Ralston heralds wilderness plan to block ‘extractive development’

AVON — Colorado mountaineer Aron Ralston, famous for a bouldering mishap in Utah which he survived by amputating his own forearm, has been touring the state with other recreation proponents pushing for a huge new wilderness proposal called Hidden Gems.

“The Hidden Gems Wilderness Proposal would counteract the increasing pressures of extractive development and motorized use,” Ralston said Monday at a fly fishing outfitter in this mountain town at the base of Beaver Creek ski area. “It would protect our last remaining unspoiled places, while still permitting development and motors in places where they are appropriate.”

Proponents of Hidden Gems, which would protect as wilderness more than 400,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service and BLM land, point to Forest Service statistics they say show non-motorized users far outnumber motorized users in the state’s increasingly popular White River National Forest. Wilderness designation prohibits motorized and wheeled uses such as mountain biking, motorcycles, ATVs and snowmobiles.

Hikers, backpackers, climbers, kayakers, cross-country skiers and snowshoers outnumber motorized users by a 4-to-1 margin, according to 2007 user statistics compiled by the Forest Service. Downhill skiing and snowboarding at developed ski resorts, which are not in designated or proposed wilderness areas, are by far the most popular uses in the White River, but Hidden Gems backers exclude those statistics.

A political battle is shaping up over the proposal, which backers are shopping for congressional support. A group calling itself the White River Forest Alliance, comprised of motorized users, claims to have collected more than 700 signatures from people opposing the proposal, and a group called the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association also opposes the plan, although it doesn’t want to be associated with motorized users.

According to the Aspen Times, the White River Forest Alliance backs the Forest Service finding that approximately 82,000 acres of the White River are suitable for wilderness designation. Representatives also say they would be more supportive if proponents were merely looking to block extractive industries such as mining and logging rather than broadly prohibit motorized recreation as well.

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