Hidden Gems, or locked away too tightly? Wilderness plan stirs debate

A coalition of environmental groups looking to drum up local support for a huge new wilderness bill that could protect up to 450,000 acres of national forest land in Colorado from oil and gas production, timber sales and mining have stirred up opposition from an unlikely quarter.

Mountain bikers, snowmobilers, dirt bikers and other off-road enthusiasts have rallied to defeat or dramatically scale back the so-called Hidden Gems plan, which, if it can find a sponsor in Congress, could designate between 400,000 and 450,000 acres of the White River and Gunnison national forests as wilderness area. That designation prohibits all mechanized travel.

In an excellent primer on the topic in the Aspen Times today, veteran reporter Scott Condon spells out what’s at stake and who all the players are. The lead environmental group is the Aspen-based Wilderness Workshop, although several others are involved.

Opposition is coming from a group of off-road users called the White River Forest Alliance, and from a mountain-biking group called the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association.

Impacted counties include Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield, Summit and Gunnison, and U.S. Rep. John Salazar, whose 3rd District includes Gunnison, Garfield and Pitkin counties, has said he needs to see broad-based local support from town councils and boards of county commissioners before he’ll considering sponsoring a bill. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis represents the 2nd District, which includes Eagle and Summit Counties.

While the U.S. Forest Service has previously identified 82,000 acres of the 2.3 million acre White River National Forest that should be protected as wilderness, Wilderness Workshop wants to see nearly five times the amount of acreage protected. Currently about 750,000 acres of the White River are designated wilderness.

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