Motorized user groups feeling left out of Gems conversation
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – On Friday, Jan. 15, Sean Martin enjoyed a late-morning snowmobile ride deep into the White River National Forest.
Martin joined a group of the Mount Sopris Recreational Riders Club, of which he is president, on the SP trail near Thompson Creek. The SP trail runs east and west for close to 150 miles, from Sunlight to Powderhorn Ski Area on the Grand Mesa, and is maintained by the club. It’s also one of their most heavily used trails.
“It’s a great day to be out for a ride,” Martin said.
Martin, along with his wife and stepson, were out on the sleds that day in Thompson Creek, an area they have enjoyed for years.
“This is why we do this,” he said. “To get out here, in the forest, and enjoy the land.”
Neil Palazzi, the club’s vice president, was also on the trail that Friday.
“This is usually the only time we get together,” Palazzi said. “Sometimes this is the only place we get to see one another. Everyone gets busy. But we all enjoy doing this so we get together and do this.”
Snowmobilers like Martin and Palazzi enjoy riding snowmobiles in the forest land near their homes. But they claim that the Hidden Gems wilderness campaign threatens to close access to much of the area that they’ve enjoyed for years.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t give it much thought at first,” Martin admitted.
But about a year ago, when the campaign started gaining momentum, Martin started paying attention.
“It was a real eye-opener,” he said.
Hidden Gems, which seeks wilderness designation for approximately 400,000 acres of land spanning Summit, Gunnison, Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties, has received its share of opposition from everyone to rock climbers to motorized users.
The campaign seeks to add and extend wilderness areas in the White River and Gunnison national forests and nearby Bureau of Land Management lands.
The proposed Clear Fork Divide Wilderness is the largest area of new wilderness included in the Hidden Gems proposal. At 110,000 acres, the area includes Clear Fork, Hayes Creek, East Willow, and Thompson Creek, the majority of which lies in Pitkin County.
Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, one of the four organizations involved in the campaign, recently released a statement saying that it was removing a large portion of Thompson Creek from the proposal due to rancher opposition.
“The Hidden Gems Campaign intends to drop 32,166 acres from its wilderness proposal in the Thompson Creek area … to accommodate ranchers who aren’t willing to support wilderness designation for the public lands in the Thompson Creek where they graze cattle,” the statement read.
Wilderness designations requires an act of Congress and protects public lands from energy development, mining and logging, and prohibits the use of motorized vehicles and equipment. But Congress has made exceptions to motorized rules for maintenance of grazing allotments.
Sue Rodgers, owner of the Crystal River Ranch, and Bill Fales and his wife, Marj Perry, who own the Cold Mountain Ranch, are two Carbondale-area ranchers who have reached a compromise with proponents on the Thompson Creek area.
According to Fales, he agreed to support the 25,000 acres on Assignation Ridge where he and other area ranchers have grazing allotments on Bureau of Land Management lands.
Fales said that he supports the designation on Assignation Ridge because they manage the land by horseback, and it would not affect their work.
“The wilderness designation won’t interfere with management of that land,” Fales said.
Fales, who is a co-chair for the Thompson Divide Coalition, a group of local ranchers, farmers, hunters, fishermen, recreationalists, and conservationists who oppose oil and gas development in the area, is also president of the North Thompson Cattlemen’s Association. He said that he hasn’t taken a personal stance on the proposal, but speaks for the cattlemen’s association whose main concern is to protect the land from energy development. And the wilderness designation is a good way to do that.
“I feel that oil and gas development in the area is the biggest threat,” Fales said.
But he also would like to see some protection of the land from recreationalists as well.
“Motorized technology today is making it possible for vehicles that will go everywhere, and there seem to be a hugely growing population in Colorado,” Fales said. “There needs to be some limit so that we don’t love the ground to death.”
Fales didn’t offer a suggestion on how exactly to limit motorized use of the land but said that it should be addressed.
“I don’t know what the limitations should be,” he said. “But, if they have total free reign as to ride as many machines as long as they want, everywhere, I don’t think that is good resource management.”
Sean Martin has his opinion on the campaign.
“I think their proposal has some real merit to it,” he said. “I think, in order to appease us all, it’s got to be somewhere more in the middle than where it’s at.”
Martin said that the ranchers’ support, like Fales, illustrates the bias of the organizations behind the proposal.
“It only accommodates those ranchers,” he said.
And he feels that snowmobilers and other recreationalists will end up a casualty if the Gems moves forward as currently proposed.
“I don’t really think that snowmobiles bother too much,” he said. “But to get that wilderness designation you have to get everybody gone. And if you break a few eggs, that’s just the way it goes.”
Martin admits his bias on the issue. Obviously, he enjoys being able to ride his snowmobile miles deep into the White River National Forest, including Thompson Creek. He said that the proposal aims to lock out the people, like the snowmobile club members, who enjoy the area as much as the other groups. And that the proposal accommodates only select groups such as hikers. However, he, too, agrees that the land needs to be protected.
“The majority of people – 100 percent – want to see it protected,” he said. “We just have different takes on how it gets protected.”
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Eagle County will go to Stage 2 fire restrictions Friday, joining Pitkin County and other state and federal lands in the area.