The owners of two large Carbondale area ranches have agreed to support about 25,000 acres of public land in the Crystal River Valley to be protected as federal wilderness as advocated by the Hidden Gems campaign. In turn, organizers for the wilderness campaign agreed to drop more than 32,000 acres of land from their proposal.
Overall, the Hidden Gems campaign is calling for more than 400,000 acres to be protected as wilderness. It includes land through Pitkin, Garfield, Eagle and Summit counties, and the White River and Gunnison national forests. An act of the U.S. Congress is required to designate new wilderness. The effort has been led by the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop.
Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, no mechanized use would be permitted in the new areas, including tractors and other equipment used by ranchers. The Hidden Gems proponents have butted heads with some outdoor recreation enthusiasts who believe the new designation would threaten their right to enjoy the backcountry.
On Monday afternoon the Gems campaign announced they had garnered letters of support for wilderness designations in the Thompson Creek and Assignation Ridge areas. Sue Rodgers, owner of the Crystal River Ranch, specifically voiced support for designation of two Bureau of Land Management (BLM) grazing allotments.
Bill Fales and Marj Perry, who own the Cold Mountain Ranch, expressed support for creating a contiguous swath of preserved land from the Crystal River west through Assignation Ridge.
“This large piece of protected land will provide incredible wildlife habitat which is critical to many species especially during hard winters,” Fales wrote.
However, the North Thompson Cattle Association, of which Fales is president, withheld support and their board requested their grazing allotment not be considered for a wilderness designation. In response, the Gems announcement read, “The Hidden Gems Campaign intends to drop 32,166 acres from its wilderness proposal in the Thompson Creek area, including North Thompson, Middle Thompson, South Branch of Middle Thompson Creek and Coal Basin to accommodate ranchers who aren’t willing to support wilderness designation for the public lands in Thompson Creek where they graze cattle.”
While withholding support for a wilderness designation, the ranching association did commit to protecting the area from oil and gas development, which is a serious threat to the lands in Monday’s announcement, much of which has been leased to oil companies. Within Thompson Creek, for instance, there are 81 separate oil leases not yet acted upon.
Opponents of Hidden Gems have touted the use of alternative land designations that might bar drilling but allow activities like biking or snowmobiling. Mike Pritchard, spokesman for the Roaring Fork Mountain Biking Association (RFMBA), withheld comment on Monday’s announcement because, he said, he has not been shown an updated Hidden Gems proposal in several months. RFMBA had previously negotiated with Hidden Gems to carve some popular biking trails out of their proposal in the Thompson Creek area.
“I don’t see this as broad support from the ranching community,” said Jack Albright, vice president of the White River Forest Alliance, a group advocating for outdoor enthusiasts, including snowmobilers and off-roaders, that has not yet met with Hidden Gems proponents. “You can’t say local ranchers support this when it’s just two ranches.”