There is a place, far up a mountain trail in the West Elk Wilderness that most people pass by without a thought. To reach it takes hours on foot or horseback. Most day’s start before dawn - hours of catching, saddling, and loading horses, just to get us to the trailhead.
As the leading architect of the 1993 Colorado Wilderness Act and an advocate who worked for more than twelve years to get the legislation passed, I am excited to see a new group of public lands users begin to discuss further protections in Gunnison County. While the 1993 legislation was able to protect some very important large block of habitat, work remains to protect corridors between these areas, bring protections into the highly sensitive lower-lying sagebrush areas, and to ensure that we are accounting for growing pressures on our landscape.
We would like to thank Senator Cory Gardner for introducing the Outdoor REC (Recreation Economic Contributions) Act with Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. Despite outdoor recreation driving a significant amount of business into our valley each year, statistics that quantify its overall economic impact are hard to find.
We appreciate that GPLI is taking a creative and practical approach to identifying specific areas for SMAs and Wilderness. By using both SMA and Wilderness designations, GPLI’s proposal will protect important backcountry areas while allowing highly valued activities like hiking, hunting, fishing, livestock grazing, mountain biking, backcountry skiing and motorized touring to continue.
Mendicant Ridge has been proposed as part of the Gunnison Public Lands Initiative’s extension to the West Elk Wilderness. We’ve been hiking and hunting in the area for over a decade and wish to see this kind of backcountry experience available to all of us and our heirs, in perpetuity. GPLI’s proposal would ensure that the scenic, recreational and ecological integrity of this area remains intact.
In Gunnison County, several entities exist to help protect public lands from development for several reasons. Most reasons include managing development and/or recreation, or striking a balance between the two. Gunnison Public Lands Initiative (GPLI) is one of those entities, and although only three years old, it is bringing different organizations and stakeholders together at the same table to develop a creative land use plan that it hopes the entire community will support.
Other congressional bills that aim to protect wilderness areas currently exist, and smaller initiatives abound — some that even overlap with DeGette’s bill.
Gunnison Public Lands Initiative (GPLI) also has looked at areas adjacent to the West Elk and Powderhorn Wilderness areas and determined that they are worthy of preservation, yet their initiative is locally-driven and more comprehensive for Gunnison County.
“We have, I think, a much broader vision for what Gunnison County could look like for public land protection,” said GPLI coordinator Hilary Henry.
The One Valley Prosperity Project has asked Gunnison County residents to define what “prosperity” means to them. There are many pieces to prosperity for local businesses, but healthy public lands are critical in a County that is 83% BLM and Forest Service lands and heavily reliant on tourism and recreation.
GPLI’s proposal for the protection of public land will permanently protect some of our most important habitat, headwaters, and ecosystems in Gunnison County. In doing so, the areas protected will retain the quality of wild places where one can seek solitude, enjoy scenic views, and appreciate natural landscapes.