If the Gunnison Board of County Commissioners was looking for community consensus on the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign, they didn’t get it from a public comment period on Tuesday, January 26.
The campaign hopes to set aside about 89,000 acres of public land in Gunnison County as designated wilderness. Five of the seven areas being considered would be additions onto established wilderness areas, and two remaining parcels would stand alone. One of the proposed areas, Whetstone, is right outside of Crested Butte and the most contentious part of the proposal for local hikers, bikers and snowmobilers. Before the commissioners consider a request to draft a letter in support of the proposal, they wanted to hear from all sides of the debate, and they got their wish. People from all sides of the issue packed the commissioner’s meeting room and filled a two-hour timeslot with many disparate points of view. The first to speak were proponents of the campaign, who talked about the merits of wilderness as a land designation that is capable of protecting habitat and open space where other land use designations could fall short. Brian Martin is the director of conservation for the Colorado Mountain Club, which is a partner with the Hidden Gems Campaign and has about 8,000 members statewide. “We’ve refined this proposal since 2003, starting with roughly one million acres and slowly winnowing things down and after conversations with stakeholders and users we get to where we are today at about 400,000 acres,” Martin said. “So we’ve brought it down to more than half of our original vision, and we really feel strongly that these areas have survived a fairly rigorous negotiation process.” Right now, nearly 22.6 percent, or 370,000 acres, of Gunnison County’s total 1,618,000 acres of public land is designated as wilderness. The Hidden Gems proposal would increase that by 5.5 percent. The additional wilderness areas being proposed would be added in Gallo Hill, McClure Pass and Treasure Mountain, along with Powderhorn and West Elk additions. The two largest portions of the proposal are more than 54,000 acres in Clear Fork and almost 17,000 acres on Whetstone. Once the ice was broken by campaign proponents, the floor was opened to people against the proposal, in favor of it, or indifferent. Alan Moores is the county’s assistant director of public works. He said there were several members of the stock growing and agricultural communities who felt like they were not represented in the negotiations with the Hidden Gems campaigners. Laura Yale, Gunnison County’s coordinator for the Hidden Gems, addressed some of Moores’ concerns, saying, “I’ve contacted by phone or by email many of the adjacent landowners, and to my knowledge all of the grazers. I didn’t hear back from all of them but I did take the time to contact them.” Yale went on to talk about the compromises the group has made with all-terrain vehicle users, snowmobilers and other stakeholders by cutting out areas of the proposal that were important to those users. “We realize that we can’t satisfy everyone that uses these pieces of land, but we have done our best to constructively work with people to find on-the-ground solutions. An example is in the Whetstone area,” Yale said. The Whetstone parcel is getting the most attention from valley residents, since it is currently one of the most popular snowmobiling areas surrounding Kebler Pass Road, where snowmobile use is most concentrated. It is also the site for a proposed mountain bike trail that would run from Crested Butte to Gunnison. Perry Anderson, community liaison for the Mt. Emmons Moly Company, said his company had initially had a good interaction with the Hidden Gems proponents. But the relationship soured after the Whetstone parcel was added late in the game. “At the last minute this past year they identified the Whetstone area as a wilderness area without any community discussion,” Anderson said. “The Whetstone area is an area of concern to us. We currently have mill and mine claims in the area that we have legally filed for and make payments to the BLM.” Dave Wiens of Gunnison Trails, along with Dave Ochs and John Chandler, attended the meeting as representatives of the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association (CBMBA), the oldest mountain biking association in the world, according to Chandler. While the organizations support protecting open space in the Gunnison Valley, they oppose using the wilderness designation as the primary means to get it. “The companion designations seem like they have a lot of merit,” Wiens said. He said a companion designation, like a conservation area, would provide adequate protection while still allowing access to trail users other than only hikers and horseback riders. Responding to the criticism of including Whetstone in the proposal without much community input, Yale said, “When we started doing work over here we were approached by High Country Citizens’ Alliance and other citizens who asked if it would be a good idea to include Whetstone into the proposal. Hidden Gems decided to add it to our proposal because it fit perfectly into other pieces of land throughout the four counties.” The Hidden Gems Proposal also includes land in Pitkin, Eagle and Summit counties. College professor and author Rod Nash started his appeal for the commissioners’ support of the proposal by saying, “I think when most people say commissioners, they think only about representing the residents of Gunnison County. I think it would be nice once in a while that you represent Gunnison County, the place, the landscape, the processes, the burrowing people, the swimming people, the flying people and the four-legged people… I think that’s what the wilderness issue is about. It’s about our capacity to restrain ourselves.” Gunnison County SnoTrackers vice-president Phil Chamberland asked the commissioners to consider what a wilderness designation on Whetstone would mean for snowmobilers who travel to the area to ride. “The addition of Whetstone to that [wilderness] area makes user conflict so inevitable it just doesn’t make any sense to me. To us it seems like you have asked us to snowmobile in this area for the past 25 or 30 years and now you want us to leave.” Chamberland went on to make an analogy between a mugging and the Hidden Gems campaign. “It’s like someone coming up to you and saying they’re going to steal your wallet,” he said. “But we’re all against that so they want to compromise. How about you keep the license and I’ll keep cash and credit cards. No, okay, how about I keep the cash and you take the wallet... At some point they ask for so much you feel like you’re getting a deal. I feel this whole process has been disingenuous.” Taking the middle ground in the discussion, Ken Spann addressed the crowd with a “shame on you.” “Shame on y’all. It’s interesting to hear you all fight about who’s been on Whetstone Mountain the most. Shame on y’all. My name is Ken Spann and my grandfather would be thrilled today that we’ve done a good enough job taking care of it that you all want to fight over it,” Spann said. Spann explained that he was neither for nor against the proposal but wanted people to know that his family’s ranch borders it, “deeded ground, for two-and-a-half miles and there’s not a fence.” He continued, “My family is no stranger to the wilderness designation process. We understand that this could cut both ways for our business and our family and I’ll tell you all that we are right in the middle. But I have other questions for you. If we do this how are we going to physically enforce the boundaries?” Spann pointed out that even though he is “intimately familiar with the ground,” it would be hard for him to find the boundaries of the proposed wilderness. He said that his family was concerned with how that boundary would be enforced. Reed Betz, from the town of Crested Butte, said the proposal is “consistent with the National Forest Travel Management Plan, the recommendation that the town supported through the Forest Service this past fall and the Hidden Gems wilderness proposal makes absolute sense. It’s in line with the long-standing values of the town and our community valley-wide, of environmental stewardship and protecting wide-open spaces, habitat corridors, viewsheds and watersheds. “ But it takes an act of Congress to authorize a wilderness designation and currently the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign does not have a congressional sponsor, but plans on approaching possible sponsors after the proposal is completed in the spring. The county commissioners said they would consider the comments before deciding whether to support the proposal or not.