Different Interests, Same Love for the Land

From the Crested Butte Magazine 

On the first warm day of spring last year, I took a drive to the far western border of Gunnison County, near Crawford. Escaping from the snow covered peaks of Crested Butte to the lower elevation and warmer climes of this part of the county, I soaked in the golden rays of sunlight, the chirping birds, and just budding, vibrant green leaves.

I made the drive to visit Tony Prendergast, a rancher and outfitter. Tony was born in Gunnison County and has spent most of his life roaming the rugged mountains of the Rocky Mountain west. That spring day, we cleaned a ditch high up in the West Elk mountains that irrigates the fields for his grass fed beef in the valley below.

Picking sticks and rocks that had accumulated over the winter out of the cold and clear water, Tony oriented me to the landscape. He has the kind of intimate, expert eye for these mountains that’s only developed through deep and sustained experience. Running his finger along the outline of the mountains, he told me about their history, geology, and plant and animal communities. He knows where and how people graze their cattle, the routes the elk take through the valleys and ridges in the spring and fall, and the winding paths where water flows, or has been made to flow. Walking with him, it’s clear that the backcountry is his first home.

Supporters like Tony are the lynchpin to my work as the Coordinator for the Gunnison Public Lands Initiative (GPLI). I spend my days reaching out to the people who know the public lands in Gunnison County best – ranchers, mountain bikers, motorized users, hunters and anglers – learning the landscape from their perspective and working to start a discussion about what the future holds for our backcountry.

The Gunnison Public Lands Initiative is a coalition of groups that believes we should have a vision for the future for our public lands. We are working to ensure that some of the most special places in our backyard are protected, so that our best trails, habitat, and views are safeguarded for our children and grandchildren. Despite their resilient and enduring beauty, our landscapes are changing here in Colorado. Our population is growing, the backcountry has become more accessible, and the pressure for our natural resources continues to increase. The sanctity of wild places - the snow covered valleys and the sun-seeped wildflower meadows that make Gunnison County feel like home – shouldn’t be taken for granted.

GPLI formed in 2012, after Senator Bennet came to Gunnison County and asked local residents for ideas about how to best protect the spectacular landscape here. The Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association, Gunnison Trails, High Country Conservation Advocates, hunters and anglers, and concerned citizens came together to form GPLI, realizing that we would be better equipped to tackle this question as a united coalition. The interests of these groups are different at times, but the love for the land is the same. GPLI, from the beginning, has been about compromise and collaboration. It’s been about finding the sweet spot where everyone feels that solutions we find do good for the community as a whole.

After several years of discussion and outreach beyond our coalition to elected officials, motorized users, water agencies, ranchers, and local residents, we released a draft proposal for public lands protection in 2014. The proposal includes a combination of new Wilderness and Special Management Areas. Wilderness designations protect lands and waters that have not yet been developed from all extractive, motorized, and mechanized uses. Realizing that there are lands that are deserving of protection, but not appropriate for Wilderness because of their mountain bike or motorized trails, we have also proposed Special Management Areas (SMAs). SMAs are a more flexible designation that can prohibit future extractive use but leave areas open to existing motorized and mechanized uses. Our goal has been to balance conservation and recreation, while ensuring that highly valued lands are protected against irresponsible development and extractive industries, like mining and oil and gas.

Our proposal is a first draft of what public lands protection could like in Gunnison County. We’ve spent the past year reaching out for feedback and hope to refine our proposal in upcoming months with the help of Senator Bennet. In our outreach, we’ve received some helpful guidance as well as the support of over 80 local businesses and 500 individuals.

Reaching out to diverse stakeholders is a mainstay of our work. I’ve spoken to hundreds of people like Tony, who are connected deeply with the landscape here in Gunnison County. When I asked Tony why he values the public lands in Gunnison County, he said, “I hunt, fish, climb mountains, and make part of my living as an outfitter. The public lands sustain me and my family in every way.” That’s what GPLI is about – looking out for the landscape that sustains us, and fulfills us, here in Gunnison County.