County officials feel heat from debate over Hidden Gems
September 15, 2009
EL JEBEL – Pitkin and Eagle county commissioners agreed Monday they don’t want to referee a fight between advocates of a Wilderness designation for public lands and user groups that don’t want their access to backcountry lands restricted.
Their discussion in a joint meeting hinged over the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign. The Wilderness Workshop, based in Carbondale, is heading a coalition of environmental groups that wants to secure special protection for between 400,000 and 450,000 acres of public lands in Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield, Gunnison and Summit counties.
Wilderness designation closes public land to motorized and mechanized users. Hikers and equestrians are still welcome.
Wilderness advocates have gone on tour of town halls and county commission halls in the last month to gain support for the plan. User groups like mountain bikers, dirt bikers, four-wheelers, snowmobilers and ranchers have blitzed the meetings to voice opposition.
The commissioners agreed Monday that the Wilderness Workshop must concentrate on winning over the user groups before lobbying the elected officials for support.
“We’re not accepting the ball at all,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Jack Hatfield. That said, he said he favors Wilderness protection for special lands and believes the Hidden Gems proposal has merit. But the Wilderness Workshop has more work to do, he said.
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Pitkin County Commissioner Michael Owsley said the Wilderness Workshop’s proposal caught many user groups off guard and has them asking “what the hell’s going on?” He noted that the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association has come out with a strong stance against the Hidden Gems effort. The association endorsed Wilderness designation of about 30,000 acres. It wants other lands protected as National Recreation Areas or National Conservation Areas, sometimes referred to as “Wilderness with bikes.”
The rift between the bikers and Wilderness advocates is an eye opener because the groups share a concern for public lands. “That’s a serious problem for us,” Owsley said.
He said the Wilderness Workshop needs to enhance its efforts to talk to mountain bikes, snowmobilers and other forest users. Hatfield said he doesn’t think the Hidden Gems effort is “as bad” as some user groups are portraying it. Motorized users, he said, won’t concede any additional lands should be surrendered for Wilderness.
“They’re the motorheads. They want what they want, it’s unequivocal,” Hatfield said.
There was also a suggestion that outside agitators are playing a role in the opposition. The oil and gas industry doesn’t want some areas closed and the fight is being cloaked under recreation concerns, according to Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards.
“Some of this opposition is being fueled by that,” she said.
Commissioners from both counties said they aim to reach a point where they take positions on lands in their counties, but neither board wants to take a blanket position on the Hidden Gems proposal. Commissioners in Eagle County, for example, don’t want to comment on lands proposed for Wilderness designation in Pitkin County, and vice versa.
The campaign is destined to take months if not years to resolve. Designation of any additional lands as Wilderness requires an act of U.S. Congress.