SUMMIT DAILY - 5/8/2012 Wilderness Is Key to Colo, Advocates Say

May 8, 2012


A look from the air highlights connectivity's importance, a key part of Udall's bill

By Janice Kurbjun

Many contend that Colorado's draw is its iconic mountainous landscape, and that only through wilderness protections can the state remain both a vacation destination and a hub of commerce that attracts young, vigorous workers who thrive on the outdoors.
The Colorado River winds through majestic Colorado High Country, some of which is being proposed for federal wilderness protection under Sen Mark Udall's Central Mountains Outdoor Heritage Proposal. Here, it tumbles next to the Lower Piney area, which is not part of the proposal, but has been eyed by conservation groups for addition. The major conflict is snowmobilers wanting to access the area, but it's also an important wildlife corridor and river viewshed and access point. Special to the Daily / Michaela Miller

“Wilderness areas are some of the most popular and most visited places in Colorado,” contends Kurt Kunkle with the Colorado Environmental Coalition. “They're the backdrop.”

Flying in a small aircraft over Bull Gulch in Eagle County last week, Kunkle explains the area's draw. Bull Gulch is a proposed wilderness tucked away next to Highway 103 north of Gypsum.

“It has cool geology” of red rock and striation, canyons to meander through and potential access from the Colorado River. Not far from the river, new aspen growth cascades down a drainage as shrubs struggle for life in the red soil. There are few, if any, developed trails in the area.

Not far away is Castle Peak, visible from Interstate 70, named for its signature castle-like rock formations. It has more of a trail system and is popular with bow and backcountry hunters — and is also being proposed for wilderness protection.

“There's some ideological opposition to the proposal, but we feel most of the direct conflict has been addressed,” Kunkle said, explaining that the remaining pushback typically centers around anti-government sentiments that protecting land is a governmental regulation.

So far, Summit County Government has signed on in support of various wilderness proposals. Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier said the county submitted a letter supporting Rep. Jared Polis's modified Hidden Gems proposal, and are prepared to do the same for Sen. Mark Udall's Central Mountains Outdoors Heritage Act, but haven't done so because it's still not finalized.

Part of the keen interest is Summit County's rate of growth, Stiegelmeier. In the last decade of the 20th century, it reached a rate of 82.8 percent. It's since slowed, but Stiegelmeier anticipates another boom at some point and said she's in favor of protecting land before the growth rate creeps up again.

“Wilderness and protection of wildlife habitat and corridors are essential values and an important part of the economy,” Stiegelmeier said.

“You can see how the landscape is being used and can see these pockets that haven't been developed,” Kunkle said. “Unless we protect them, there's no guarantee they'll stay that way. And it is the backdrop.”

Udall is currently seeking feedback on his proposal. It would expand existing wilderness and add a few pockets of protected land and special management areas. It mostly matches Polis's modified Hidden Gems work, but some kinks remain, officials say. The goal of both is to use and showcase the ability of Coloradans to compromise and derive a preservation plan that suits most interests.

The lands in question

Udall's proposal is currently to create 235,000 more acres of wilderness in Eagle County, 65,500 acres in Pitkin County and 35,500 acres in Summit County, including five new stand-alone areas in Eagle County and four in Summit County. The remaining areas are additions to existing wilderness areas.

Most important, the proposed wilderness areas encompass lower-elevation areas, said Kunkle. They are important as wildlife corridors and recreation, particularly in winter months.

“The vast majority of Colorado's current wilderness is high alpine,” Kunkle said. “This would be some of the first lower-elevation areas.”

In Summit and Eagle counties, the size of the Eagles Nest Wilderness may be increased, with the additions of Spraddle Creek and Freeman Creek. Piney Ridge and Elliot Ridge have been left out, but Kunkle would like to see them added in before the final plan takes shape. The Williams Fork area would see new wilderness, and Ptarmigan Peak Wilderness would also encompass Ute Pass and Acorn Creek.

Hoosier Ridge and parts of the Tenmile Range are part of the proposal, but they would include special management areas that have lesser protections and would accommodate uses like mountain biking, an important recreation interest. Wilderness areas, mostly in Summit County, that abut development have some leeway for fallen tree mitigation and fire protection.

Holy Cross Wilderness would get some additions, as would the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness and the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. A handful of small, stand-alone pieces are scattered in Eagle County, including Red Table, a proposed special use area that would still allow fly-overs to accommodate the military's High Altitude Training Center.

Connectivity is important

Last week's flight was arranged courtesy of EcoFlight, a nonprofit that helps advocate for wildlife habitat preservation through the use of small aircraft. EcoFlight president and pilot Bruce Gordon said his viewpoint is from the air, and he sees development and mineral extraction encroaching on Colorado's important lands.

“We only have one arrow in the quiver” to protect against improper development, he said. “I'm proud we're getting ahead of the curve — sort of. Because we're behind it in some places with oil and gas leases.”

Also important from the bird's-eye-view perspective is connectivity, Gordon said. He's seen islands of wilderness in Costa Rica that get eaten away from the outside in, so adding to existing wilderness helps maintain those areas “not just on paper,” he said.

The political process

It's hard to say where the proposals are in the political process, Kunkle said, but though his organization led much of the support movement when Hidden Gems came out, support for the current House and Senate bills is coming directly from the offices of Polis and Udall.

“We're stepping back and letting them to do their work,” Kunkle said, adding that surveys show the areas in the proposal have broad support.