Hidden Gems wilderness proposal contentious
As Kurt Kunkle flew recently over the snowy spires of Colorado’s central mountains, he kept his eyes peeled instead for the green of surrounding forests and meadows.
Repeatedly, he pointed out areas that have become focal points of attention in recent months, despite lacking the majesty of the peaks towering above them.
Although the lands included in the Hidden Gems wilderness campaign are easy to pick out from above on a cloudless morning, seeking common ground is a more daunting task as proponents, critics and a U.S. congressman consider the details of what’s being proposed.
“Almost any preservation campaign like this, you’re foolish if you don’t expect some level of opposition,” said Kunkle, a Colorado Environmental Coalition staff member, during an aerial tour piloted by Bruce Gordon, president of the Aspen-based nonprofit group EcoFlight.
While he had braced for opposition, Kunkle admitted to frustration in encountering what he considers an unwillingness by some opponents to compromise on a proposal he says was crafted for the most part “to make everyone happy.”
Some of those opponents see a similar unwillingness among wilderness supporters. Tony Fisher is president of the White River Forest Alliance, a coalition advocating for motorized-vehicle users and others whose activities would be prohibited in wilderness. He says Hidden Gems proponents engaged them late in the process and showed little willingness to budge.
“They compromised a few acres here and there, but it was really insignificant when you look at the proposal as a whole,” Fisher said.
Steve Smith, assistant regional director of the Wilderness Society, contends the plan has been well-vetted. It dates back 11 years in various forms and has been the subject of active outreach by its proponents for several years, including “accelerated discussions” with motorized and other user groups for the last two years, he said.
He says big changes have been made, and more than 200,000 acres have been removed from the proposal as a result of such discussions.
“Everybody’s had a good hand in crafting this,” Smith said.
Now, part of the Hidden Gems plan is in legislators’ hands, after proponents submitted the Summit and Eagle county portions to Colorado’s congressional delegation for consideration earlier this year. Those portions lie entirely within the 2nd Congressional District, represented by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder.
Polis recently held three public meetings on the proposal, including one in Edwards that an estimated 600 people attended. Sizable numbers have spoken out on either side of the issue, and while Smith is hoping to see a bill introduced and acted on this year, Polis spokeswoman Lara Cottingham said Polis isn’t following any timetable to introduce legislation. There’s also no guarantee any wilderness bill he might offer would have anything to do with the Hidden Gems proposal, she said, but his office is trying to help various parties work through issues surrounding that proposal.
“There looks like a lot of contention, and there is on certain issues, but for the most part these groups agree on most things,” Cottingham said.
The nature of the Hidden Gems proposal’s focus on mid-elevation lands sets it up for some level of conflict. Much of the prior focus of Colorado wilderness designation has been on what Kunkle said is often called the “rock-and-ice” terrain above treeline. While emblematic of Colorado’s beauty, the state’s high peaks lack the diversity of species found in areas now being targeted for protection partly for their value as wildlife habitat.
High-altitude wilderness also is harder to access, especially in winter. Kunkle said another goal of Hidden Gems is to provide wilderness protection so more-accessible areas can be enjoyed by cross-country skiers and others hoping for an experience free of motorized vehicles.
But snowmobilers, motorcyclists, off-highway-vehicle enthusiasts, mountain bikers and others also have enjoyed the easier access to some of these same areas.
Motorized and mechanized travel is off-limits in designated wilderness, as are activities such as logging, mining and energy development.
One-third of the White River National Forest is wilderness now, and Fisher said that’s plenty.
Nationwide, he said, wilderness acreage keeps growing, and there are proposals to create anywhere from 35 million to 38 million acres of additional wilderness.
“When you get this push-back feeling from the opposition that we don’t want any more wilderness, it’s because that part of the population has only experienced the loss of access to the land for what they want to do. They don’t gain anything, they just keep losing,” he said.
Fisher said people like himself feel as if they are stewards of the land, and when they are called a risk to the land instead, it’s “really a slap in the face to the responsible motorized user.” He said those users live where they do to enjoy such activities.
But Smith said wild places are an essential part of living in the mountains, too.
“The motivation for this proposal is to find those unique remaining wild places and be sure that we hang on to them,” he said.
Recreational considerations aren’t the only point of contention over Hidden Gems.
So is public safety. Cottingham said Polis only would support a measure that protects public-safety considerations such as firefighting and the continued ability of the military to do high-altitude helicopter training in Eagle County — training useful in places such as Afghanistan.
Proponents are continuing discussions with the Colorado Army National Guard to try to make sure the needs of its training facility are met.
They also are working with the Basalt & Rural Fire Protection District over its concerns about its ability to safeguard the Basalt area from fires on nearby Basalt Mountain if the mountain becomes wilderness.
The town of Gypsum has the same concerns in regard to Red Table Mountain, and the town worries about how a proposed wilderness designation would affect its ability to protect its municipal watershed there.
Red Table Mountain is managed as a wilderness study area, which Gypsum town manager Jeff Shroll said provides the latitude to do fire-prevention work, properly fight fires and do reclamation work after fires.
“Once the wilderness (label) is tagged on to it, those rules change, and those changes are what we’re very, very concerned about,” he said.
Smith said the Wilderness Act is explicit in allowing whatever actions are needed to fight fires, but Shroll said there’s not a good track record across the country of being able to successfully do firefighting in wilderness.
Smith said Hidden Gems proponents also are working to include legislative language to specifically allow fuel-mitigation work where needed to protect communities.
He said proponents have been able to successfully satisfy concerns about protection from fires in Summit County. That county has served as an example of the ability of different interests to achieve compromise in another area as well.
Mountain bikers and Hidden Gems organizers largely have worked through bikers’ concerns about loss of trail access, addressing it partly by settling on a concept of designating some land as special-management areas that allow biking while providing other wilderness-type protections.
One secret to that success has been the people behind it. Kunkle said the attitudes and personalities of negotiators on both sides have sometimes helped and sometimes hurt Hidden Gems dialogues in various places.
Mike McCormack, president of the Summit Fat Tire Society, agreed.
While lingering issues remain, progress came when his group followed advice not to be obstructionist, and when Kunkle took the place of another negotiator that cyclists had issues with, McCormack said.
“Kurt came in and helped to reboot the dialogue, and we started having some very frank and nonjudgmental exchanges of perspective, and the tone of the conversation changed,” McCormack said.
Now he speaks of Kunkle as a friend and thinks the Summit County approach might be helpful in resolving other disputes over Hidden Gems.
“The example is there if people choose to use it as that, and I hope they do,” McCormack said.