The 'why' behind public lands protection

From the Gunnison Country Times

 By Laura Yale

After the Gunnison Public LandsInitiative (GPLI)was presented at happy hour events in Gunnison and Crested Butte, Will Shoemaker raised aquestion in his April 3 editorial: Why is itimportant to protect public lands in Gunnison County? I thank Shoemaker for  adding to the ongoing discussion in our community about why our public lands are important to us.

We all recognize that pressures are building on our public lands as more people want to explore them in various ways and more resources are needed for our growing population.

Thanks to Sen. Michael Bennet, we may now have the opportunity to help shape our community’s future and create a balanced version of what we want to see happen to our lands, water, air, wildlife and recreational opportunities. GPLI is a collaborative effort that offers up a shared vision to protect why we all love living here.

What do we want Kebler Pass to look like in 50 years? Similar to how it looks now? More trails? Oil and gas wells, coal mines or tailings ponds, all of which are very real, current threats?

In his editorial, Shoemaker mentions that “oil and gas, coal, rampant overuse by recreationists ...have yet to materialize on most of the lands eyed for protection.”

This is precisely why we’re trying to protect these areas now, before we don’t have a say or it’s already too late. GPLI is a proactive proposal to fend-off potentially harmful and inappropriate uses that do not complement the amenities-based economy we have been building here.

Protection from what? Since 2000, oil and gas development has more than doubled statewide. Let’s look at two on-the-ground examples of places that have not yet been developed but could be in only a matter of time.

The Beckwiths area, a favorite among many locals for hunting, snowmobiling and hiking, is listed as having potential for both oil and gas and coal mining by the U.S. Forest Service.

The Raggeds trail, a favorite among dirt bikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders, is surrounded by existing oil and gas leases, with more potential in areas that have not yet been leased.

Worth mention are technologies that will come out in the next 50 or 100 years and open lands to new types of extraction we’re not even aware of.

While natural resource extraction is necessary, it is not appropriate in roadless areas and places that contain headwaters, vital wildlife habitat or highly valued recreation. Thus, GPLI has included protection recommendations for the above- mentioned at-risk areas and other surrounding areas containing headwaters that feed our municipalities, ranches and farms.

How will this affect our recreation dynamics? This proposal will protect all existing uses in the proposed areas, including dirt bike trails, popular snowmobile areas and mountain bike trails (current and proposed). Recreation groups in this county are working together now more than ever to find the right balance.

While people who like to enjoy our many trails might feel “corralled” because they run into 20 other people, we often fail to sympathize with the mountain lion who needs at least 10 square miles of mostly unfragmented habitat to thrive. Or the elk being forced into smaller, more populated areas because of development and loss of un-roaded migration corridors. Making sure we protect recreation along with wildlife interests is key to this balance. Hunting and angling are a large part of our recreation base and economy as well.

Furthermore, study after study shows that protected public land is good for our economy. The more protected public lands in a county, the higher the employment rate, per-capita-income and potential for Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT money, which helps to fund our County budget.

After the thousands of conversations I’ve had with people about lands in Gunnison Countyand their vision for them, I believe a balance can be achieved. That balance may require limiting some of our wants to recreate without seeing another person, or to build an endless amount of new trails or extract every resource available in our county.

Fortunately, our county is huge, and nearly 80 percent of all lands in Gunnison County are public. We can still have oil and gas, coal and mining in appropriate areas, while being able to maintain our clean water and air for municipalities and ranching. We can still explore a vast network of trails by foot, bike, motorcycle or horse, all while keeping the land as unfragmented as possible for wildlife.

That is my interpretation of the “why” behind GPLI, but it’s not my initiative. It’s every Gunnison County resident’s initiative.

That’s why we are reaching out to the public to start the conversation, to get feedback, to find that balance and to hopefully rally behind and protect the common ground that connects us to each other and to the natural world.

For maps and more information about GPLI, visit www. or e-mail

(Laura Yale is coordinator for the Gunnison Public Lands Initiative.)