Public comments encouraged until January 22
By Kristy Acuff
Officials from the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forests released a wilderness inventory in early January, and so far have received a total of three public comments, but more are sure to come.
The wilderness inventory is the first step in a comprehensive process to determine whether to recommend additional areas in the GMUG National Forest for wilderness designation. Such a wilderness designation would ultimately have to come from the United States Congress.
The GMUG included nearly 1.5 million acres of public lands in the inventory. To be included in the inventory, the lands must be road-less; must have no “substantially noticeable human impacts”; and must be at least 5,000 acres or adjacent to existing wilderness areas.
Many of the acres included in the inventory are well travelled and well loved by tourists and locals alike. Areas adjacent to Gothic Road between the Raggeds and the Maroon Bells-Snowmass wilderness near Green Lake, for example, are included in the inventory. In addition, tens of thousands of acres in the Cement Creek drainage including Double Top, Matchless Mountain and American Flag Mountain were also selected as part of the inventory.
“I do not sense a lot of controversy so far regarding our inventory,” says district ranger Matthew McCombs. “My phone has not been ringing off the hook yet.”
The Forest Service is seeking input about this preliminary inventory to determine if it missed any areas that meet the wilderness criteria or if any of the areas it included are inappropriate for wilderness consideration because of substantial human development.
Public comments need to be submitted by Monday, January 22 to be included in this first phase of the process.
McCombs emphasized that simply being included in the inventory does not mean that these areas will be managed in any “special way.” The next step is that the forest service will “evaluate all inventoried lands for their wilderness character” to determine how well the lands meet the Wilderness Act criteria. Following the evaluation of the lands, GMUG will consider wilderness recommendations (if any) and present those to the public in a draft plan and environmental impact statement for public review and comment.
Of the three comments received so far, all addressed concern about increased motorized use and suggested that the Forest Service designate certain areas as wilderness in order to provide necessary protections from further human encroachment.
Regarding the areas around Gothic Mountain, one citizen voiced concern about the “rapidly escalating usage and damage by motorized users” and suggested that a long-term protection plan is urgently needed for the area.
Another citizen expressed the need to protect the areas surrounding Whetstone Mountain from further trail development, noting that a bike trail connecting Crested Butte to Gunnison in this area would be unacceptable, given the number of existing bike trails in the valley.
The Forest Service is not the only local entity issuing proposals about public lands in the area. The Gunnison Public Lands Initiative—a group with representatives from ten local stakeholders—also issued a proposal for protecting the area’s public lands.
After 16 months of meetings and work sessions among representatives from a range of local interests including ranching, mountain biking, motorized recreation, science, and conservation, the GPLI published its proposal in June 2017 that key public lands in Gunnison County be protected either as wilderness or as a “special management area.”
Fortunately, the GPLI’s proposal has much in common with the Forest Service’s wilderness inventory. Out of the hundreds of thousands of acres under consideration, the discrepancy between the two plans is a little less than 5,000 acres.
According to McCombs, “The Forest Service is going to take a hard look at the GPLI recommendations during this public comment period. That is exactly what this time period is designed for: to view discrepancies among local stakeholders and work on alleviating them.”
To view an interactive map of the inventory or to submit a comment, go to the GMUG website and follow the links to the wilderness inventory or click on fs.usda.gov/goto/gmug/forestplan.