Pitkin County to weigh in on Hidden Gems proposal
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – More than 72,000 acres in Pitkin County have been removed from the Hidden Gems campaign’s push to expand Wilderness areas in western Colorado as a result of compromises with various user groups, according to a lengthy summary that will be presented to Pitkin County commissioners next week.
The Gems proposal hasn’t been before local commissioners in more than a year, though the campaign’s Wilderness plan for Eagle and Summit counties is now in the hands of U.S. Rep. Jared Polis. He has been asked to introduce a bill in Congress that would set aside new Wilderness in those areas, which are within his district.
In the Congressional District 2, the Hidden Gems proposal seeks to protect 191,000 acres of federal lands in Eagle County and 48,000 acres in Summit County.
In District 3, 63,000 acres are proposed for protection in Pitkin County, along with 33,000 acres in Gunnison County. The district’s representative, John Salazar, is currently pursuing other public lands legislative efforts, and the Gems campaign is continuing to refine its proposals in those areas, said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, which is coordinating the Hidden Gems effort.
While Polis seeks a balance between the competing interests of recreationists and Wilderness advocates in his district, commissioners will get an update on how that process has gone so far in Pitkin County and surrounding areas of the Roaring Fork Valley.
“Our interest is just to update them on where we are. We’re not asking them for a decision,” Shoemaker said. “We would like to walk out of there with a good understanding of what their concerns are.”
Tuesday’s work session is not a public hearing, but the Gems debate has polarized the public. Commissioner Rachel Richards said she has received more e-mails on the issue – both for and against additional Wilderness – than she has on anything else to come before her in her first term as a commissioner.
On Tuesday, Richards said she wants to hear why various areas warrant Wilderness protection and how Gems advocates have responded to the concerns of recreational user groups and others who have opposed the inclusion of various lands in the proposal.
“I want the whole landscape,” she said.
Though commissioners aren’t being asked to endorse the Gems proposal on Tuesday, when the time comes, Commissioner Michael Owsley said the debate, for him, won’t be so much about the lands as it will be about the community’s agreement or disagreement over what’s proposed.
“That’s the crux of the problem,” he said. “It’s not about the areas, it’s about the social environment. I think it’s important to have the community united, not divided.”
A memo to the commissioners outlines how the campaign started, why lands were identified for Wilderness protection, how the Gems proposal has evolved and where it stands today. It also includes a summary of where there has been agreement and disagreement over what areas should become Wilderness remains.
In some areas, the wishes of mountain bikers to preserve bandit trails or the opportunity for future trails remain a point of contention, Shoemaker conceded. Mountain bike use is not permitted in Wilderness.
“Although we are working hard to reach a resolution with the Roaring Fork Mountain Biking Association, there may be some areas where we believe the wildlife and landscape protection values and agricultural priorities outweigh the need for continued mechanized trail development,” says the memo, which details the specific areas where disagreement exists.
A summary of adjustments to the proposal, as of June 1, indicates 72,272 acres have been removed from the Gems plan in Pitkin County through 29 different adjustments. Those changes were made to accommodate biking, climbing, agriculture, motorized uses, fire protection and other needs. In addition, 34 adjustments totaling 80,885 acres have been made in areas adjacent to Pitkin County, according to the memo.
A much-publicized disagreement over Wilderness protection on part of Basalt Mountain, where the ability to fight wildfires emerged as a concern for Basalt firefighters, will be resolved, Shoemaker predicted.
“We’re closer and closer to arriving at a consensus on that,” he said. “I’m confident we’re going to resolve that conflict in a mutually acceptable way.”
The commissioners will begin their discussion on Hidden Gems at 2 p.m. Tuesday in their meeting room at the county plaza building.
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