Pilots wants to maintain access to key Williams Fork Ridge launch site. Watch the video of a flight from the Williams Fork range down to Green Mountain Reservoir. Video by Allen Sparks, of Evergreen.
*This story has been updated with corrected information relating to the exact location of the takeoff area on Williams Fork Ridge. Hidden Gems representatives initially said they weren’t aware of the hang gliding activity, but in a recent e-mail on of the wilderness campaign organizers said they group did know about the site, but believed it to be outside the boundary of the proposed wilderness addition.
SUMMIT COUNTY — Just a couple of weeks after the Hidden Gems campaign group submitted their plan for new wilderness for consideration by Congressman Jared Polis, a new user group has stepped forward to express concerns about the proposal.
Hang glider and paraglider pilots said the proposed expansion of wilderness in the Williams Fork Range, north of Silverthorne, could hamper access to a key launch site they’ve been using for 30 years.
The Williams Fork Ridge takeoff point is important regionally and nationally for the flyers, who find consistent updrafts when the afternoon sun heats the mountain slopes, said Rich Jesuroga, president of the Rocky Mountain Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association.
Jesuroga said there are about 10,000 pilots across the country, and many of them at least know of the Williams Fork site. For pilots on the Front Range of the Rockies, it’s one of the most accessible sites compared to other locations like Crested Butte and Steamboat.
It’s huge. It’s critically important regionally,” Jesuroga said, adding that the launch area is used by pilots attempting long distance cross-country flights, for example north toward the Grand Lake area. Pilots using rising thermal air currents to gain elevation, then glide as far as they can, looking for another thermal to gain altitude and more distance.
Jesuroga said that, from his early looks at the Hidden Gems map, the launch site is within the proposed wilderness boundary, and that would exclude motorized vehicles from accessing the area.
“I’m a little surprised they didn’t contact us, as 30-year users of the area,” he said. The pilot’s association has been a good steward of the area, doing volunteer cleanups. The group also worked with stakeholders many years ago to make sure that the power lines in the area were placed so they wouldn’t interfere with flying, which also minimized the visual impacts from the high-voltage lines.
“That wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t intervened,” he said. In general, the pilots are very supportive of wilderness, but good launch sites like the one in the Williams Range are few and far between, he said.
Kurt Kunkle, one of the organizers of the wilderness campaign, said his group knew of the hang gliding launch site bu believed it to be unaffected by the wilderness proposal. In an e-mail to Jesuroga, Kunkle said that, with the exact coordinates in hand, the Hidden Gems campaign can map out how the wilderness proposal relates to the launch site.
The two groups plan to sit down together soon to take a close look at the maps and figure things out. Heeter said he’s willing to work with the association to reach a solution.
The Hidden Gems group trimmed their original proposal to compromise with local mountain bikers and to address concerns about wildfire mitigation efforts in the county.
If the pilots maintain access to their launch site, they may someday enjoy the best view of all of the wilderness parcels, should they be so designated by Congress.