Motorized groups continue to make misleading statements about Hidden Gems proposal
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — A public comment session on the Hidden Gems proposal started out on a philosophical level, with wilderness advocates urging citizens to think about big-picture preservation. But the discussion quickly turned to the nitty gritty. Both backers and opponents singled out specific elements of the proposal, as Congressman Jared Polis and his staff took local input on the plan.
Polis is considering introducing a wilderness bill based on the proposal, but wants to get input from as many stakeholders as possible. Friday’s forum at the CMC campus in Breckenridge followed similar meetings in Boulder and Edwards. Interested citizens can comment at the Polis website on the Hidden Gems plan.
Specifically, the proposal would add about 40,000 acres of new wilderness on White River National Forest lands in Summit County, around Keystone, Breckenridge and Silverthorne, and another 200,000 acres in Eagle County. The first maps were unveiled about seven years ago; since then, the proponents have worked with community groups, local governments and special interest groups to find common ground.
Much of the criticism has come from motorized users, who say the wilderness additions would unduly restrict their access to public lands. In some cases, mountain bikers also opposed parts of the proposal based on impacts to favored trails.
Kurt Kunkle, one of the main organizers of the Hidden Gems campaign, said expected population growth in Colorado requires that some additional lands be set aside so they don’t succumb to development pressure.
“I believe we need to limit ourselves in some fashion … we must protect these lands before it’s too late,” he said, adding that the carrying capacity of the land simply can’t handle all the growing demands for various uses.
Ironically, some critics of the wilderness proposal looked to the U.S. Forest Service for backup — the same agency they would otherwise be bashing. Jack Albright, vice president of a coalition centered around motorized users, called the Hidden Gems plan a “slap in the face” of forest users and a “blatant dismissal of forest users.”
According to Albright, nearly two-thirds of the White River National Forest are already managed under wilderness and roadless designations.
“Where’s the balance?” he asked rhetorically, characterizing the wilderness proposal as a land grab.
Other critics said the proposal was an un-American attack on individual liberty.
Albright also claimed incorrectly that the proposal would “close five of seven” snowmobile areas in Summit County, though he must have been including some areas that snowmobiles are currently using illegally. Read more on the concerns of the Colorado Snowmobile Association here, but be aware that not all the information is factually correct.
Those types of comments are typical of anti-wilderness groups, who seek to mislead the public about what the proposal does. According to Polis, most of the areas important for motorized recreation have already been excluded from the wilderness plan. Other areas, including the popular snowmobiling zone above Montezuma, are not affected by Hidden Gems.
Even worse, much of the mainstream press mindlessly repeats the inaccurate claims under the guise of giving stories “balance.”
Another anti-wilderness speaker incorrectly stated that the Hidden Gems campaign hadn’t contacted motorized users in Summit County. In fact, Hidden Gems organizers did have a dialogue with the Summit County Off-Road Riders. Recent attempts to continue the exchange were rebuffed by the local motorized grou, Kunkle said.
In another deliberate attempt to mislead the public, some anti-wilderness speakers also suggested that more wilderness is not necessarily good for wildlife, which is an absurd claim, as every conservation biologist will affirm that large areas of intact habitat and connections between habitat areas are the most crucial factors in protecting wildlife on a landscape level.
Although there seemed to be a sea of white t-shirts with a “No Gems” loge in the room, many of them came from out of the county. The majority of the comments came from Summit County residents favoring more wilderness.
All told, it’s going to be plus to save it for the generations that come after us,” said Silverthorne resident John Taylor.
“In light of what’s going on in the gulf right now, we need to assess our impact on the environment,” said Breckenridge resident Cassidy Brush, an avid mountain biker who support the Hidden Gems plan.
Other residents said more wilderness is needed to protect wildlife, biodiversity and water quality.