U.S. Sen. Mark Udall is working on new wilderness legislation that could include 13 areas covering more than 60,000 acres in Pitkin County within the Hidden Gems wilderness proposal.
In all, Udall announced on Sunday in Frisco, he is seeking public input on new wilderness designations for 236,000 acres of land in western Colorado. It also includes Gems areas in Eagle and Summit counties.
In coming months, the senator plans to do widespread outreach to locals in the areas at issue. A comment page is open on his website, which includes detailed maps and a list of the sites he is considering.
“Before we do anything,” Udall said in a statement Sunday, unveiling what he’s dubbed the Central Mountains Outdoor Heritage Act, “it’s important to me to hear from as many Coloradans as possible about how the land is used today and their vision for the future of these special places.”
The Gems proposal went through a years-long public debate in the Eagle and Roaring Fork valleys, spearheaded by the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, before going to Washington. The wilderness advocacy organization negotiated with groups like snowmobilers and mountain bikers, who opposed protections that would curb recreation in certain areas or limit future trail construction.
The proposal sparked controversy in some recreational factions of western Colorado, as all mechanized and motorized uses are banned in federally-designated wilderness areas.
After dropping hundreds of thousands of acres from the proposal and attempting to build community consensus, Wilderness Workshop sent a draft bill to Colorado’s congressional delegation in 2010.
“This is stuff we’ve been working on over the last 10 years, so to see Mark Udall working on wilderness for Pitkin County and Colorado is really exciting,” said Will Rousch, of Wilderness Workshop.
Rep. Jared Polis, of Boulder, last year introduced a House bill seeking to designate the portions of the proposal in Summit and Eagle counties, but it never came up for a vote. The areas in Polis’ bill are included in Udall’s draft proposal, and the congressmen are collaborating on it.
Rousch said he thought the combination of support for the new wilderness from entities like Pitkin County, businesses like the Aspen Skiing Co. and a diverse swath of locals helped prompt Udall’s initiative.
“My hunch is it’s a cumulative impact of folks saying, ‘We want new wilderness,’” he said.
Rep. Scott Tipton, whose district includes Pitkin County, last month met in Carbondale with wilderness advocates within the business community of the Roaring Fork and Eagle valleys, about the Gems areas. That meeting was organized by realtor and former Aspen Mayor Bill Stirling, who praised this week’s announcement from Udall.
Stirling and 400-plus business owners from the Western Slope have lobbied for more designations and highlighted the economic benefits of wilderness to neighboring resorts. He compared the new wilderness areas to iconic federally-protected sites like the Maroon Bells.
“Senator Udall has a chance to add to that legacy with the proposal he announced [Sunday],” Stirling said.
Udall characterized the coming outreach as “a bottom-up rather than top-down approach” to crafting wilderness. He stressed the economic benefits of wilderness.
His first meeting with constituents on the proposal is a “business roundtable” with Eagle County business representatives in Avon this weekend.
Udall spokesperson Jennifer Talhelm stressed that the process is just beginning.
“Based on what he hears from the community, he will develop a legislative proposal,” she said via e-mail. “This will take several months, and perhaps longer. The goal is to develop a proposal that a diverse majority of the community agrees will support their interests and the state’s economy.”
The draft proposal includes forest land in the Hunter Creek Valley and near Independence Pass, along with Thompson Creek outside Carbondale. A once-contemplated wilderness designation for Basalt Mountain is not included in Udall’s draft.
The senator also announced his intention to seek national monument designation for a 20,000-acre stretch of the Arkansas River between Salida and Buena Vista. The designation, he argued, would highlight and help promote the rafting and recreation industries in the area.