Wild country eyed for protection

Gunnison Country Hunting Magazine Fall 2018

Will Shoemaker

Colorado’s population is growing, and that places additional pressure on lands currently considered wild and remote but which aren’t offered official protective status. This concept has formed the basis of multi-year work by a coalition of groups in Gunnison County ranging from hunters and anglers to mountain bikers and ranchers.

Gunnison Public Lands Initiative (GPLI) is comprised of 10 organizations working toward agreement on a proposal for the protection of public lands while recognizing and ensuring historic use. The end goal is legislation passed by Congress backed by widespread local support. “Like so many western Colorado landscapes and roadless areas, there’s a potential that someday there will be more recreation pressure in them,” said Tony Prendergast, a hunting guide, rancher, former wilderness ranger and member of GPLI’s working group who spends his time in some of the wildest and most remote lands eyed by GPLI for possible protection.

These lands — located on the west side of the current West Elk Wilderness Area, comprising parts of game management units 53, 54 and 63 — Prendergast actually thinks of as three distinct swaths. Farthest north is Bear Basin, in the middle the large and dominant geographic feature of Mendicant Ridge and to the south and east is Curecanti Creek. Bear Basin is a wild and seldomly visited area comprised of aspen forests bounded by big cliff s and steep canyons. “It’s got one seldom-used trail … that only sees an occasional hiker aside from hunting seasons,” said Prendergast.

The swath including Mendicant Ridge is open on top with steep drainages off its sides. The country currently sees cattle grazing and includes an active outfitter. In fact, the majority of use within the area is by hunters. Curecanti Creek, while bordering the West Elk Wilderness, has never been protected by an official wilderness designation — a federal status which bars uses such as mountain bikes, chainsaws, and other motorized activity. Still, the area remains remote and resembles much of the designated wilderness to the east. Curecanti Creek also is home to prime brook and cutthroat trout fishing.

While currently there are no formal threats to development in the areas mentioned above, stakeholders recognize the potential for greater use in coming years — and want to ensure that sensitive areas aren’t lost to an onslaught of recreation of all types.

“It’s just this incredibly wild and unique landscape,” said Maddie Rehn, project director for GPLI. “When you start to summit some of those mountains, you just see this incredible undeveloped land.” In other words, just the sort of country that hunters look to for high concentrations of wildlife.

Currently, GPLI is in the process of revising its initial proposal — which includes lands throughout Gunnison County, from the Crested Butte area to Mendicant Ridge — released for comment in June 2017. The group hopes to release the new version of the proposal mid-fall of this year.

In the initial report, the greater Mendicant Ridge area — including Bear Basin and Curecanti Creek — was identified as having wilderness character. However, the group has not agreed on what type — if any — of protective status, the area should enjoy. For example, different than wilderness a “Special Management Area” could allow for motorized use but protect lands from resource extraction. Yet, some residents northwest of the Mendicant Ridge area — including citizens of Delta County who are among the largest contingent of folks currently using the lands — vocally oppose wilderness designation for philosophical reasons, believing that additional restrictions on the use of public lands are unnecessary.

“The debate could be, they have very good potential for wilderness and the way they’re currently used is wilderness-type uses,” said Prendergast, who lives and ranches northwest of Mendicant Ridge. “I think that Bear Basin to the north of Mendicant Ridge and the whole Curecanti drainage and canyon are very appropriate for wilderness designation. It wouldn’t affect any current user of those areas. Really, the only difference would be when the Forest Service goes through there, they could use a chainsaw to clear trails.”

Time will tell whether fellow GPLI members share Prendergast’s views — and, more importantly, whether Congress agrees.