Crested Butte News
The impressive expanses of sagebrush hills, forests, rivers and mountains in Gunnison County are particularly lush and verdant this summer—especially when viewed from a plane. Three separate flights took off last Thursday morning from Gunnison’s private regional airport and gave high(er) altitude tours of Gunnison County’s numerous landscapes and ecosystems to members and associates of the Gunnison County’s Public Lands Initiative (GPLI) coalition.
GPLI is made up of ten local organizations representing interests such as ranching, water resources, motorized use, conservation, mountain biking, recreation and hunting and angling. The coalition began an arduous process of creating a comprehensive public land use and conservation proposal for Gunnison County in 2012, with the encouragement of senator Michael Bennet, and released an initial draft in 2017.
GPLI then held an 18-month public comment period and made revisions based on public and stakeholder feedback. The proposal is now awaiting its next phase, where it will be sent to Senator Bennet to begin its legislative journey as a public lands bill. This is hoped to happen sometime later this year once all parties are in agreement that the proposal is a final draft.
GPLI released a revised conservation proposal in January this year and included members of its coalition and other community leaders in the rare opportunity to view from above the land areas at stake in its proposed management plans.
From critical areas for elk migrations and winter habitat in the Signal Peak area to Spring Creek looking north toward the Taylor Park and Matchless Mountain areas where there are bighorn sheep herds, GPLI project coordinator Maddie Rehn pointed out various areas recommended in the newest proposal for permanent wilderness designation, for possible future trail development, and for mixed uses or boundary line adjustments.
Among the rolling hills northwest of Gunnison, Rehn pinpointed specific trails such as Deer Creek trail and North Woods trail and nearby terrain where Gunnison Trails is considering new trail networks. Reportedly, coalition members from the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association who were on one of the flights were identifying from the air specific singletrack turns with which they are intimately familiar. The flights were organized by the GPLI coalition and EcoFlight, an environmental advocacy group based near Aspen that uses small aircraft to give aerial views of lands throughout the American West. EcoFlight has been operating since 2002 with a mission to educate and advocate “for the protection of remaining wild lands and wildlife habitat.”
This was the second GPLI/EcoFlight collaboration, the first having been in 2016 as the GPLI group was in the development stages of its first proposal. “I think that it just provides such an incredible way to think about the way that the proposal works on the ground, and in the way these diverse ways these stakeholders look at the land,” says Rehn of the experience. “So, CBMBA might look at the trails they recognize. And then someone saw where a current boundary was along a creek and how it would change if we moved it up to the ridgeline.”
Rehn said the feedback GPLI received from the EcoFlights was very positive. “Some was specific, on the ground type stuff, and others were like, ‘What an incredible view.’ It’s so nice to see the valley from that perspective,” Rehn said. The effect of the flight, which Crested Butte mayor Jim Schmidt exclaimed to be simply “spectacular,” can best be summarized by Ecoflight’s own vision statement: “Life takes on new meaning when looking down on the world through the lens of the atmosphere, across mountains, deserts and forestlands. Perhaps for the first time one begins to see the interconnections and relationships of the natural landscape and the holism of the biosphere.”
In addition to offering a holistic perspective, when EcoFlight pilot Gary Kraft opened his window at well above 14,000 feet “to get some fresh air in here,” and then calmly banked a sharp left past the Castles while rapidly descending toward their razor-like edges of ancient rock, coming within snowball-throwing distance, the flight also had a thrilling effect of unique proportions.