June 15, 2010

To Protect or Not to Protect. ~ Beth Bartel

Colorado’s Proposed Hidden Gems Wilderness.

It’s 8am and we’re lazily sleeping in, sun reflecting off the quiet snow world outside. Birds are singing. Pine trees are emitting their piney smell. The light inside the tent is a glowy, happy yellow. It’s my first time ever snow camping, and so far so good. Until the noise starts. Not the singing birds, but the noise. At first I can’t place it—a chainsaw? A steamroller? No. Vrrrm vrrm vrrrrrrrm. It’s the sound of snowmobiles. What took us hours to access by snowshoes was reached in a breeze by the motorized beasts, and they’re here en force.

Access. Who gets it? Who deserves it? That morning in the snow was the first time I’d thought about it, and in my opinion then, the snowmobilers—or, rather, the snowmobiles—certainly did not. Deserve it, that is. But why? Just because the experience that I wanted to have was different than the experience that the riders of the snowmobiles wanted to have?

Well, here’s a good time to think about this. Colorado’s Hidden Gems Wilderness Proposal is on debate right now, and there’s still time to give your input. Headed by conservation groups Wilderness Workshop, Colorado Environmental Coalition, Colorado Mountain Club and The Wilderness Society, the proposal aims to designate an additional 342,000 acres throughout White River and Gunnison National Forests, and some BLM land inbetween, as Wilderness (yes, with a capital W). What does this mean? No mining, logging or any other extraction or development (with the exception of existing leases). And, no mechanized vehicles, including ATV’s, RV’s, SUV’s, snowmobiles, dirt bikes and, yes, mountain bikes.

The issue isn’t just about who gets access, it’s about the value of the land beyond recreation and the impact of the potential users to the land, so let’s break this down a little:

1) Why Hidden Gems? The proponents claim that most protected lands in Colorado are high-elevations lands, while the lands chosen for the proposal are largely under-represented and wildlife-rich mid-elevation lands. They also state that the increased level of protection will ensure clean watersheds.

2) What are the economic repercussions? Difficult to measure, although there are certainly people who will make economic arguments for each side. Some claim that wilderness users (backcountry hiking, hunting and fishing) bring in as much revenue as mechanized users. The economic benefits of wilderness are addressed by the Hidden Gems coalition.

3) What is the impact of various users? The International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association cites several studies on their website suggesting that snowmobile use has less affect on wildlife behavior and on compaction of vegetation than do hikers, going so far as to say that “Yes, snowmobiling and snowmobile trails do provide a truly beneficial relationship with our environment,” regarding a researcher’s conclusion that maintaining snowmobile trails play an important role in the survival of native wildflowers in Maine. A report out of University of Vermont’s School of natural resources summarizing studies on environmental and social effects of ORVs (off-road vehicles) states that “Studies show that snowmobiles compact insulating layers of snow and thus compromise the habitat of mammals living below the snow layer.” Today’s ORV Rider acknowledges the following effects of ATV use: Kicking up dust, increased erosion of trails, and spread of noxious weeds (the seeds of which can get caked with mud into tires).

To me, these are the factors that should be considered—the economic and environmental issues. To give your input to the district representatives, contact Rep. Jared Polis (2nd District, including Eagle and Summit counties) or Rep. John Salazar (3rd District, including Pitkin, Garfield and Gunnison counties). Town hall meetings are over, but your voice can still be heard.

Let’s end on a philosophical note. We all think we have our rights. Backcountry users have a right to enjoy the land in a quiet, nature-y, leave-no-trace (impossible but inspiring) sort of way. Mountain bike and ORV users have a right to enjoy great scenery with easy and sometimes adrenalin-inducing access. So, who has more of a right? The tread-lightlies or the don’t-tread-on-me’s? On the White River Forest Alliance website, I see in bold letters “Forests are for people! Don’t let them be taken away!” and can’t help but cringe. First of all, who ever deemed that forests are for people? Forests are for everything that makes them a forest—trees, brush, wild berries, birds, bees, bears. Actually, let me take that back. I don’t think forests are for any of those things. Forests are all of those things. Forests just are. And second, nobody ever said that people aren’t welcome into these protected areas. It’s the bikes, snowmobiles, ATV’s, and trailers that are not. And yes, this does end up limiting access. But let’s keep things in perspective. There are still skis, boots, and snowshoes. And, actually, and certainly not to be forgotten for those who are less inclined to walk, horses. Most people using these lands now would still be able to enjoy them—just not in the way they would like to.

I think Today’s ORV Rider has it right when, in their Wisconsin ATV safety course, they say, “ATV riding is a privilege.” As is mountain biking, horseback riding, and even hiking. And for those who say, “But those are public lands! I own them!” I say, Yes, you do. But you’re not the only one.

Beth Bartel lives in Boulder, interns at elephant journal and KGNU, and likes swinging on big swings.

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