Hidden Gems wilderness showdown pits snowmobilers against skiers

So who spends more when they’re out recreating in the woods, Carhartt-clad “sled-necks” or Lycra-encased cross-country skiers?

According to one study being used to back the controversial Hidden Gems wilderness proposal, skinny skiers (who are allowed to flit about in wilderness-protected woods) definitely drop more coin when indulging in their favorite pastime.

Snowmobilers and all-terrain vehicles enthusiasts (who are barred from wilderness areas) spend less – presumably after their initial cash outlay to Honda and Kawasaki. The study resulted from off-roaders claiming the wilderness plan would kill the outdoor recreation industry.

The Hidden Gems proposal would add 342,000 acres in Eagle, Pitkin, Summit and Gunnison counties to the state’s current wilderness inventory. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, whose 2nd Congressional District includes much of the proposed new wilderness, has been listening to input at well-attended and contentious town-hall-style meetings and is crafting a wilderness bill.

The debate would seem to have all the classic elements ripe for a Tea Party lynch mob: conservative, anti-government, Second Amendment fans of motorized travel versus crunchy, bird-watching Boulderites bent on treading lightly on Colorado’s last wild places.

But the real debate is falling more along the lines of how best to navigate the woods, Coloradans’ inherent right to love their national forests to death and the need to develop and protect water storage from wildfire. These arguments have been going on on the state’s Western Slope for decades – exacerbated by an influx of residential growth in mountain valleys.

Gypsum officials, for instance, recently voiced their concerns about the proposal because they fear wilderness protection will prohibit firefighters from getting deep into the woods to douse any future forest fire threatening the town’s water supply.

That’s a practical concern – one that makes sense to fully explore as Polis embarks on his “trail-by-trail” examination of the Hidden Gems proposal. Meanwhile, it makes for a much better sound bite to simply condemn the plan as a government “land grab,” ala Senate candidate Jane Norton, even though it’s already technically government land to begin with.

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