The Wilderness Workshop honored champions of public lands and raised money for themselves at a benefit and awards ceremony at the Wheeler Opera House Sunday night, as a mild group of protesters demonstrated against the Carbondale nonprofit’s most recent wilderness campaign.
The Workshop’s Hidden Gems campaign proposes to protect more than 400,000 acres of the White River and Gunnison national forests under the federal Wilderness Act of 1964. Such a designation would institute an effective ban on any mechanized use of the land — including snowmobiling and mountain biking — which has sparked some opposition across Colorado’s Western Slope.
Twenty-plus anti-Gems protesters stood at the corner of Mill and Hyman Streets, sporadically chanting “No Hidden Gems!” and holding signs with messages like “NO MORE LAND GRABS.”
Hidden Gems proponents say the proposal will not take away any regularly used biking trails or recreation areas. But its detractors say it will, and also complain it will eliminate development of future trails.
Congressman John Salazar, who was honored with the Workshop’s Wild For Good Colorado Legislator Award, talked with the protesters before entering the banquet and accepted a two-page letter from them stating their opposition to Hidden Gems. Salazar, a Democrat whose congressional district covers western and southern Colorado, has not yet taken a position on Hidden Gems. The Wilderness Workshop and other groups sponsoring the Gems have not yet given him a formal proposal to take to Capitol Hill, but Salazar and Boulder Congressman Jared Polis are its most apt sponsors because the proposed lands fall within their districts.
Congressman Salazar said any formal legislation for the Hidden Gems needs a public vetting as thorough as the one for the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Area Bill, which he recently sponsored and for which he was honored last night. He explained that through negotiation with San Juan stakeholders they were able to find “100 percent consensus” among his constituency supporting it. (That bill includes more than 33,000 acres of wilderness-designated land, and tens of thousands acres more under other less-stringent designations.)
He also stressed the need to quell the acrimony surrounding Hidden Gems, which has pitted outdoors enthusiasts against one another.
“As we protect our public lands we also need to protect our communities,” Salazar said before the awards ceremony.
Of the protesters outside, he added, “They do have some legitimate concerns.”
Anti-Gems protester Ginger Gage, of Rifle, was pleased that the congressman engaged the group.
“We got what we wanted,” she said, standing behind a police barricade on the Hyman Avenue pedestrian mall. “We got our letter into his hands and he listened to what we had to say.”
Gage and others in this loose contingency of bikers and snowmobilers were disappointed in their own showing, however. Though city officials expected as many as 250 demonstrators and planned to reroute buses to accommodate the throng, no more than two dozen made it out.
The protesters blamed the cold. The Wilderness Workshop provided warm cider and hot chocolate for their opponents.
State Sen. Gail Schwartz, whose district runs from Aspen to the New Mexico border, likewise met with the protesters and, like Salazar, has not yet taken a position on Hidden Gems.
“I am very invested in the process and having everyone’s voices heard,” she said. “Should we protect more lands? Yes. But we have to be careful of which ones.”
Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland attended the benefit as well, and spoke with protesters. He echoed his fellow politicians’ sentiments, saying he supports a vigorous public process for the Gems.
Along with Congressman Salazar, Wilderness Workshop honored 30 local students for outstanding writing about wilderness. Snowmass-based filmmakers Chelsea Congdon and James Brundige won the Wild for Good Filmmaker Award for their documentary, “Forever Wild.” Their film was broadcast nationally on PBS this fall and got its big screen debut yesterday at the Wheeler. Ironically, it tells the stories of grassroots campaigns to designate wilderness areas.
Wilderness Workshop executive director Sloan Shoemaker, who himself accepted the Wild for Good Conservation Award, said the current Hidden Gems debate is a lot like the contentious ones in “Forever Wild.” And, he said, the heat can be good for wilderness advocates.
“People are excited by the intensity of the opposition,” Shoemaker said, adding that he hopes to put a formal Hidden Gems proposal to Rep. Salazar before the end of this month. “I think it’s inspiring some people out of complacency.”
Congdon, the filmmaker, promised success for the latest controversial wilderness crusade in her acceptance speech: “There will be more wilderness in America and there will be more wilderness in Colorado because of the Hidden Gems campaign.”