Firefighters, Hidden Gems negotiate on Basalt Mountain
BASALT – Relations between the Basalt Fire District and Hidden Gems Wilderness proponents have thawed to the point where a compromise might be possible in a battle over Basalt Mountain, according to officials with both sides.
The fire district and Wilderness Workshop, which is leading a coalition that is promoting the Hidden Gems plan, issued a joint statement Monday that said they are “engaged in very frank and constructive discussions” regarding the Hidden Gems proposal.
“We are encouraged by this dialog and are committed to working through the process to identify mutually acceptable solutions,” the statement says.
The environmental coalition promoting the Hidden Gems wants 12,570 acres on Basalt Mountain included in the proposal. The Basalt Fire District’s board of directors voted last month to spend up to $50,000 in an effort to keep Basalt Mountain and a small portion of Red Table Mountain out of the plan.
Fire district officials claim Wilderness designation for the two areas will impede their ability to fight a catastrophic wildfire because it would add a layer of bureaucracy. U.S. Forest Service permission is required for any mechanized or motorized firefighting efforts in Wilderness.
The firefighters claim that that extra time could be essential in a firefighting effort.
Hidden Gems proponents said the special designation would have no practical effect on firefighting efforts. They said the Forest Service has granted quick permission for firefighting in numerous other areas. They also contended that the fire district should concentrate on getting people to create defensible space around their homes so that firefighters wouldn’t have to enter Wilderness to fight a blaze.
The fire district hired Eric Petterson of Rocky Mountain Ecological Services to study the natural fuels on Basalt Mountain and determine how a wildfire would potentially affect the town. The district planned to take the results of that study to the public, local elected officials and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who is studying the Hidden Gems proposal to consider if he will introduce a Wilderness bill. The first in a series of meetings is scheduled Tuesday with the Pitkin County commissioners.
Negotiations were dormant between the fire district and Wilderness Workshop for about a month, but were reopened within the last 10 days. Board members from the organizations have pow-wowed to see if compromise is possible. A person familiar with the discussions said negotiations will potentially keep parts of Basalt Mountain in the Hidden Gems proposal while the areas of most concern to firefighters will be withdrawn.
The joint statement sounded a hopeful tone. “We jointly agree that our goal is to generate a plan that meets the values of community safety and wilderness preservation, and that a win-win compromise is attainable,” the statement says.
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