Proposed Wilderness shows off its wild side | AspenTimes.com

Proposed Wilderness shows off its wild side

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

REDSTONE – Land outside of Carbondale and Redstone that’s being eyed for a Wilderness designation did its best to impress a contingent of elected officials, land managers and others with its wildness on Wednesday.

A pair of screeching red-tailed hawks sailed above an aspen grove, a herd of elk caught the sharper eyes in the group and a young bear scampered up a slope as more than a dozen observers on horses and mules explored what’s been dubbed the Assignation Ridge area in U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette’s Colorado Wilderness Act. Mother Nature added a too-close-for-comfort lightning strike to the mix, leaving both riders and mounts jumpy and cutting short the planned visit after a pause to wait out the storm.

The unexpected is part of the wilderness experience, reasoned DeGette, visiting an area she is leaning toward putting forward as part of an omnibus public lands bill in Congress. The Assignation Ridge/Thompson Creek area encompasses some 25,000 acres in a strip on the west side of Highway 133 between Carbondale and Redstone.

“It’s spectacular,” she said after the group dismounted on a windswept knoll dotted with aspens, sagebrush and blooming lupins and skyrocket, to take in sweeping views of Lake Ridge, Huntsman Ridge, Chair Mountain and the southern extension of Assignation Ridge. “This is obviously Wilderness as the Wilderness Act would define it.”

The congresswoman was joined by members of her staff, representatives of the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, Pitkin County Commissioners Jack Hatfield and George Newman, Garfield County Commissioner Tresi Houpt, Carbondale-area rancher Marj Perry and a crew organized by Avalanche Outfitters.

The proposed Assignation Ridge Wilderness is a combination of national forest and BLM land in both Garfield and Pitkin counties. Also in Pitkin County, DeGette has proposed a non-controversial addition to the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area – roughly 330 acres on the eastern slope of Eagle Mountain – but the Assignation Ridge area received most of her attention on a swing through the Roaring Fork Valley this week.

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Her proposal encompasses the rock fins of the Thompson Creek area that are popular with climbers, as well as the Braderich Creek Trail outside of Redstone, where Wednesday’s party began its ride. Mountain bikers use the trail, one of several routes that would be off-limits to bikers or motorized users if the area becomes Wilderness.

DeGette met with climbers, who want the continued ability to use power drills (a no-no in Wilderness) to replace bolts, mountain bikers who want continued access to Braderich Creek and area ranchers who want assurance that they can continue to maintain grazing areas with the use of motorized or mechanical equipment, if necessary. Such uses, including mountain biking, aren’t permitted in Wilderness areas.

The congresswoman is contemplating excluding Braderich Creek from within the Wilderness boundary. Whether some exemption can be made for climbers with power tools is less clear, she said.

Decisions about what will and will not be included in the Wilderness proposal will be made in the coming weeks, she said. The finalized proposal won’t focus solely on recreation, but also on wildlife habitat and ecology.

“Part of trying to do Wilderness and other public-lands uses is finding a balance,” DeGette said. “It doesn’t mean everybody gets what they want.”

Perry, from a longtime ranching family, said she has mixed feelings about Wilderness, but felt DeGette offered assurances to the ranching community that she will look out for their interests if the proposal moves forward.

Ranchers want their historic use of machinery protected, Perry said.

“The chainsaw is huge,” she explained. “When the wind blew last fall, there was no way we could get the cows out without clearing the trails. There isn’t time to go get a permit.”

County commissioners on the outing all appeared to favor the Wilderness designation, though Newman said he’d like to see the Braderich Creek Trail removed.

“It’s thrilling to see what could potentially happen through this cooperative effort,” said Hatfield, in reference to efforts by both DeGette and the Hidden Gems campaign to designate the Assignation Ridge/Thompson Creek area as wilderness with input from recreational users.

“I think this is tremendously beautiful,” Houpt said. “It’s important to save lands like this for future generations.”

DeGette’s bill proposes designation of 34 areas comprised of 850,000 acres in Colorado as Wilderness. She is now sifting through that list to determine what can be moved forward now, as part of the omnibus legislation expected to be introduced this fall.

janet@aspentimes.com