Whose land is this?
August 28, 2009
As a youngster in Crested Butte in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Paul Andersen had a foot on the pedal in the early days of mountain biking.The sport was new and the U.S. Forest Service hadn’t yet clarified its rules on the presence of the machines in specially protected Wilderness areas. Andersen, now a Basalt resident and Aspen Times columnist, recalls riding his bike in some of the most gorgeous mountain passes and valleys in the Aspen area, places like West Maroon Pass in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.But the Forest Service tightened up its Wilderness rules in the 1980s, banning mountain bikes just as the sport was exploding in popularity.”There was sort of a mood of upset among my mountain biking brethren,” Andersen said.He initially shared those sentiments. But as Andersen spent more time out of the saddle and on his feet, he said he saw the “wisdom” of the ban on mountain bikes. They have a greater impact on trails and ecosystems than foot traffic, according to Andersen.”The lighter the use of wild lands, the better,” he said.Andersen was willing to “sacrifice” some of the trails he was able to ride prior to the mid-1980s. And now he is willing to sacrifice additional routes on federal lands in return for the Wilderness designation.But his willingness to convert isn’t shared by a lot of mountain bikers. They see the efforts to lock them out of more lands as a stab in the back by conservation groups. Mountain bikers are outdoor lovers who, by-and-large, want beautiful landscapes protected from threats of development, mining, and oil and gas production.The common ground that cyclists and wilderness advocates share is immense, said Mike Pritchard, a member of the board of directors of the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association, an advocacy group formed two years ago.”We’re both looking to protect the land,” he said. “There’s a minor conflict of no two wheels in the Wilderness.”
The ability of the two groups to work together is being put to the test during the campaign to protect between 400,000 and 450,000 acres of public lands in western Colorado, dubbed “the Hidden Gems.” Those lands are located in Pitkin, Garfield, Eagle, Summit and Gunnison counties – resort meccas for mountain biking. Roughly 217,000 of the acres targeted for protection surround the Roaring Fork Valley.Wilderness Workshop, a renowned wilderness advocacy group founded in Aspen in the 1960s and now based in Carbondale, is heading the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign with heavyweight partners – the Colorado Environmental Coalition, Colorado Mountain Club and The Wilderness Society.The roots of their effort trace back to earlier this decade, when a new management plan for the White River National Forest was released by the Forest Service. The agency recommended adding 82,000 acres of Wilderness to the 750,000 acres already with that management designation.”We said, ‘That’s a good start, but there’s a whole lot more out there'” that deserves the protection, said Wilderness Workshop Executive Director Sloan Shoemaker.The environmental groups performed their own inventory to determine what additional lands should be protected. What they came up with are lands Shoemaker called the Hidden Gems. For the most part, those lands aren’t the jaw-dropping, “marquee” sites like the Maroon Bells or Snowmass Lake. Their beauty is more subtle.While the Gems might not be stunning compared to the high ground that usually gets Wilderness protection, they are important as wildlife habitat, Shoemaker said. “From an ecological standpoint, the lower lands are more valuable.”After identifying the lands they want protected, the conservation groups are now working to get a Wilderness proposal bill introduced during this session of Congress. “We’re in full-fledged campaign mode,” Shoemaker said.U.S. Rep. John Salazar, whose district includes Pitkin and Garfield counties, is viewed as a prime potential candidate to sponsor a bill. But Salazar wants the Wilderness advocates to build support and reduce opposition in the affected counties before he attaches his name to the effort.”We’re trying to work out the conflicts before we get to Congress,” Shoemaker said.That’s why the schism with the mountain biking community looms large.
The mountain bike association, which has about 400 members, said it will support Wilderness designation on about 29,000 acres targeted by the Hidden Gems campaign around the Roaring Fork Valley. It wants a slightly lower level of protection on other lands so its members won’t lose existing trails or potential routes they hope to see developed.Representatives of the mountain bike association began meeting with Shoemaker in May to try to find solutions that would provide protections for other lands without excluding mountain bikers.The association believes the National Conservation Area and National Recreation Area designations should be used to protect some of the wilderness-quality lands. Those designations essentially act as “wilderness with bikes” but still provide strong protections, Pritchard said.The environmental coalition is wary of using those tools for most of the Hidden Gems because they want the strongest protection possible.So the two sides are at a stalemate. To call it a battle would overstate it, but the two groups are in conflict over what they each see as the best interests of their constituencies.Wilderness Workshop and its allies want the strongest protection possible, utilizing the Wilderness Act of 1964 and its “wild for good” promise. They believe it is necessary to sacrifice most recreation opportunities for the good of the special lands.”Everybody says, ‘We like Wilderness, just don’t do it where it affects my pursuit, my adrenaline rush, my activity,'” Shoemaker said. “I just ask people to look at higher values than our recreational pursuits.”
Pritchard countered that mountain bikes don’t pose a threat to the lands that Wilderness Workshop wants to protect. Cycling is a clean and quiet sport that brings riders closer to nature and reinforces their environmental ethic, he said.Many mountain bikers don’t understand why conservation groups would risk alienating them when they share so much in common. Other bikers just don’t buy the assertion that the conservationists’ vision of the land should trump their own.Longtime mountain biking enthusiasts Glenn Horn of Aspen said he is concerned about the conservation groups’ intent to close trails near populated areas. Additional Wilderness lands should be located far out in the backcountry, he said.”There needs to be balance. There needs to be multiple use in the close-in areas,” said Horn, who doesn’t belong to the mountain bike association or Wilderness Workshop.He wants different forest users to respect the rights of other groups. He doesn’t believe the conservationists working on the Hidden Gems proposal are honoring that code.Horn also feels the environmental groups are employing an old political ploy as part of their campaign – they have asked for the Wilderness designation on more lands than they really hope to protect.”They’ve taken an extreme position thinking it will get watered down in the process,” he said.The Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association has prepared a draft letter to Colorado’s Congressional delegation and the Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield county commissioners that bluntly outlines its problems with the Hidden Gems proposal. The letter states that it tried to work out a compromise with Wilderness Workshop and its partners.”During our negotiations we discussed compromises and boundary adjustments, as well as the potential that we’d be willing to lose a trail here and there along the way,” that draft letter said. “Unfortunately, Wilderness Workshop’s mission to see the designation of as much Wilderness as possible is in direct conflict with RFMBA’s core mission.”
The conflict between Wilderness and cycling advocates has been low-key, thus far, in large part because it doesn’t involve the most popular trails. Wilderness Workshop avoided the well-traveled Smuggler Mountain, Hunter Creek Valley, Four Corners, Van Horn Park network, for example.But the mountain bike association’s analysis of the Hidden Gems proposal showed there are numerous trails already in use that would be closed to cyclists, and the possibility of new trails nixed. In many cases, existing spurs off more popular routes would be made “off-limits” by the Wilderness proposal. For example, there are a handful of lung-scorching spurs off Hay Park to the south and west of the main trail that cyclists say would be closed. They don’t want to lose those trails.Elsewhere in the valley, adventurous cyclists have dreamed for years of making a loop out of Braderich Creek and Dexter Creek. Both drainages are located between Coal Basin above Redstone and the Thompson Creek area southwest of Carbondale. Braderich Creek experiences a fair bit of use. Dexter Creek is less utilized, but hard-core cyclists are eyeing it and riding it, and see potential for future development. The Hidden Gems proposal would turn the Dexter Creek terrain into Wilderness.”The more we investigated [the Hidden Gems proposal], we saw those areas are loaded with trails,” Pritchard said.The association contends that areas close to towns and population centers, and adjacent to existing recreation areas, should remain open to bicycles to meet growing demands. As the population of the midvalley has grown in the last two decades, the use of trails by mountain bikers has grown. Trails that used to see light use are now experiencing heavier use, and there is always demand for new routes.
Turf battle or compromise?Wilderness Workshop and the Rocky Mountain Bike Association have already proven they can compromise. Shoemaker said the conservation groups listened to concerns from mountain bikers early in its process and redrew Wilderness boundaries to exclude some heavily used trails. “We made exclusions right off the top,” he said.Three examples are the Braderich Creek Trail, the main Hay Park Trail and a 20,000-acre ridge known as Sloan Peak. That ridge contains parts of the Arbaney Kittle Trail, a grueling but epic route, and part of the Rocky Fork Trail.Pritchard said Sloan Peak can become a “test case” for greater cooperation between the groups. The bike association would like to see the area designated either as a National Conservation Area or National Recreation Area, to give it protection without excluding bikes. It could serve as a model for protecting other areas without closing them to mountain bikes.But both sides admit they won’t be able to settle all conflicts. The issue has the potential to become a “locals’ turf battle,” Andersen said.Shoemaker said the goal is to minimize conflict as much as possible, but a new Wilderness proposal is bound to generate opposition. “I don’t think all conflict is avoidable.”His coalition is concerned about making too many concessions to cyclists or any other stakeholder group because it waters down the Wilderness proposal too much.”It’s not just about us versus mountain bikes,” Shoemaker said. “There are a whole bunch of other players, too.”Representatives of the two sides met Aug. 24 to explore further compromise before the Hidden Gems campaign heats up. Shoemaker agreed to raise the idea of the alternative protections for some areas with his coalition. However, both sides suggested they have compromised as much as they can.”In general, we had to agree to disagree on most of what we’re each trying to achieve,” said Pritchard. “We’ll continue discussions with Wilderness Workshop as the next few weeks go on, but we’ll also be speaking up for the mountain bikers of the valley while there is still time to publicize our views.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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To learn more about the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign go to http://www.whiteriverwild.org/. The website has detailed descriptions of the targeted areas, including size, location, access and “potential threats.” Maps locate the areas within the Roaring Fork Valley and show where proposed Wilderness boundary lines would be.To learn more about the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association’s assessment of the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign go to http://www.rfmba.org/mtb/advocacy.aspx. The website provides the full draft letter to Colorado’s Congressional delegation, outlines trails that would become off-limits and pinpoints affected areas on maps.