Colorado wilderness bill introduced in Congress

A new bill introduced in Congress could add 166,000 acres of national forest land in Colorado's Summit and Eagle counties to the federal wilderness system.

Most local communities and stakeholders supportive of plan; Boulder-based mountain bike group still has reservations about a few areas

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Just a few hours before Congress went into recess for the election season, Rep. Jared Polis, a Boulder Democrat, finally introduced a bill that would add about 166,000 acres of national forest land to the federal wilderness system.

The measure is based on a citizen-generated plan that’s long been called the Hidden Gems proposal. That name has been stripped away, as were several large chunks of land — after off-roaders and snowmobilers expressed concern over their loss of access to public lands.

Polis said the measure now has widespread support.

“Colorado’s wild places are the heart of our state’s character and our state’s natural beauty is itself a precious resource that we must preserve,” he said. “These areas are essential to our economy and our environment, and through this legislation we can ensure that our beautiful areas continue to provide habitat for our diverse wildlife, opportunities to enjoy and appreciate the great outdoors, and jobs for local economies.  After working extensively with stakeholders and examining the areas in question trail-by-trail, I am proud to introduce this legislation that has gained support and backing from the community.”

According to a press release, the legislation incorporates further discussions with area water providers, the Colorado National Guard, the Colorado Department of Transportation, the recreation community and conservationists to ensure that the legislation meets the long-term needs of these stakeholders. The next step in the legislative process is for the bill to be referred to the House Natural Resources Committee for review.

Some elected officials in Summit and Eagle counties offered statements of support.

“The vitality of our Mountain Resort economy flows from the natural environment around us and the balance between use and enjoyment and preservation of important lands,” said Eagle County Commissioner Jon Stavney. “Congressman Polis’ Eagle and Summit County Wilderness proposal has been tailored to help protect some of the more vulnerable lands adjacent to existing wilderness, while still leaving plenty of public lands for the mixed uses many of our residents enjoy.  This is a real gift to future Eagle County residents.”

“Rep. Polis’ action today is a giant step forward in securing Colorado’s natural legacy,” said Summit County Commissioner Wilderness Karn Stiegelmeier. “The designation will help protect our remaining intact ecosystems, wildlife habitat and migration corridors. I applaud Congressman Polis, his dedicated staff, and the many groups of people doing the difficult work of reaching consensus.”

The Boulder-based International Mountain Bicycling Association also released a statement supporting most of the measure, but expressing lingering concerns over mountain biking areas in Summit County and near Vail. Read the IMBA statement here.

“Polis’s reshaped bill does not close any major mountain bike trails and establishes important new companion designations that protect riding opportunities,” said IMBA director Mike Van Abel, referring to certain areas that could be designated and national recreation areas. The idea is that those areas would remain open for non-motorized recreation but be protected from mining or other industrial uses and development.

“Our remaining concerns include expanding the size of bike-friendly designations in Summit County, and in addressing the pending Forest Service Travel Management Plan in Spraddle and West Lake Creeks, near Vail. IMBA believes the Wilderness designation is not appropriate for Spraddle Creek, as it’s so close to town. We will continue working on these issues as the bill progresses through Congress.”

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3 thoughts on “Colorado wilderness bill introduced in Congress

  1. I oppose Hidden Gems. I have yet to read or hear a problem statement that this is addressing. The facts are that this land is already National Forest Service or BLM owned. Those agencies have full discretion to restrict usage if there are any issues. There is no reason for an act of Congress that will increase the cost of maintaining these areas, increase probability of wildfire and decrease access for all humans forever (or unless a future Congress acts to overturn the designation).
    Public lands must be as accessible to all citizens as possible.

  2. I think it’s important to clarify that as far as we know to date, the plan is not formally supported by ANY local agencies or governments in Summit County outside of Wilderness advocacy groups.

    BOCC has not endorsed, Town of Breckenridge took a pass, for example.

    I say this because the IMBA endorsement was somewhat of a political move, and they have acknowledged that in Summit there is much work to be done. They were our partners in negotiating the boundaries and companion designations in Summit, and we did not get there this time around.

    What’s also missing here is that few expect this bill to have much more purpose in this round outside being submitted for the legislative history, especially given the likely change in the House control in November. Even Polis’ office here does not expect it to move very far without any support in the Senate (Udall has not offered his support yet, either).

    Fortunately, the Fat Tire Society has been engaged throughout the process and has worked tirelessly with Polis and his staff to find ways to get the outstanding issues addressed in the next several months before it really is seriously up for consideration. It’s actually been a very positive process.

    The SFTS has not taken a position at this point in the process, although the board will be considering this in the next several days as they consider both the outstanding issues that were left unresolved along with the positive nature of the talks and the hopes that they can play a role in making boundary adjustments.

    The IMBA comment by Mike Van Abel is outside of the broader context, and SFTS has made it very clear to IMBA out of Boulder that their focus on loss of specific trails is not what the Fat Tire Society had focused on here in Summit County.

    Rather, SFTS has taken a broader approach to land protections bill, and in fact created the companion designations without any help from Boulder, so we have actually found some key differences between our groups in this role. This is also why SFTS is not going to endorse at this time but rather take another position.

    That’s certainly been a disappointment, but we are happy to have been given the opportunity by the Polis staff to voice our local concerns, and I personally am hopeful we can make this bill better going forward.

    I’d ask that you carefully examine all sides of this issue as well as the legislative strategy being employed here: All parties acknowledge this bill has a long way to go. And in our community, the leaders certainly have not supported it at this point for many of the same reasons.

    Dave Rossi
    Board Member
    Summit Fat Tire Society.

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