Wilderness backers cite local support; hopeful Congress will back plans

Proponents of expanding wilderness protections on public lands in the heart of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains have been buoyed by local support and remain hopeful they’ll see passage of at least one new wilderness bill despite the changing congressional landscape.

Both the Pitkin and Gunnison county commissioners in the last month signed off on the proposals in their areas – protections proposed as part of the Hiddens Gems plan. Gunnison’s three-member board backed the plan by a 2-1 vote on Dec. 7 after the Pitkin County commissioners unanimously (4-0) supported the plan in November.

Hidden Gems is part of the 3rd Congressional District currently represented by lame-duck Democrat John Salazar, who was beaten out by Republican Scott Tipton in November. Wilderness proponents, who advocate a higher level of protection for public lands (barring mechanized vehicle traffic), are hopeful Tipton will listen to local representatives and sponsor a wilderness bill in his district.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who represents the mountainous 2nd Congressional District, already introduced the Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act (HR 6280), which would protect nearly 170,000 acres as wilderness or special management areas. Both the Eagle and Summit county commissioners supported that bill.

“The year ended on a strong note,” Pete Kolbenschlag, director of the Hidden Gems Campaign, said in a release. “The Eagle and Summit Wilderness Preservation Act is ready for adoption because of two years of outreach by the Hidden Gems team and the tremendous work this year by Congressman Polis and his staff. We urge [Colorado] Sens. [Mark] Udall and [Michael] Bennet to work with the congressman to protect these lands.”

The original Hidden Gems proposal, which grouped all of the proposed wilderness lands in the four counties together, drew heated criticism from off-road vehicle enthusiasts, snowmobilers and backers of extractive industries such as oil and gas drilling and timber interests. Bumper stickers can still be seen in ski towns with not-so-subtle jabs like “Hidden Gems can kiss my hidden gems.”

Kolbenschlag, however, points out many businesses, especially in the outdoor recreation and tourism sectors, support the plans: “We are confident that we can demonstrate strong local support when we bring this proposal to our incoming congressman,” he said of Tipton.

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