Hidden Gems proposal wins Pitkin County’s blessing | AspenTimes.com

Hidden Gems proposal wins Pitkin County’s blessing

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – A proposal to add wilderness protection to nearly 63,000 acres of backcountry lands in Pitkin County won the unanimous endorsement of four Pitkin County commissioners Wednesday.

The action came over objections voiced by a handful of citizens. They urged commissioners to hold off until proponents of the Hidden Gems plan tried again to address concerns about closing off certain trails or areas to motorized uses or mountain biking. Neither of those activities are permitted in wilderness areas.

But after two years of public discourse and meetings between user groups and the wilderness plan’s proponents, during which the Gems proposal was significantly modified, commissioners said they were satisfied with the process and the proposal. Commissioner Patti Clapper was absent.

“Very few legislative actions are ever perfect fits,” said Commissioner Rachel Richards. “There’s a point at which decisions should be made and things moved on.”

“It’s been a very well-vetted proposal,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, one of the organizations that put forth the Hidden Gems plan.

Shoemaker said proponents intend to meet with Congressman-elect Scott Tipton before the year is out to present the proposal, with the hope that he will sponsor wilderness legislation. The proposal is likely to see further refinement through that process, he noted.

The Hidden Gems proposal for Eagle and Summit counties, taken up by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, was whittled from about 240,000 acres to 166,000 acres of wilderness or special management areas by the time Polis introduced a bill.

“That vetting process is just beginning when it gets handed over to a congressman,” Shoemaker said.

Tipton will see a Gems proposal that targets lands within his district, primarily in Pitkin and Gunnison counties. Commissioners approved a resolution yesterday in support of only the 62,846 acres of proposed wilderness in Pitkin County. A Nov. 23 public hearing is scheduled before Gunnison County commissioners on the Gems wilderness proposal within their borders.

Wednesday’s meeting in Aspen drew a packed audience, and more than 20 citizens took the chance to speak for or against the proposal. Most who chose to speak lauded the Gems plan and urged commissioners to give it their support.

“As they say in the Nike world – just do it,” said Redstone resident Chuck Downey.

Commissioner-elect Rob Ittner also advocated approval of the resolution, calling wilderness an important draw for the county.

“At some point you have to move forward and you’re not going to make everyone happy,” he said.

Gems proponents called for the protection of additional wilderness for future generations, but detractors offered much the same argument, telling commissioners they’d like various recreational opportunities to remain available for their children and grandchildren.

“We feel that losing these would not only affect people today … but our children and our children’s children,” said Kirk Hinderberger, a Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association board member.

“We’d like to get to the point where we can support Hidden Gems,” he added.

Jack Albright of Missouri Heights, a volunteer with the White River Forest Alliance, praised the Gems campaign for the number of meetings it has held with user groups, but said: “Is it the meetings or the listening that counts?”

He urged commissioners to take up each piece of the proposal individually and decide what merits wilderness designation and what warrants more consideration.

“I think they’ve come an awfully long way. I just don’t think they’re there yet,” Albright said.

“Let’s not jump at the very last second when there’s a couple of things that can be refined,” agreed Tim Nichols of Aspen.

But Commissioner Michael Owsley praised the process that led to what has been dubbed Hidden Gems 2.0 – the most recent iteration of the plan – as an inclusive one, earning his support.

“We listened to each other, we heard each other, and we respected each other,” he said.

Commissioner Jack Hatfield said he would have liked to see the proposal retain more acreage than it did as proponents worked to satisfy various factions.

“It’s time to move this forward,” he said.

The county did, in its final draft of the resolution, include language addressing water rights and infrastructure, and providing special provisions for ranchers and firefighters.

The resolution specifically urges Congress to include wording that will allow ranchers to use vehicles and mechanized tools, like chainsaws, to maintain and repair their facilities in new wilderness areas. It also acknowledges the need for further refinement of the wilderness boundary where it abuts the wildland-urban interface near Aspen.