Forest Service sticking to its stance on Hidden Gems
ASPEN – The U.S. Forest Service reinforced its position with the Pitkin County commissioners Tuesday that the agency feels only a fraction of the lands in the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal qualify for the designation.
“Our position remains the same. We went through public scoping for the forest plan in 2002. We are, at this point, going to stick to our recommended acreage,” Bill Kight, interim Aspen-Sopris District ranger, told the county commissioners.
The agency won’t endorse the broader Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign, which calls for adding about 325,000 acres of Wilderness in the White River National Forest, and about 400,000 acres overall.
“It’s not a hurdle. It’s par for the course,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, a conservation group leading the Hidden Gems campaign. The lands the agency deems appropriate for protection are often just a “baseline” or starting point for a Wilderness proposal, he said.
The Forest Service crafted an extensive management plan for the 2.3 million acre White River National Forest in 2002. It recommended adding Wilderness at and near Red Table Mountain north of Fryingpan Valley, and at Assignation Ridge, west of Redstone. The agency also recommended adding acreage to six existing Wilderness areas.
Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said in October that there are more important issues facing the forest than expanding Wilderness. He wants to harness the energy going into the Wilderness debate to enlist help on improving forest health.
Kight’s comments added to the formality of the Forest Service position. The commissioners wanted to know where the Forest Service stands because the county will craft its own position on the Hidden Gems early next year.
Pitkin County’s position is important because it has the potential to influence some members of Colorado’s congressional delegation, particularly Democrats. Pitkin County is a Democratic stronghold for votes and campaign contributions. The Hidden Gems proponents will likely ask a Democrat to sponsor a bill for Hidden Gems.
The Forest Service’s position on Hidden Gems neither surprised nor troubled Shoemaker.
“We really like those 82,000 acres and the fact that our participation in the forest plan produced that recommendation,” Shoemaker said. On the other hand, he noted, Congress specifically reserved the right to make the call itself on Wilderness, taking it out of the agency’s hands.
Lands that conservation groups see as appropriate for Wilderness are often eyed for other uses by the Forest Service. The agency has a responsibility to manage public lands for many uses, including oil and gas extraction, logging and recreation.
Many of the existing Wilderness areas, including those surrounding Aspen, would be much smaller if the decision was based solely on the Forest Service position. The standard procedure for creating Wilderness almost always features a citizens’ effort to get lands designated. Congress usually asks the Forest Service its opinion on a Wilderness bill.
Shoemaker said the position on Hidden Gems from the Forest Service’s Washington, D.C., headquarters could, theoretically, differ from the official White River National Forest position. The White River staff is unlikely to endorse Hidden Gems or add to the acreage supported for Wilderness because that would require reopening a “cumbersome process” to reassess the lands, he said, but the Forest Service chief could offer a more favorable opinion.
Pitkin County officials said it will likely be February, at the earliest, when they determine their position on Hidden Gems.
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Colorado’s Western Slope is considered a climate hot spot where temperatures are increasing faster than the global average. This warming has contributed to more than 20 years of dryness, which scientists are calling a megadrought.