Senator Bennet eying public lands protection
Discussion launched over designation of local parcels
Special to the Times
Originally published 2012-07-12
The ongoing debate over wilderness designations in Gunnison County has a clean slate and some new national attention.
Last Thursday, U.S. Senator Michael Bennet hosted a public meeting near the Oh Be Joyful campground north of Crested Butte to initiate a new, Gunnison County-focused discussion on the additional protection of public lands. Eventually, that could inform a legislative proposal to Congress.
In the past, the discussion of wilderness designations in the county was part of a broader initiative by the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign, which, according to local organizer Laura Yale, was more of a focus on the central-mountain region of Colorado.
Now, with the attention of Bennet, the discussion will focus on reaching an agreement between stakeholders about how to protect public lands specifically in Gunnison County.
“Trying to forge a consensus will be the difference between getting this done quickly and not getting anything done at all,” Bennet told local stakeholders gathered along a bank of the Slate River.
According to John Whitney, regional director of southwest Colorado for Bennet’s Senate office, the geographic scope of the new discussion includes any federal lands within county boundaries.
Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, the federal government can designate existing public land as wilderness under certain criteria: that it has minimal human imprint, offers opportunities for unconfined recreation, protects at least five thousand acres, and provides educational scientific or historic value.
Wilderness designations restrict any motorized or mechanized vehicle activity, including bicycles. There are currently seven designated wilderness areas at least partly within Gunnison County.
At the meeting, local stakeholders — including County Commissioners, wilderness advocates and recreationists — offered statements to initiate the ongoing discussion.
Dan Morse, executive director of the High Country Citizens’ Alliance, said he looks forward to the discussion.
“It’s tough to know when to start conversations like this,” Morse said. “We have a lot of hard work ahead to identify what’s important and what we are all able to (compromise) on.”
Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association board members John Chandler and Dave Ochs also expressed their eagerness to be a part of the discussion, while emphasizing the importance of recreation trails to their organization.
“We want to see land protection as much as anybody,” Chandler said. “But trails are important to us. We’re psyched to work with these groups and be the hands-on trail experts in this conversation.”
Whitney mentioned that the discussion is not necessarily restricted to “wilderness vs. not wilderness.” He said less restrictive “companion designations” could also make sense if necessary.
But Bennet stressed that he is not interested in swaying the discussion in any one direction.
“I have no point of view to impose at all,” Bennet said. “But we will be very focused on this in the months and years ahead.”
Yale said the new discussion is crucial to preserving land that was included in previous citizen proposals.
In 2010, the Gunnison County Commissioners voted to support a Hidden Gems wilderness proposal that included more than 30,000 acres of land — including a controversial, 16,000-acre triangle between Carbon Peak, Mt. Axtell and Whetstone Mountain.
That proposal has since stalled, but Yale said the new discussion with Sen. Bennet allows the entire community to take a closer look at more specific areas.
“With Gunnison County being the new focus of this public lands initiative, we can take a broader look at all of the lands beyond just the citizens’ wilderness proposal that has come up before,” she said. “Wilderness-quality lands are quickly disappearing, so this is kind of our last chance to take a good look and see what we can do.”
At the meeting, Bennet also announced the creation of a specific page on his official U.S. Senate website (bennet.senate.gov/gunnisonpublic lands) devoted to gathering community input on the issue.