Hidden Gems plan spurs formidable opposition | AspenTimes.com

Hidden Gems plan spurs formidable opposition

ASPEN – A group fighting to preserve access for all users of public lands has collected roughly 700 signatures on a petition opposing the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign, an organizer said Friday.

The White River Forest Alliance plans to keep collecting signatures and then present its petition to local governments and Colorado’s congressional delegation in an effort to stop the campaign to add 450,000 acres of Wilderness, according to Jack Albright, vice president of the organization.

“We’ll fight it at the national level if that’s what we need to do,” he said.

The alliance emerged in late August to provide a powerful counterpoint to Wilderness Workshop, a Carbondale-based environmental group heading a coalition that is promoting the Hidden Gems proposal.

Albright said the alliance’s goal is to make sure all forest users are aware of the Hidden Gems proposal and how it affects them, then provide foes of the Wilderness proposal with a voice. Among alliance members are snowmobilers, dirt bikers and four-wheeling enthusiasts. But Albright said its not just for motorized users. Its members also include mountain bikers, ranchers and even hikers.

(The Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association is also fighting the Hidden Gems campaign, but it has kept its distance from the White River Forest Alliance. The association’s board of directors is wary of aligning with a motorized users.)

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The White River Forest Alliance isn’t anti-wilderness and it doesn’t want any existing Wilderness land removed from the inventory, according to Albright. About 750,000 acres of the 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest is currently designated as Wilderness. That provides special protection and bans mechanized uses.

Albright said the alliance supports the U.S. Forest Service’s position that 82,000 acres of additional lands in the White River are eligible for Wilderness designation. The Forest Service concluded in 2002 that the additional terrain should receive the protection.

“From the way we’re looking at it, that 82,000 acres is off the table,” Albright said, meaning the alliance won’t fight any effort to protect those lands, which are included in the Hidden Gems proposal. “Eighty-two thousands, nothing more,” Albright stressed.

The Hidden Gems plan would add public land to the Wilderness inventory in Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield, Gunnison and Summit counties. Most of the 450,000 acres are in the White River National Forest, but some targeted areas are on Bureau of Land Management holdings and in the Gunnison National Forest.

Wilderness Workshop and its allies say special areas need to be protected from gas development and mechanized recreation. Much of the targeted land consists of mid-elevation areas that provide excellent wildlife habitat.

Albright said further protection shouldn’t come at the expense of other forest users. Motorized users and mountain bikers don’t want existing trails and roads closed, he said. It supports the management of national forests as “land of many uses,” as the Forest Service motto goes. Albright said the alliance advocates responsible use of public lands by all users, from hikers to dirt bikers.

A large percentage of the alliance’s membership would likely support protection to prohibit gas development and other extractive threats, Albright said. But that protection must be crafted in a way that preserves existing recreational uses, he said.

The Hidden Gems proponents have dismissed alternative protections as too weak.

The White River Forest Alliance, a nonprofit organization, fought earlier this decade to try to preserve roads and trails for its members when the Forest Service worked on a travel management plan for the entire 2.3 million-acre forest. It was such a time-consuming effort that the leadership kind of ran out of steam by 2006. The alliance had to be revived by new blood like Albright when the Hidden Gems proposal popped up. Albright said he and others were stirred to action when they heard a presentation about the Hidden Gems plan last summer.

“We said, ‘Holy smokes, we’ve got to do something about this,'” he said.

In just 2 1/2 months, the organization has proved formidable in rallying its members. Hundreds of foes of Hidden Gems attended a meeting in Carbondale earlier this fall to discuss the proposal. The organization is urging its members to attend a meeting that Eagle County is holding from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Eagle County Room in the courthouse in Eagle. The county government is hosting a meeting to show how Hidden Gems would affect lands in Eagle County.

The alliance’s website, http://www.whiteriverforestalliance.com, serves as a bulletin board for events and provides contact information for members of the board of directors. Members who provide an e-mail address are sent occasional updates on meetings and developments.

Albright said he doubts that compromise between the alliance and Wilderness Workshop is possible. The feedback from the alliance’s membership would require Wilderness Workshop to “water down” its proposal to the point that it would probably be unacceptable to them, he said.

So the alliance wants to make sure that elected officials on the local, state and national levels are aware of their view. It’s possible it will scare off any potential sponsors of a bill in Congress.

“Honestly that’s what we hope to achieve – this is too much of a hot potato to touch right now,” Albright said.

scondon@aspentimes.com