The Associated Press March 4, 2010, 4:58PM ET

Colorado wilderness plan cut to 625 square miles

Conservationists trying to designate about 625 square miles of public land in central Colorado as wilderness areas are still whittling down the plan to address opposition from recreationists and the Colorado Army National Guard.

Four years ago, the Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign's proposal included about 650,000 acres in Pitkin, Eagle, Gunnison and Summit counties. The proposal is now at nearly 400,000 acres and could continue to shrink, the group said.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 aims to create lands "untrammeled by man." It allows for non-motorized recreation, livestock grazing and scientific research. Mineral development, logging, ATVs and mountain bikes are forbidden.

The organization has to push a bill through Congress to achieve its goal, and hopes to get Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Polis on board first.

The wilderness campaign still wants to find alternative ways to prevent oil and gas development in the lands being removed from the proposal, such as through buying mineral companies out of their stakes on the land.

The key barrier to the Hidden Gems campaign is that some of the land is an important military training site for High-Altitude Army Aviation Training. The Rocky Mountains are similar to the terrain of Afghanistan, so the area is especially important, said Darin Overstreet, public information officer for the Colorado Army National Guard.

In California, some public land used for military training was classified as wilderness last year. Ryan Hensen, the California Wilderness Coalition policy director, said the group worked with the military to eliminate areas where vehicles were used on the ground, but lands for aviation training were still classified as wilderness.

Military rules, not wilderness rules, would interfere with the helicopter training in Colorado, though. Aircraft fly low over the area to practice with terrain and wind pattern changes, and military rules prevent helicopters from flying lower than 2,000 feet over wilderness areas, said Steve Smith, assistant regional director for The Wilderness Society.

"We are all in agreement that the wilderness is valuable and the helicopter training is valuable, and we're going to find a measure that accommodates both," he said.

The campaign has been in negotiations with the military for over a year.

Recently, the wilderness campaign removed the Thompson Creek area for ranchers and the East Willow area for snowmobilers, both near Carbondale. Thousands more acres were withdrawn to appease mountain bikers.

Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, an environmental group supporting the Hidden Gems proposal, said the organization made those changes through simple boundary changes.

But it still isn't enough to please everyone, including White River Forest Alliance, an organization representing the stakeholders opposed to the initiative.

"Right now, even with the changes they've made, the organization is still in opposition, but hopes that through a collaborative effort more changes will be made," said Jack Albright, vice president for WRFA.

Ranchers are split on the issue. Some see it as unnecessary red tape, while others see it as protection from heavy recreation that could make grazing lands unusable in the future.

Some mountain climbers have endorsed the idea, but others oppose the proposal because it would forbid the use of mechanical climbing equipment.


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