The Gunnison County commissioners endorsed the Hidden Gems Wilderness Proposal on Tuesday, completing the campaign’s county outreach mission and clearing the way for them to hand it over to congressman-elect Scott Tipton.
The Gunnison piece includes about 36,000 acres. In Pitkin County, the commissioners last month endorsed the local portion of the Gems, made up of about 62,000 acres of proposed federal wilderness.
The Gems campaign has not lobbied officials in Garfield County, where 1,600 acres of the wilderness designation proposal are situated, and have no plans to, a staffer said Wednesday.
In all, the Gems campaign proposes to protect 342,000 acres of western Colorado as federal wilderness, which requires an act by the U.S. Congress. As the political process moved along on the portions in Eagle and Summit counties, the campaign forwarded that segment of it on to the congressman there, Rep. Jared Polis, who this fall introduced legislation to designate the Gems in his district. Should an omnibus land bill be formed in this year’s congress, Polis’ Gems legislation is expected to be included in it for a vote.
Tipton, who will be seated as the third congressional district’s representative in January, has not taken a position on the Gems, but has spoken favorably of public outreach on the idea. Rep. Polis this summer held town hall-style meetings throughout his district on the proposal to hear citizen feedback, and then cut 70,000 acres out of it — including Basalt Mountain — before bringing it to Capitol Hill.
“Obviously, [Tipton has] not even taken office yet,” said Gems Gunnison County organizer Laura Yale. “So we’ll start working with him then. We’re excited about the support we’ve gotten and excited about moving forward.”
The Gunnison commissioners voted 2-1 in favor of the Gems. Commissioners Hap Channell and Jim Starr endorsed it, with commissioner Paula Swenson dissenting.
Swenson withheld support because mountain bike enthusiasts were against the designation of portions of Whetstone Mountain, south of Crested Butte. According to Yale, mountain bikers oppose the Whetstone designation because it would lead to the decommissioning of a piece of one seldom-used trail and closing off the area to further trail development.
Recreational forest users have been the most vocal opponents of the Gems in all four mountain counties where commissioners have endorsed it. All motorized and mechanized uses — including biking, off-roading and snowmobiling — are not allowed in federally-designated wilderness.
As they did elsewhere, the Gems campaign saturated the citizenry with a public outreach and information campaign in Gunnison County, including offering free guided hikes into the proposal areas. Tuesday’s vote was preceded by a series of work sessions and meetings including public comment from locals.
One stipulation in the Gunnison County endorsement was that the campaign continue working on building consensus with user groups, like bikers. Pitkin County’s commissioners included a similar caveat, asking the campaign to work with safety officials on examining how a wilderness designation would affect wildfire protection near Aspen. That collaboration is ongoing