“What’s a ‘sledneck?’” U.S. Sen. Mark Udall asked Monday, about an hour into a meeting with local leaders on his proposed new wilderness legislation.
The proposal, a slimmed down and re-branded version of the controversial Hidden Gems Wilderness Proposal, could lead to new protections for more than 60,000 acres of forest in Pitkin County and a total of 236,00 acres of land in western Colorado. It includes 13 different areas in Pitkin County that were once part of the Gems proposal.
Udall stressed his hope to bring forest users to consensus, including conservationists, ranchers, bikers, motorized users and snowmobilers (the “slednecks” jokingly referred to by Aspen Skiing Co. executive Auden Schendler during the meeting).
“I think energy is growing and interest has increased,” Udall said of his proposal, dubbed the Central Mountains Outdoor Heritage Act.
He met in Aspen with elected officials, business leaders, conservationists and even a few mountain bikers Monday. Those gathered at the meeting, which began at 4:30 p.m. in the Rio Grande meeting room, largely voiced support for the new designations.
Udall has been meeting since February with stakeholders in the areas covered in the bill, seeking support across populations and recreational user groups. Earlier iterations of the Hidden Gems proposal had been opposed by some favoring motorized and mechanized forest use, claiming that protections that would curb recreation in certain areas or limit future trail construction.
“I want to listen and get input from all of the various stakeholder groups,” Udall said.
A portion of the 8,226-acre addition to the Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness, as currently proposed by Udall, would include an illegal mountain biking trail on Smuggler Mountain known as the Balcony Trail, which local and federal officials have considered bringing into the legal trail system. Mountain biking is prohibited in federally designated wilderness.
Mike Pritchard, of the Roaring Fork Mountain Biking Association, told the senator his organization would want to avoid wilderness designation for the trail. He praised much of the proposal, which includes a mix of designations, not strictly wilderness areas.
“The mountain bikers really do support 90, 95 percent of it,” Pritchard said. “We love wilderness.”
He said there were just two other remaining conflicts for his biking group, in portions of the Hay Park and Thompson Creek areas.
Udall specifically noted he wants to get the climbing community more involved in the process, and wants to preserve a range of recreational uses.
“I wonder about what we can do to assure those sets of communities that they will continue to do what they love to do,” Udall said.
The senator said he doesn’t have a timeline for when he would like to draft a bill and bring it to Capitol Hill.
“I think we’re moving to where a final product will be put out in draft form,” Udall said.
Steve Novy, a Carbondale architect and founder of the pro-wilderness mountain biking group Bike Wild, told the senator some opponents will not come around to supporting the bill.
“The dirt bikers and the snowmobilers, I just don’t see how they can get their hands around this or get behind it,” Novy said.
Those offering support for the bill included Pitkin County commissioners George Newman and Rachel Richards, Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland, Snowmass Village Mayor Bill Boineau, Aspen Center for Environmental Studies CEO Chris Lane, rancher Bill Fales, 10th Mountain Division Hut Association director Ben Dodge and Schendler from the SkiCo.
Bill Stirling, a real estate agent and former Aspen mayor, represented a coalition of business people on the Western Slope supporting the proposal. He said the group is hoping to get U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Republican from Cortez, to support the portions of the proposal in his 3rd Congressional District.
Architect Harry Teague praised the proposal, while lamenting the way Hidden Gems divided forest users. He encouraged the senator to continue his outreach and get various factions behind it.
“It has to be inclusive in a way that avoids that social division,” he said. “We find ourselves divided on the highway with bumper stickers over this issue.”
Udall is soliciting comments on the proposal online, and has provided maps and details on his website: http://markudall.senate.gov/outdoorheritage .