Gunnison County initiative spurred by Sen. Bennet
Alan Wartes, Times Staff Writer
For months, the working group of the Gunnison Public Lands Initiative (GPLI) has been guided by a simple idea -- that any federal legislation proposing new public lands protections in Gunnison County is far more likely to make it through Congress if the plan enjoys broad public support from the get-go.
On Tuesday, the group unveiled a set of proposals they believe takes a giant step in that direction. The gathering at the Gunnison Arts Center drew 30-40 conservationists, sportsmen and women, recreationists and stockgrowers.
“When we first started this 17 months ago I wasn’t really sure what we were embarking on,” said GPLI Director Maddie Rehn — a recent Master of Environmental Management graduate who took on the task as her required degree project. “But now that we’ve done it, and it’s been an incredible showing of community willingness to work together.”
It’s not the first time GPLI has rolled out a plan. But this iteration is more complete, organizers say, and more broadly represents the whole community. That’s because the working group held open seats for representatives from all major users of public lands, from backcountry skiers to stockgrowers to summer motorized recreationists and everything in between.
Furthermore, the group agreed from the outset to adopt a consensus model for all decisions regarding specific proposals. In other words, to be included, a recommendation had to achieve unanimous approval.
“The most amazing thing about this has been the way everyone came together,” said longtime High Country Conservation Advocates activist Sue Navy. “ The process has been very collaborative.”
In 2012, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet expressed a willingness to sponsor legislation seeking additional protection for public lands in Gunnison County — through wilderness designation or a less restrictive category known as a “special management area” (SMA).
“Any conversation about managing Gunnison County public lands must begin with the voices of the local community — those who live here, who know the land and whose economic future depends on these areas,” he said at the time.
That guidance was motivated, in part, by an earlier attempt at crafting a proposal — known as Hidden Gems — that resulted in deep divisions within the community. Following Hidden Gems’ failure, three groups put forward new ideas for what new protections might look like — Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and GPLI. Those ideas were released in March 2014.
"The one consistent response they got at that time was that the proposal needed to better represent all public land users,” said Rehn. “GPLI was originally a collaboration of conservation and mountain bike interests.”
The working group formed as a result of that input, she said. Membership included representatives from nine local user groups — and the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. Under the guidance of a professional facilitator, the group went back through the previous set of proposals to see what existing land uses had not been adequately considered.
In crafting the new proposal, the group agreed to not alter or eliminate any existing uses, but to define those areas where current land uses were already compatible with new protective designations. In addition, they set out to preserve the possibility of future trail development.
For example, Flat Top Mountain was recognized by the group as valuable “big game and tier-1 sage grouse habitat.” However, it also lies along the route of a proposed Gunnison to Crested Butte mountain bike trail — which a wilderness area designation would prohibit. Therefore, the new plan would create an SMA on the site to allow for and achieve both objectives: conservation and recreation.
The proposal would extend wilderness boundaries in the southern West Elk Mountains toward Blue Mesa Reservoir.“Those areas have outstanding ecological and wilderness values — such as bighorn sheep habitat and migration corridors for mule deer,” the report states. “The GPLI does not know of any conflicting on-the-ground uses for (proposed) wilderness designations.”
However, in a nod to what is considered to be the next step in the process — additional public comment — the report goes on to say “the coalition acknowledges the need to have a more in-depth conversation with regional stakeholders to fully understand on-the-ground conditions, appropriate boundaries and suitable designations.”
“What you’re seeing in this proposal is not a done deal,” Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck told those in attendance Tuesday. “This is the first leg in the trek to get to a final destination. There’s a lot of work left to do, and we can’t hone this down without your input. There’s plenty of time for the public to backfill what we’ve been doing with their knowledge and their expertise.”
GPLI plans a series of public outreach events in coming months. The full report — including detailed maps or proposed designations and boundaries — is available at www.gunnisonpubliclands.org.
(Alan Wartes can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or alan@ gunnisontimes.com.)