Rep. Polis will renew Wilderness bill for Eagle-Summit area
DENVER – U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) celebrated Earth Day on Friday by announcing he will reintroduce a bill to protect nearly 166,000 acres of public lands in Eagle and Summit counties.
Polis’ Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act died last year without getting voted on. Since then, control of the House switched from Democrats to Republicans. Polis said he believes he can steer a Wilderness bill through this year regardless of the party in control and the priorities. Wilderness isn’t a partisan issue, he said.
Polis announced he would reintroduce the bill during a ceremony in Denver that included comments by Aron Ralston, the former Aspenite and highly-
visible Wilderness advocate.
Congress is rightfully focused on creating jobs and improving the economy, Polis said, and he thinks the Wilderness bill is compatible with those goals. A key to success for passage will be showing members of Congress how Wilderness and public lands are so vital to economic prosperity and jobs in Colorado.
“Legislatively, its fate is probably tied to a lands bill,” Polis said. It isn’t uncommon for Congress to act on an omnibus lands bill each session. A bill of that type wraps numerous land and water issues into one bill.
Polis’ action was endorsed Friday by four environmental groups that comprise the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign. The coalition, which includes Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, is trying to get a larger amount of land designated as Wilderness, but it backed Polis’ proposal last year as well.
Polis’ bill includes a “nice chunk” of the public lands targeted by the Hidden Gems campaign, said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop. An exact acreage wasn’t immediately available.
Polis’ office has always stressed that the congressman collected input from the Hidden Gems’ effort but crafted his own, independent plan. Polis’ bill last year didn’t raise the same level of ruckus that the Hidden Gems plan created.
“What we did is open up the process,” Polis said. A wide, diverse group of stakeholders were involved in the process before the boundaries for the proposed Wilderness were drawn, he said.
Polis’ bill this session will mirror what he proposed last session. There are 81,790 acres proposed for Wilderness in Eagle and Summit counties and 84,130 acres proposed as special management areas, which have a lower level of protection than Wilderness. A Wilderness designation prohibits motorized and mechanized uses.
Two areas eyed for protection in Polis’ bill are in the Upper Fryingpan Valley. Woods Lake would receive Wilderness protection. Part of Red Table Mountain would be designated as a special management area. Polis gave a nod to the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association when drawing the lines on Red Table Mountain. His proposal accommodates bicycles on the Ruedi Overlook Trail. That trail connects the Fryingpan Valley with Red Table Mountain Road and creates a big loop using Basalt Mountain. The Ruedi Overlook Trail was closed to mountain biking by the Forest Service last decade.
Polis’ proposal doesn’t include any lands in Pitkin County because that is outside his 2nd Congressional District. The Hidden Gems advocates hope to get U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.) to introduce a separate bill establishing more Wilderness in Pitkin and Gunnison counties. Tipton defeated incumbent Democrat John Salazar for the 3rd Congressional District seat in November. Wilderness Workshop sent an email to its members in March urging them to contact Tipton to urge him to consider a Wilderness bill.
Shoemaker said Tipton said during a meeting with Hidden Gems advocates last winter he would assess a San Juan Mountains Wilderness bill before considering other areas for protection. “That’s first in line,” Shoemaker said. “We hope to be next in line.”
Tipton’s criteria for Wilderness are local support, no opposition from the agriculture community and a positive effect on the economy. Shoemaker said the Hidden Gems coalition believes it can deliver on those three issues.
The Pitkin and Gunnison County commissioners have endorsed the proposal. However, it’s opposed by a large contingent of off-road enthusiasts, as bumper stickers attest. The Hidden Gems sticker with the red circle and line of the universal “no” symbol adorns an incredible number of vehicles in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“I know they’re handing out stickers like candy and people are slapping them on,” Shoemaker said. There are a certain percentage of people ideologically opposed to Wilderness, he acknowledged, and some foes are opposed to Wilderness designation to specific areas. But he feels the vast majority of opponents are basing opinions on inaccurate or incomplete information about the plan. He said he has seen foes become neutral or even supportive of Hidden Gems when they learn more about it.
The environmental coalition will continue its outreach to build support on adding Wilderness in Pitkin and Gunnison counties, Shoemaker said. It will urge its members to support Polis’ proposal for Eagle and Summit counties.
Jack Albright, spokesman for White River Forest Alliance, a group of snowmobilers, off-road enthusiasts and mountain bikers who oppose Hidden Gems, indicated the organization could support Polis’ proposal with modifications.
“It’s much improved from what the Hidden Gem’s proposal has in it,” Albright said. The alliance still wants to see some boundaries altered and has been assured by Polis’ office that there will be time to discuss adjustments.
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