Wilderness bill won’t affect operations of Guard training site

Legislation will ensure military still has access to its remote training sites

With construction about to begin on a new base for high-altitude military helicopter training, newly proposed wilderness legislation aims to preserve pilots’ access to some remote mountain landing sites.

A wilderness bill recently proposed by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis for lands in Summit and Eagle counties is written so it wouldn’t affect sites used by the High-Altitude Army Aviation Site, or HAATS.

After proponents of the Hidden Gems wilderness campaign approached Polis, he began to explore a possible wilderness bill.

“Early on in the process, when the wilderness advocates first approached our office, we recognized the vital mission of the HAATS operation in training not only our military, but also other pilots from around the world. In addition, they often play a crucial role in local search and rescue operations,” said Nissa Erickson, district representative for Polis. “Therefore, throughout all of our discussions, the continuation of the HAATS mission has been critical to incorporate into our legislation.”

The resulting bill opts for special-management-area status rather than proposed wilderness for Red Table Mountain, south of Eagle, and Pisgah Mountain, north of Eagle, both of which have landing sites. It would provide for wilderness designation for a part of Castle Peak, also north of Eagle, but again would take the special-management-area approach for the part used by the military.

In the cases of Castle Peak and Pisgah Mountain, the bill provides that if the school no longer needs the landing sites, they would be eligible for wilderness designation.

Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Wilderness Workshop, which has been involved with the Hidden Gems campaign, said everyone involved with wilderness discussions has recognized the importance of the training facility and the reality that no wilderness legislation would be passed “that doesn’t assure that their operations continue unimpaired.”

Although wilderness is off-limits to motorized vehicles, Shoemaker said some people interpret the Wilderness Act of 1964 to allow military helicopter training within a wilderness area.

But he said he thinks it ultimately was seen to be cleaner just to leave such areas out of any proposed wilderness.

The Hidden Gems campaign had proposed wilderness designation for Red Table Mountain, in support of a U.S. Forest Service recommendation. But Shoemaker said the special-management-area designation still protects such lands.

“Our goal is to see the landscape protected and respect important existing rights like the military. We’re pleased that (the Polis bill) is securing the highest level of protection possible while still allowing for those uses,” Shoemaker said.

Jeff Shroll is town manager of Gypsum, home to the helicopter school. He said the town has made clear its desire not to see the school’s mission impinged on by any new wilderness designation, given its importance to national security and its local response role in emergencies such as searches and rescues.

“Our concern is that HAATS be allowed to do what they want, when they want and where they want,” he said.



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