 acres of new Wilderness in Eagle and Summit counties. Another 80,000 acres would receive lower levels of protection as special management areas or companion designations.

A coalition of environmental groups, including the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, asked Polis earlier this summer to seek Wilderness protection for about 244,000 acres of lands in the two counties. Polis’ draft bill doesn’t include three primary Hidden Gems areas, including Basalt Mountain. About 30 percent of the lands included in the Hidden Gems proposal were excluded from Polis’ proposal.

“The discussion draft is not to be considered final, but Polis hopes to introduce a bill this fall preserving areas currently ready for legislative action, while continuing to build consensus around other areas not appropriate for legislation at this time,” said the statement from the congressman’s office.

Polis made it clear his legislation was a product of broader public outreach and not just the Hidden Gems proposal. Polis held public meetings in Eagle and Summit counties, some of which were heavily attended by Hidden Gems foes.

“This proposal should by no means be considered a ‘comprehensive’ or ‘Hidden Gems’ Wilderness bill,” Polis said in the statement. “There is still an ongoing discussion about other potential Wilderness areas, and I will continue working with local governments, residents and stakeholders on issues and areas that this legislation doesn’t address.”

The environmental coalition supporting Hidden Gems said it will support Polis’ bill if it is introduced.

Jack Albright, vice president and spokesman for the White River Forest Alliance, a coalition of forest users ranging from snowmobilers to mountain bikers, stopped short of endorsing Polis’ proposal. But he expressed general satisfaction.

Polis’ office “did a fantastic job of listening to people” and identifying major areas of concern and consensus, Albright said. Alliance members successfully lobbied for exclusion of the Lower Piney area in Eagle County and Elliot Ridge in Summit County from the Wilderness bill.

“There’s a lot of relief that they were taken out,” Albright said.

He noted that Polis’ bill creates the possibility for the Ruedi Overlook trail to be reopened to mountain biking. The Ruedi Overlook trail runs between the FAA tower on Red Table Mountain to the western side of Ruedi Reservoir. It requires advanced skills, but it had lots of fans before the U.S. Forest Service closed it to cyclists earlier this decade.

Red Table Mountain is designated as a special management area, rather than Wilderness, in Polis’ draft bill. The White River Forest Alliance wants Polis to consider allowing snowmobiling on Red Table. Conditional use could be required, such as a minimum snow depth, to prevent environmental damage, Albright said.

Alliance members will also push for further adjustments to the Hoosier Ridge Companion Area in Summit County to accommodate snowmobiling, according to Albright.

With minor adjustments, he indicated Polis’ bill would eliminate major fights about recreation. “There’s always the hard-core contingent that wouldn’t like to see any more Wilderness,” Albright said.

scondon@aspentimes.com