Hidden Gems put forth partial plan to Congress
CARBONDALE – Part of the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal, which has already triggered a high level of debate, is now in the hands of Colorado’s congressional delegation for another layer of review.
The environmental coalition backing the plan to designate additional public lands in western Colorado as Wilderness hopes that U.S. Rep. Jared Polis will like what he sees enough to introduce a bill to turn the Gems into protected lands. The move requires approval by both the House and Senate as well as the president.
“We’re anxious to see movement on this thing,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, which is helping promote the plan.
But a coalition representing dirt bikers, snowmobile riders, four-wheelers, mountain bikers and other forest users said the proponents jumped the gun. A representative of the White River Forest Alliance said more negotiations should have been made in good faith before the Gems proponents forward a proposal to Congress. Gems proponents countered that there is ample time for more discussion.
The environmental coalition divided the Hidden Gems plan into two parts in hopes that action could be sought quicker on designation of about 244,000 acres in Eagle and Summit counties. That includes land on Basalt Mountain and on Red Table Mountain, up the Fryingpan basin.
The coalition continues to work on a proposal for about 135,000 acres of Wilderness in Pitkin and Gunnison counties.
The proposal for Eagle and Summit counties was submitted to Polis and U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, all Democrats, on March 30. It has been or will soon be presented to other members of Colorado’s congressional delegation, said Pete Kolbenschlag, who is helping coordinate the Hidden Gems campaign.
The coalition hopes the Democratic-controlled Congress acts on the proposal before this year is over, he said. The Hidden Gems could be acted on in as its own bill or as part of a bigger public lands bill. The Gems proponents hope to finalize a proposal for Pitkin and Gunnison counties in time for possible action this year as well.
Many political observers believe there is a chance Democrats will lose control of the U.S. House in the November election. Shoemaker said that really didn’t weigh into the timing on the submittal of the proposal to Polis. “Discussions in Summit and Eagle proceeded at a rapid pace,” he said.
Polis’ staff is likely to undertake its own research on how the public feels about the Hidden Gems campaign. Calls to his office weren’t immediately returned on Monday. Congress remains on Easter recess.
The Hidden Gems proponents contended their multiyear effort “set a new standard for public outreach for Wilderness campaigns in Colorado.”
Shoemaker said he and others met with other forest user groups to seek compromise, when possible. About 97,000 acres were carved out of the original plan to accommodate requests from user groups, from snowmobilers to ranchers.
“The level of controversy that’s shown up in the press isn’t reflective” of the support that exists for the plan, Shoemaker said.
But Jack Albright, vice president of White River Forest Alliance, said he felt somewhat betrayed that a proposal was submitted to members of Congress before negotiations were completed. Albright was working with Hidden Gems representatives on compromises in various geographical areas, to the chagrin of a hard-core contingent of his group that didn’t want compromise. In their latest discussions, the two sides were collaborating on a plan to host public open houses to explain the Wilderness plan in detail. Albright said he felt those meetings should have occurred before a proposal was submitted to Congress. Since that didn’t happen, he wonders if Hidden Gems engaged the Forest Alliance simply to show members of Congress it made an effort.
“We’re feeling a little check-listed,” Albright said. “I felt during the process it was a legitimate effort. I’m questioning it now.”
The Forest Alliance will work on its own position letter for Polis as soon as possible. “I would say in broad strokes it’s going to say we don’t support any part of the Gems campaign – for lack of process, or lack of commitment to process,” Albright said.
Polis’ office has already received a letter of opposition to the Hidden Gems plan from the Basalt Fire District’s board of directors. The board voted last month to oppose the designation of 12,150 acres of Wilderness on Basalt Mountain because it felt it would impede fighting wildfires. The Hidden Gems plan tries to address the concern by specifically asking that wording be reinforced that use of equipment could be allowed for firefighting.
The fire district also took action out of concern that Hidden Gems planned to submit its proposal to Polis.
Kolbenschlag said people on all sides of the debate will get their voices heard in ongoing talks.
“We don’t think the process comes to an end just because the proposal has been turned in,” he said.
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