Whittled-down Hidden Gems plan now faces Republican House majority
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — A proposal to add about 88,000 acres of new wilderness in Summit and Eagle counties is back in play, this time facing a more hostile U.S. House of Representatives with a Republican majority that has spent the past few months attacking the Obama administration’s public land policies during budget hearings.
Congressman Jared Polis re-introduced his Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act this week. Click here to visit the Polis wilderness website.
In addition to designating 88,000 acres as wilderness, the bill, as it was presented last year, would also protect another 78,000 acres as recreation and conservation areas, open to mountain bikes, but with extractive activities prohibited, with exceptions for forest health treatments and fuel reduction projects.
Click here to read a story about how wilderness advocates and mountain bikers worked together on the companion designations. This story describes how companion designations have worked in other areas.
Polis said the measure is substantially unchanged from last year’s version, with only a few technical modifications. He emphasized that the move for wilderness has significant local support and consensus. The next step is to try and get a hearing from a House subcommittee on House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands — chaired by Utah Republican Rob Bishop, not exactly a big fan of federal land stewardship. Alaska Republican Don Young, another foe of federal land management agencies, is the next-ranking member of the subcommittee.
The subcommittee includes three Colorado Republicans: Doug Lamborn, Mike Coffman, and Scott R. Tipton. Click on their names to contact them about the wilderness bill. Emphasizing the level of local support for the wilderness measure to this trio of Republican lawmakers might be the best way to get a hearing in the House.
Wilderness advocates said they were hopeful that the bill will advance.
“Congressman Polis has worked hard to gather citizen input and craft a wilderness proposal that reflects the desires and needs of his district,” said Steve Smith, assistant director of The Wilderness Society in Colorado. “He has created a proposal that deserves to be moved through Congress with bipartisan support.”
Polis said he would talk to subcommittee members on both sides of the aisle to try and get a hearing for the wilderness bill, but given the current political climate in the House, it could be tough sell.
“The question is whether the Republican majority in the House will pass any wilderness bill this year,” Polis said.
Kurt Kunkle, of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, said wilderness backers have also been talking to Colorado’s two Democratic senators about the possibility of introducing another version of the bill in the U.S. Senate, where getting a committee vote or maybe even a full floor vote would be a big step forward.
Wilderness designations can often take several years to pass, and historically, wilderness legislation has been bipartisan, Kunkle said.
“We urge all members of Colorado’s congressional delegation to quickly get behind this effort and work for prompt passage of this legislation,” Kunkle said.
Polis made the announcement at State Capitol on Earth Day, joined by outdoorsman/author Aron Ralston, who was portrayed by James Franco in the film “127 Hours,” as well as nature photographer John Fielder, Vail Town Councilmember Kerry Donovan, GoLite outdoor apparel co-founder Kim Coupounas, and Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition.
“These wild landscapes are what make Colorado the special place that we love,” said Polis in a press release. “Preserving our natural resources strengthens the economic resources that support Colorado jobs. We also ensure that generations of Coloradans can enjoy these special places for fun, adventure or just enjoying the peace of the outdoors. That’s why this bill, which is the product of months of consensus building, enjoys such broad support.”
“I’ve adventured in more than three-quarters of the lands included in Congressman Polis’ bill over the past six years,” Ralston said. “Their beauty, wildlife, and opportunities for quiet recreation and solitude surpass much of our state’s existing wilderness. It is time to preserve our last pristine places in Eagle and Summit County.”
“Only 5 percent of Colorado’s 66 million acres is legally designated wilderness,” said Fielder. “It’s simply not enough for a state whose economy is so dependent upon the integrity of its ecology. Wilderness protection makes people healthy, wealthy, and happy from an economy that is sustained by clean air and water, parks and trails, cobalt blue skies, and wilderness.”
“My family has a strong history with Wilderness,” Donovan added. “From my grandfather shaping and defining Wilderness boundaries because of his beliefs in the power of meeting nature on its own terms, to my parents introducing sustainability and recycling – it is this legacy that inspires me to be a part of this legislation. To add these proposed parcels to the existing Wilderness completes a project started a life time ago.”
“GoLite is proud to be part of the active outdoor recreation economy that contributes over $10 billion annually to Colorado’s economy and supports over 107,000 jobs across the state,” stated Coupounas. “GoLite is also a keen supporter of the Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act. Colorado is a state where economic development and environmental preservation are not only complementary, but inextricably linked.”
“From hunters and anglers, to hikers and skiers, to gear shop owners and outfitters, Coloradans of all walks of life cherish our state’s scenic, wildlife-filled wilderness – and recognize the importance of safeguarding additional areas as our state grows,” said Jones. “We applaud Congressman Polis for his leadership in working to permanently protect more of Colorado’s wilderness treasures for current and future generations.”
The wilderness measure had its roots in the so-called Hidden Gems wilderness proposal, which identified up to 300,000 acres across the White River National Forest as potentially suitable for designation as wilderness by Congress. The general idea of new wilderness drew a lot of community grassroots support, but also sparked criticism from motorized users and mountain bikers.
The Wilderness Society, Colorado Environmental Coalition, Wilderness Workshop and Colorado Mountain Club — the four groups that comprise the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign—are urging their members and the public at large to support the Polis proposal. They note the overwhelming public backing for more wilderness, as shown in polling last year that found 72 percent of voters in Rep. Polis’s district favor protecting additional public lands as wilderness in Colorado. Additionally, county commissioners in both Summit and Eagle counties have written official letters in support of the wilderness proposal.
Once passed into law, it will result in significant additions to the Eagles Nest, Ptarmigan and Holy Cross Wilderness Areas in Eagle and Summit counties, which are part of the Second Congressional District that he represents. The legislation also protects a number of new standalone areas either with wilderness designation or, in areas where military helicopter training occurs, special management status with wilderness-quality land protection that also ensures training can continue.
“As Colorado’s population increases and pressure on our backcountry grows, common-sense proposals like this one from Congressman Polis will ensure wild places remain available to the public,” said Bryan Martin, director of conservation at the Golden-based Colorado Mountain Club, Colorado’s premier outdoor recreation organization. “As outdoor enthusiasts and recreationists, we applaud this effort,” he added.
Click here to watch a video from a public hearing on the wilderness plan, held at CMC in Breckenridge in June 2010.
Polis held a series of stakeholder meetings and public hearings, seeking compromise with the stakeholder groups and ultimately whittling down the proposed wilderness areas substantially. By last November, the measure had strong local political support in the high country, although there was still some wrangling over details of certain areas important to mountain bikers.
Click here to hike virtually (video) in a proposed wilderness area with a Hidden Gems advocate.
More Summit Voice stories on Hidden Gems are at this link.
Some statements of support, compiled the press release:
“Congressman Polis has put together a wilderness proposal that reflects the consensus of many people across Summit and Eagle Counties. This bill will give the strongest possible protection to our remaining intact ecosystems, wildlife habitat and migration corridors. It is a great step forward in securing Colorado’s natural legacy.” – Karn Stiegelmeier, Summit County Commissioner
“We’re in the tourism business and people come to the mountains to experience the natural beauty of Colorado, so it only makes sense that we preserve the scenic, wild areas near Vail for posterity. Polis’ bill captures what we hope to achieve to protect our community’s best interest.” – Andy Daly, Vail Town Council Member; Former President, Vail Resorts
“The process has been very positive, with Congressman Polis bringing together wilderness advocates, mountain bikers and many others. It is important, too, that the wildfire council was involved to ensure good watershed protection and wildfire mitigation.” – Dr. John Warner, Mayor, Breckenridge
“I am all for Congressman’s Polis bill. Wilderness designation ensures clean air, clear streams and abundant wildlife — that’s what Colorado’s outdoor economy is built on. Congressman Polis’ wilderness bill is a step in the right direction for Colorado’s beautiful places and the many small businesses that depend on them.” – Greg Abernathy, Owner, Lonestar Sports, Breckenridge
“Our forest backcountry needs defenders, and Congressman Polis has stepped up as a champion. This bill will protect the White River’s clean air, water and wildlife and keep Colorado a beautiful place to live.” - Pam Kiely, Program Director, Environment Colorado
Additional information on the legislation, including topographic maps and an area-by-area guide, is available at www.polis.house.gov/wilderness.
Filed under: Breckenridge, Breckenridge town council, Colorado, Environment, Hidden Gems wilderness, Summit County Colorado, Summit County news, US Forest Service, White River National Forest Tagged: | Colorado news, Congressman Jared Polis, Eagle County, Hidden Gems, new Colorado wilderness, public lands, Summit County News, White River National Forest, wilderness