Introducing the Gunnison Public Lands Initiative

From the Crested Butte News

How to best safeguard future generations?

By Adam Broderick

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.

GPLI is essentially a coalition made up of stakeholders who help move legislative proposals forward. The coalition’s goal is to create a legislative proposal that helps protect the condition of public lands in Gunnison County, and it strives to identify areas where there is highly valued land use then protect those areas to further their usability. According to GPLI Coordinator Hilary Henry, the coalition formed in 2012, after Senator Michael Bennet visited Gunnison County and asked for suggestions from local residents on how to best safeguard their future generations.

Henry explained GPLI’s overarching goals to the Crested Butte News. “The Gunnison Public Lands Initiative is a coalition of groups and individuals working to protect BLM and Forest Service lands in Gunnison County that are highly important for water quality, wildlife, and recreation,” Henry said. “Our mission is to ensure that highly valued places have the protection they deserve through an inclusive, community discussion.”

The coalition includes the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association (CBMBA), Gunnison Trails, High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA), the International Mountain Bike Association, and The Wilderness Society. All donate staff and member time to the Gunnison Public Lands Initiative. For funding, the Pew Charitable Trust compensates Henry, the part-time coordinator, as well as finances events and publications.

Erin McCann, Deputy Press Secretary for U.S. Senator Bennet, says the senator has been working with GPLI, the county and other stakeholders to see if there can be broad-based agreement on a public lands bill in Gunnison County. McCann says, “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. Their voice and ideas certainly have merit and Senator Bennet appreciates them helping to drive the conversation forward. Their ideas must now continue to be discussed by the community and balanced with the needs of other relevant stakeholders. We will work to make sure that conversation happens, and only move forward with legislation when there is broad agreement in the community to do so.”

GPLI partnered with mountain bikers, conservationists, sportsmen and local residents to develop a draft proposal, which it released in 2014. The proposal would, as of now, protect over 350,000 acres of public lands in the county for recreation, backcountry habitat, water quality, and scenic beauty using a combination of federal Wilderness and Special Management Area (SMA) protection measures. But acreage will likely change as the process unfolds, since Henry says “the total amount of acreage we seek to protect will likely refl􏰘ect the community support we receive.”

According to Henry, GPLI is continuing to build support and momentum for the proposal by reaching out to the local community for their support and feedback, working with elected o􏰄fficials, and continuing to collect the best information about the lands they are seeking to protect. She says that over the past summer, GPLI has led hikes, bike rides, a trail run, and a horseback ride into areas proposed for protection, and that each event was co-hosted by a local organization.

Examples of public land GPLI seeks to protect include Double Top, which is located up Cement Creek, and the National Recreation Area that flanks the 􏰊Fossil Ridge Wilderness, which have high wild-life value but aren’t quite suitable as official wilderness areas. Instead of 􏰙qualifying for official wilderness protection, which some argue is the highest form of protection of any federal wild land, those areas have been designated as Special Management Areas in the draft proposal.

According to Henry, SMAs are a more flexible designation that can prohibit future extractive use but leave areas open to existing motorized and mechanized uses.

Henry says the closest proposal areas to town are the Whetstone Roadless Area, which overlaps Whetstone, Axtell, and Carbon, the Poverty Gulch Roadless Area, the Horse Ranch Park Roadless Area, the Beckwiths Roadless Area, and the Double Top Roadless Area. “The proposed designations for these areas have been tailored to existing uses, so that current mountain biking, snowmobiling, and motorized use would remain open,” she says.

Dave Ochs, vice president of CBMBA, says he’s hell-bent on using SMA designation to further protect nearby public lands. He believes there are better forms of protection than Wilderness and that SMAs are the way of the future. “We at CBMBA, and myself personally, feel very strongly about the Special Management Area designation instead of Wilderness,” Ochs said in an email. “An SMA can have all the same protection and measures to fight mineral withdrawal rights and water infrastructure damage, yet realize the need for muscle-powered recreation.”

Ochs says the Wilderness Act was enacted well before bicycles were even a part of the equation. “Mountain bikers are very much aligned with Wilderness and the protection it provides, but [The Wilderness Act of 1964] is out of date in terms of realizing other forms of muscle-powered recreation. The SMA designation would be a progressive and forward thinking way to seek the utmost in protection, but allow uses not previously recognized. Win-Win for our recreation driven local contingency, and recreation tourism base.”

Ochs thinks the community has an opportunity with GPLI to do something that could be modeled by other counties, an opportunity to help steer custom legislation that can specifically target the issues we are seeing here.

Henry gave a good example of G􏰛PLI􏰜's local efforts to protect existing uses while finding common ground among different user groups: the proposal area overlying Mt. Axtell, Whetstone Mountain and Carbon Peak.

“Conservationists have long desired to see this area permanently protected from extractive use, while motorized users and mountain bikers have feared that permanent protection could cut off their access to some of the most beloved snowmobiling, mountain biking, and dirt biking right in Crested Butte’s backyard,” Henry explains. “The Gunnison Public Lands Initiative worked to reconcile these differences by proposing this area as a SMA. This SMA would prohibit future extractive use while allowing current dirt and mountain biking and providing the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association and Gunnison Trails the opportunity to build the Baxter Gulch and Gunnison to Crested Butte Trails respectively.”

Alli Melton, Public Lands director for HCCA, says that since the proposal is community supportive, active outreach and efforts to get people engaged are currently in action. She says the next stage will make the table bigger by adding a county commissioner and representatives from different user groups. 􏰇It’s going to have someone from motorized, someone from non-motorized, someone from ranching, 􏰝they’ll have a seat at the table with all the uses represented. Then a map will come out and we’ll look at what’s proposed, which areas aren’t making people happy, and what could work to make everyone supportive of 􏰞the proposal􏰟. We wouldn’t be asking the Commisisoners to sign off on it, but asking what needs to happen with the draft in order to get the whole community behind it.􏰉

As GPLI continues to build support for its proposal, the coalition has been urging elected officials to work on the issue. Henry says she has heard that Senator Bennet is currently working to set up a committee that includes all of the relevant stakeholders for public lands, and that from her understanding, the committee will work out the details of potential legislation for public lands protection in Gunnison County.

Mallory Logan, owner of the RoShambo design studio in Gunnison, agrees with many others that by passing its legislative proposal, GPLI will solidify the community’s place as a top tourist destination every time of year, for a multitude of guests. She believes the importance of public lands to the local economy is immeasurable, and is grateful GPLI is passionately striving to protect them.

“A thriving tourist industry trickles down to every corner of our economy, from increased enrollment at Western to companies like RoShamBo,” Logan told the News. “GPLI is the Gunnison v􏰠alley’s strongest advocate for preserving and improving what we all love so much about this place by connecting land users, local businesses and conservationists in a way that is respectful to and considerate of the needs of each group while focusing on what is important for our future,” she said.

Proposing and passing legislation like this usually takes a long time, and GPLI is still in the initial phases. Although Bennet hasn’t set a submission deadline, the coalition is getting set up to have all the appropriate people at the same table and have the proposal supported by all community members before introducing it as legislation.

Anyone looking to join GPLI on their next event and learn more about their work can ride 􏰒􏰡􏰢and the Point Lookout Trail in the Double Top proposal area, a 17 mile mountain ride led by CBMBA, on Sunday, September 1􏰣3.