Public Lands plan nears roll out

Group reaches consensus on protecting multiple uses

Alan Wartes

In the world of crafting policies to protect public land, legislators rarely bring ideas to local stakeholders — it’s usually the other way around. However, in 2016, the Gunnison Public Lands Initiative (GPLI) formed a working group at the urging of Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet — and with support from Gunnison County Commissioners — to help “create a successful legislative proposal for public land designation.”

Next week, GPLI will release the first fruit of that labor — an “initial proposal” for how and where to better manage public lands in Gunnison County. e “roll out” and release party is set for Tuesday, June 20 from 6-8 p.m. at the Gunnison Arts Center.

On Tuesday this week, GPLI project director Maddie Rehn gave commissioners an overview of the group’s progress. The idea behind GPLI, she said, is to assemble representatives from all the various user groups and work toward consensus in how to answer the question: What further federal protective designations are appropriate in Gunnison County, and where? From there, legislation can be crafted that most accurately represents the community’s vision.

“The group got together not to come up with the ideal conservation proposal, or the ideal mountain biking proposal, but truly a community vision that was representative of all the interests at the table,” said Rehn. “They have worked really well to find compromises and agreements that work for everyone.”

Those various groups include stockgrowers, conservationists, water managers, motorized recreationists, mountain bikers and backcountry skiers. Since February last year, the working group has met once a month to evaluate specific areas within the county that might be good candidates for legislative protection.

The group agreed to work within the following guidelines:

  • Appropriate balance between wilderness, recreational, wildlife, ecological, diverse economic, cultural, and scenic values of public lands.

  • Support for a strong, sustainable economy in Gunnison County.

  • Respect for historic uses of public lands.

  • Use of the best available science and all relevant information.

  • Desire to find workable solutions for all interests.

Where action is deemed appropriate, the initial proposal puts forward two options: wilderness designation, in accordance with the Wilderness Act of 1964; and the special management area. “With the combination of these two, we’re able to look at low-lying elevations all the way to high peaks,” said Rehn. “You can protect a range of different ecosystems, habitats, recreational uses by a combination of areas that are compatible with wilderness and areas that are not, but still have the values that were identified by the working group to protect.”

The next stage of the process is public engagement, Rehn told commissioners — to be sure the proposal accurately reflects the community’s goals and enjoys the broadest possible public support. That will include reaching out to communities that lie outside Gunnison County — and were therefore not represented on the working group — which could be affected by future legislation based on the proposal.

“In the roll out, we know we will see a lot of people we have somehow not been in contact with yet,” said working group member and motorized recreation representative Terry Peterson. “That will be another big step, to try and reach out who those groups are and try to address their concerns. This is not a done deal yet. We want to hear from them.”

Rehn told commissioners that all specific recommendations in the initial proposal meet the following standards:

  • Does not close any roads or trails that are currently open.

  • Allows future trail projects to be considered for construction subject to agency review.

  • Does not affect popular over-the-snow riding areas.

  • Protects quiet use in areas with high ecological value.

  • Ensures that current ranch- ing operations and water use can continue.

  • Protects critical habitat for species such as mule deer and elk, while providing flexibility for habitat restoration projects for species such as bighorn sheep and Gunnison sage- grouse.

This fall the group will reconvene to review public comment and begin the next phase, which is to start drafting legislation to go before Congress.

“This approach is putting the community in charge to come up with these ideas, and not Washington, D.C.,” said working group member Dave Ochs, also executive director of the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association.

(Alan Wartes can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or alan@