Hidden Gems debate revs to a higher level with public forums | AspenTimes.com

Hidden Gems debate revs to a higher level with public forums

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
This proposal was submitted by an environmental coalition to U.S. Rep. Jared Polis' office last month. The Congressman will gather information from the public over the next month to help create a Wilderness bill.

The debate over the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal is about to hit the big stage.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis is inviting comment on the Wilderness plan for Eagle and Summit counties – and he’s likely to get an earful. Polis will hold three public forums, although none will be in the Roaring Fork Valley. The first forum will be Tuesday, June 1, in Boulder. The second will be Thursday, June 3, in Edwards – about 90 minutes from Basalt. The third will be Friday, June 4, in Breckenridge.

“Before drafting legislation, my office and I will examine the proposal in detail, trail by trail and area by area, to isolate which areas are appropriate for wilderness designation and which are not,” Polis said on his website. “We will not pursue wilderness where it is not appropriate.”

Polis spokesperson Lara Cottingham said the scheduling wasn’t meant to snub Eagle County residents of the Roaring Fork Valley. The congressman is cramming in as many public forums as his schedule can accommodate before a summer recess. People who cannot make the three forums have plenty of other opportunities to comment on the Wilderness proposal submitted to Polis last month by a coalition of environmental groups. The congressman’s Frisco office is holding open office hours to allow public comment on May 12 from 9 a.m. to noon; and on May 18 and May 25 from noon to 3 p.m. That office is located at 101 W. Main St. in Frisco.

In addition, a special link on the congressman’s website has information about the Wilderness proposal, and a place where people can submit an e-mail with their comments about specific areas in the proposal. The website address is http://www.polis.house.gov/wilderness/.

The Hidden Gems plan was split last month by a coalition led by Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop. A proposal seeking Wilderness designation of 244,000 acres in Eagle and Summit counties was delivered to Polis, whose 2nd Congressional District includes the two counties.

The Hidden Gems partners are still working on a plan for 135,000 acres in Pitkin and Gunnison counties, which are in U.S. Rep. John Salazar’s 3rd Congressional District.

Cottingham stressed that Polis is only assessing the Hidden Gems plan in his district – Eagle and Summit counties.

Polis isn’t holding a hearing in the Basalt area even though one of the most controversial sections of the plan is in the Roaring Fork Valley. The Basalt Fire District’s board of directors voted last month to spend up to $50,000 to study how the Wilderness designation of more than 12,000 acres on Basalt Mountain could affect their ability to fight wildfires and the potential consequences on Basalt, El Jebel and other developed areas. They will also use the funding to educate their constituents about the findings and lobby against the inclusion of Basalt Mountain in the Wilderness proposal.

Hidden Gems proponents contend the Wilderness designation will have no practical effect on firefighting on Basalt Mountain.

Representatives of the fire department met this week with a staff member from Polis’ office.

A written statement provided to The Aspen Times from Polis about those discussions said, “Nothing comes before the safety of our communities. My office has met with the Basalt Fire District and will continue to work closely with them, as well as the U.S. Forest Service and other experts, to ensure without question that community safety is the number one priority in evaluating the Hidden Gems Proposal.

“This is exactly why we are conducting an extensive review process of the Hidden Gems proposal, going through each area in question with a fine-toothed comb, and enlisting our local land managers and safety organizations in that process,” Polis said.

Commissioners in Eagle County sent a letter to Polis this week that said it could support the Wilderness designation for Basalt Mountain if boundary changes were made.

Overall, Eagle County supported Wilderness designation for nine specific parcels in the county in the Hidden Gems plan. It opposed designation for one parcel in the Eagle Valley, and it said six areas could be supported with boundary changes.

The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies also endorsed the plan Wednesday.

Opponents of the plan, or parts of it, are gearing up to lobby Polis. Jack Albright, vice president of the White River Forest Alliance, said he intends to attend all three of the public forums hosted by Polis. His group represents everyone from snowmobilers to mountain bikers and wants some areas stripped from the plan.

“We need to make sure there is a balanced voice there,” Albright said.

Although he would have preferred a meeting in the Roaring Fork Valley, he appreciates the congressman’s efforts to collect opinions. “I feel like this is a step in the right direction,” he said.