Roger Marolt: Roger This | AspenTimes.com

Roger Marolt: Roger This

Roger Marolt
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

I was sitting on the fence over the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal until I got off my butt and did some research. Alright, it wasn’t so much research as it was fieldwork, but a mountain bike ride up the front of Aspen Mountain on Monday afternoon was enough to sway my thinking toward supporting the proposition to convert 342,000 acres of central Colorado public lands into designated Wilderness Areas.

Here’s what happened: I nearly suffocated.

I make it a point to ride up Summer Road to the Sundeck once every summer, just because. It is a miserable ride under the best circumstances and I suppose that’s the attraction. There is no warm-up to it. The moment you leave city of Aspen pavement and start up the mountain just below the Aspen Alps you are grinding through thick dust and loose stones in your granny gear. The pitch is relentless. Don’t worry, though; you get a chance to catch your breath on the only short downhill section of the ride in about 45 minutes, right after you pass Bonnie’s restaurant. If you like to ride with a heart rate monitor, forget it. You’ll likely wear it out. Yes, I mean your heart and the monitor. It’s that bad.

I was about 10 feet into this sadistic exercise session when the first motorcycle passed me. Yes, the rider was polite and slowed down. And, yes, my lungs filled up with about a level tablespoon of road dust just the same. Fortunately I coughed on the tailpipe emissions and it came back up as a mud-flavored lung cookie. The good news is that the eardrum darts blasted from the bike’s muffler were hardly a distraction at all by comparison.

And so the rest of the ride went. Up and down and all around me went two-wheelers, three-wheelers, four-wheelers, and more (a couple in one of those big trucks with a dual rear axle passed me, stopped to look at the scenery at the top of Aztec, then caught up and passed me again.) I’m telling you, two dozen vehicles left me in the dust, and noise, and smoke that afternoon or my new name isn’t Sandy Chamois. I got home and removed so much dirt from every crease and crevice on my body that I thought but by the grace of God I’d have a tree growing out of my ear had there been any seeds on that road to be kicked up by someone’s tires.

Now, I don’t want any of you folks in any of those contraptions to take this recounting personally. Lord knows it’s my privilege as a God-fearing Christian to love all of you, and I do. I know you didn’t bury me alive, get me started on a case of black lung, and ruin my hearing on purpose (except for the couple in that big truck. I think I saw the two of you smiling a little too much as you passed the second time.). For the most part you slowed down until you were a safe distance ahead of me before gunning the accelerator again. Many of you greeted me friendlily and gave me encouragement in my struggles (if you had only known). This isn’t about you. It’s about your vehicles. There is nothing you or anybody else can do to mitigate their noise, ability to make dust fly, and produce emissions that make my throat burn. I know because I own a few of them myself. It is simply the nature of the beasts, as they say.

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And yes, before you get started, I know that land on Aspen Mountain is not part of the Hidden Gems proposal. And, yes, I know that mountain bikes will not be allowed in the new Wilderness Areas created by this proposal. Nonetheless, I have recounted the Aspen Mountain incident because I learned something though it; namely that creating dust, noise and smoke from mechanized off-road recreation is not compatible with most other uses of the land. It’s that simple.

In fact, the rapidly growing popularity of motorized off-road vehicles of all sorts has changed many of our recreation areas from being the lands of many uses to those of a single, gasoline-fueled one. For aesthetic and safety reasons many public lands can no longer be used by both man and man on machines together. Hiking, running, horseback riding and camping are not pleasant alternatives for using public lands that have been increasingly populated by people piloting machines. They are literally driving people on foot or horseback off of the land. This explains why users of motorized vehicles say that they can use public lands in harmony with hikers, and why hikers claim they are completely full of crap.

I think it is important to remember that when these public lands were first dedicated few outside of the Kawasaki factory could have predicted the future popularity of mechanized off-road recreation. This is why the old rules no longer apply. The proposed Hidden Gems solution seems to separate public lands for what many are increasingly recognizing as non-compatible uses. Admittedly there is something grade-school grating about that idea, but I can’t think of a better one – off-road vehicles over here, hikers and horses over there. Live in peace, little brothers and sisters.

The mechanized crowd might argue that the increased popularity of off-road recreation warrants an increase in the amount of land that should be made available to them, not a decrease as Hidden Gems proposes. Perhaps what they fail to realize is that land is a finite resource and over the years their rapidly expanding use of it has, in effect, taken much of it away from other users. In that light, maybe it’s time to give some of it back.