Plan would extend protections throughout Gunnison County
By Will Shoemaker
A long-term public lands management plan a year and half in the making is being hailed for bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders.
The Gunnison Public Lands Initiative (GPLI) was rolled out in draft form to the public Tuesday at a “happy hour” event at the Ol’ Miner Steakhouse in Gunnison.
Federal lands and wildlife managers, mountain bikers, motorized advocates, elected officials and recreationists all pored over maps that depicted the plan— the end result of a charge from Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, delivered along the banks of Slate River north of Crested Butte in July 2012. Then, Bennet tasked the local community with providing input about the future of surrounding public lands.
“For the last year and a half, that’s what we’ve been doing,” said GPLI coordinator Laura Yale. “We’ve come up with this proposal that basically would protect lands on different levels that we all feel are worth protecting for wildlife, water and backcountry recreation.”
Three tiers of management recommendations are incorporated within the proposal: mineral withdrawal, Special Management Areas (SMAs) and designation as wilderness — either additions or newly designated areas. All of the proposed changes are within Gunnison County.
Among the most noteworthy changes: additional wilderness designation is eyed west of Slate River north of Crested Butte, including Baxter Basin. There are wilderness additions proposed on the south side of the West Elk Mountains and north of both the current Powderhorn and Uncompahgre wilderness areas. And the proposal seeks to designate numerous SMAs, encompassing Double Top, Deer Creek, Poverty Gulch and much of the upper North Fork Valley.
For example, in the case of Double Top, an SMA would bar new road construction and include a mineral withdrawal, while allowing existing motorized use to continue.
“For that area, it’s about just protecting that backcountry feel,” Yale explained.
The plan also pitches new wilderness areas, including East Cement Mountain and South Matchless Mountain east to Taylor Reservoir.
Chief among the considerations brought to the table, the proposal seeks to protect existing uses. According to organizers, all roads, trails and proposed future trails and re-alignments would remain open or have the opportunity to be realized.
To protect the lands from what stakeholders call “irresponsible development,” numerous organizations provided input that formed GPLI — including Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association (CBMBA), Gunnison Trails, High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA), The Wilderness Society, and the International Mountain Bicycling Association.
Local motorized advocacy groups have not signed on in support of the draft plans, but Yale indicated that organizers have worked with members of those groups to identify potential problems.
Numerous attendees of Tuesday’s gathering found the collaboration most encouraging — especially after a proposal a few years back, dubbed Hidden Gems, that sought additional wilderness designations resulted in a deeply divided community.
“Really, this is a proposal that all these groups put together,” said HCCA Public Lands Director Alli Melton.
Many agree, that’s no easy feat. “It’s really challenging when you’ve got a wilderness user on one end and a dirt biker on the other and everybody in between,” said Gunnison Trails Executive Director Dave Wiens.
He said that an early map of the proposal would have extended wilderness boundary to the west bank of Slate River, but CBMBA officials noted that a trail is planned for just west of the river. As a result, the proposed boundary was moved.
Also, the plans would provide for a conceptual trail between Gunnison and Crested Butte — a route Wiens has fought tooth and nail to see approved.
“We’re not going to come up with anything good if anyone gets left out,” he recognized.
Attendees of Tuesday’s event — a similar “happy hour” was planned for Wednesday in Crested Butte— were quick to offer feedback, littering maps with yellow Post-It notes that recommended tweaks.
While motorized advocate and Gunnison Valley OHV Alliance of Trailriders (GOATs) member Seth Weiner agreed that the collaboration on display is “fantastic,” certain aspects of the plan he questioned.
“It seems to us that we need to read the fine print,” he said of a possible legislative proposal.
For example, he questioned what uses an SMA would allow.
One group of snowmobilers urged that popular riding areas such as East Beckwith Mountain and Baxter Basin remain open to the winter-time pursuit.
“There are more areas we won’t be able to play in,” GOATs president Ben Breslauer, also an avid snowmobiler, said while perusing the maps.
“And why?” added Weiner.
Yale offered that boundaries could be shifted to accommodate such existing uses. She said that the proposal has been sent to Bennet in draft form, though it’s recognized that modifications are likely to result prior to the drafting of a bill that would expand protections of Gunnison County’s public lands.
“We realize this is just a draft and it’s going to change,” she said.
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or editor@ gunnisontimes.com)