Gems opponents pack meeting in Eagle | AspenTimes.com

Gems opponents pack meeting in Eagle

Scott N. Miller
Vail correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

Dominique Taylor/Vail DailyStephanie Ratkowski, center, whose husband owns Boyz, Toyz and Sonz snowmobile shop, expresses her concerns for the local snowmobiling community, including her family, should the Hidden Gems proposal to increase wilderness areas get Eagle County commissioners' endorsement during a community meeting on the topic Wednesday in Eagle. The proposal would protect those areas from motorized-vehicle use.

EAGLE, Colo. – Backers of the proposed Hidden Gems additions to the White River National Forest’s Wilderness areas encountered a hostile crowd Wednesday night.

Local snowmobilers and others turned out a few hundred strong at a meeting at the Eagle County Administration Building. While the county hosted the meeting, Eagle County planner Cliff Simonton made it clear that the final decision about the wilderness expansion rests in Washington D.C.

Backers of the proposal have asked for the county’s endorsement of the plan, though, and Simonton said his job is to gather as much public input as possible, and especially comments about plan specifics, including remarks about closing off areas that now have roads or trails open to motorized traffic.

No public comment was taken at the session, which was reserved for questions and answers with plan supporters. But opposition to the plan has been growing from people who use snowmobiles and other off-road vehicles, and those opponents were in the mood to express themselves.

The room erupted when Hidden Gems supporter Sloan Shoemaker was running through a PowerPoint presentation about the plan. The slide that sparked the outburst showed a handful of all-terrain-vehicle riders tearing up a muddy meadow.

“Where’d you get that picture?” was one of the shouted comments.

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After the initial presentation, questions to supporters ran the gamut from the impact of roads on wildlife to the claimed economic benefits of both motorized and non-motorized recreation.

Simonton collected a Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition report about motorized recreation’s economic benefits – more than 10,000 jobs and nearly $950 million per year in direct and indirect spending.

Shoemaker responded with his own numbers about the impacts of non-motorized recreation – which, an opponent noted, includes hunting, camping and skiing.

After the meeting, a couple of Hidden Gems supporters questioned whether they could come to any kind of accord with opponents.

“I think the arguments are so polarized, I don’t think there’s a middle ground,” supporter Patrick Tvarkunas said. But he added, he believes there are parts of the proposal supporters and opponents could agree on.

And, Shoemaker said, the plan has already been altered quite a bit from its original form in discussions with various local governments and agencies.

Bryan Long of Aspen came from Aspen to attend the meeting. He’s a snowmobiler, but said the behavior of many in the audience just “perpetuates stereotypes” about people involved in the sport.

Hidden Gems opponent Bob Brownlee disagreed.

“I think heckling shows people’s passion,” he said. “I think supporters would heckle, too, and people need to be prepared for it.”

Brownlee said there wasn’t enough time for questions and answers for his tastes, and had one of his own:

“What’s the big rush on this?” Brownlee said. “We need more data and more time to study it.”

But Hidden Gems opponent Hank Hayes thinks there are some basic elements of the plan that just shouldn’t be in it, such as Red Table Mountain near Gypsum.

“A lot of our riding area is there,” Hayes said. “And the more areas that are closed, the higher the concentration of people will be in the open areas, and that causes a lot of impact.”

While the Wednesday meeting was the first hosted by the county, it won’t be the last. And, Shoemaker said, he’s hopeful supporters and opponents can find some common ground.

“If you’re willing to sit down and talk, we can work something out,” he said.

smiller@vaildaily.com