VAIL – The Vail Town Council Tuesday night tabled a resolution of support for the controversial Hidden Gems wilderness proposal when representatives of a major Western Slope water district voiced 11th-hour opposition to the plan being weighed by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder.
The Eagle River Water and Sanitation District wants the 342,000-acre, four-county, two-national-forest wilderness expansion – which prohibits motorized travel and mechanized or industrial uses on public lands – to be delayed by two years to allow more study of how watersheds should be managed.
Polis is considering all the alternatives and could introduce a bill a soon as this fall, but the 2nd Congressional District representative for Vail and surrounding Eagle County is looking to garner local support first. Six areas of Eagle County are being considered for wilderness designation, and the water district says all six include watersheds critical to local residents and future growth.
Linn Brooks, assistant general manager for the water district, told the Vail Town Council restoring watersheds ravaged by fires like the massive Hayman blaze is one major concern the district has about permanently locking up so much national forest in wilderness areas.
Proponents for Hidden Gems, including the Wilderness Society, expressed surprise at the district’s opposition, saying they’ve had a seat at the negotiating table all along. And some town officials seemed satisfied with the plan locally after it was modified to address concerns about mountain pine bark beetle mitigation raised by the Vail Fire Department.
Some backers of mechanized recreational travel, including mountain bikers, said alternative conservation measures should be explored so as not to lock out two-wheeled travelers, but town council member Margaret Rogers said she rides and is happy with changes made by the Hidden Gems proponents.
“They’ve done what needed to be done” regarding mountain biking, Rogers said, adding there are still thousands of miles of trails left to ride on in Eagle County. She made a motion to approve the resolution, got a second, but then pulled her motion when three other council members opposed it based on the water district concerns, as well as other issues.
The council will take the matter up again in September when a seventh council member can be present to break any potential deadlocks on the matter.