Polis: No Hidden Gems legislation expected soon | AspenTimes.com

Polis: No Hidden Gems legislation expected soon

Samantha Abernethy
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
www.whiteriverwild.orgRed Table Mountain, dividing the Eagle Creek watershed from the Fryingpan River watershed, is among the areas proposed for Hidden Gems wilderness designation.

BOULDER, Colo. – Rep. Jared Polis says he’s optimistic that a consensus can be reached on a proposal to designate more than 340,000 acres of Colorado land as wilderness, despite constituents’ concerns and competing interests.

After a series of public meetings, Polis hasn’t found a balance between recreationists and those advocating wilderness over the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal. And he says he’ll take his time.

“This is our land. Let’s figure out how we can use it,” the freshman Democrat said.

The proposal has been in the works for about a decade and was presented to Polis in April. The plan aims to designate lands in Eagle and Summit counties as protected by the Wilderness Act of 1964. The act allows non-motorized recreation, livestock grazing and scientific research. New mineral development, logging, ATVs and mountain bikes are banned.

Only Congress can set aside federal land as wilderness, so Polis would have to introduce a bill to create Hidden Gems. He said Wednesday that he is “still very actively listening” to feedback and doesn’t have a timeline for a proposal.

“I have received a lot of calls and letters” on Hidden Gems, Polis sad. “I will take a reasonable amount of time to listen and work with the residents of Eagle and Summit counties as well as Front Range recreationists.”

Many environmentalists say a Hidden Gems Wilderness will protect precious habitat, including Red Table Mountain, a rugged 18-mile ridge northeast of Basalt, for future generations. Opponents fear reduced access to popular recreation sites. Some people at a recent Polis forum in Edwards wore T-shirts reading, “Public land, public use.”

Red Table is key habitat for big game. Outfitters say wilderness designation would limit hunters, especially older ones, from easy access.

Countered Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition: “You actually need habitat for big game to keep hunters coming.”

Some municipalities opposed parts of the wilderness designation because of its restrictions on fire mitigation. Others cited the need to guarantee access to water resources. Members of the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign modified their proposal to accommodate some of those concerns.

Other local officials worried that the proposal could affect high-altitude U.S. military helicopter training based in Gypsum. Polis said he won’t let that happen.

“If we advance any bill, we will make sure it is one that doesn’t impact military readiness,” Polis said.

Red Table bears similarities to the landscape of Afghanistan. Military rules bar helicopters from flying less than 2,000 feet over U.S. wilderness.

Hidden Gems organizers split an original, larger proposal between Polis and U.S. Rep. John Salazar’s districts. Salazar has not yet voiced an opinion on Hidden Gems and is working on a separate wilderness designation for the San Juan Mountains.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jane Norton said Thursday she would oppose any new federal wilderness bills for Colorado.

“The days of the federal government cramming wilderness or monument designations down the throats of local communities, recreation enthusiasts and businesses must end,” Norton told the Colorado Ski Country trade group.

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