Community working group tackles public lands protections

The Gunnison County Board of County Commissioners, local community stakeholders, and the office of U.S. Senator Michael Bennet recently kicked off a community-based working group. This group will discuss a new public lands proposal that will protect community values, take into account the various needs of user groups and provide long-lasting stability to Gunnison County landscapes.

“We are convening a county-wide conversation that looks at potential additional protections for public lands,” offered Gunnison County commissioner Jonathan Houck. “We look forward to hearing the diverse group of stakeholders and the perspectives they bring to the conversation.”

Phil Chamberland and Paula Swenson, also Gunnison County commissioners, echoed the sentiment. “I appreciate the opportunity that a collaborative process such as GPLI brings to the table,” said Chamberland. “That is the opportunity for ‘all’ voices to be heard with the goal of consensus building to protect our public lands while maintaining access for all who use this place we call paradise.”

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courtesy photo

Swenson said, “Gunnison County has been working for several years on public land protections. We have assembled a great group of people to help us take the next step in protecting public lands that makes sense for us. Once this group concludes its work, Senator Bennet will have something to take to the general public for their input before a bill is introduced.”

The working group is the outgrowth of conversations that have been occurring in the county for the past four years. In 2012, Senator Bennet listened to local groups about their concerns about the future of public lands. Since then, several groups have submitted formal proposals and others have provided feedback.

The working group consists of representatives from 11 organizations, including Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association, Gunnison County Sno Trackers, Gunnison Valley O.H.V Alliance of Trailriders (GOATs), Gunnison Public Lands Initiative, Gunnison Stockgrowers Association, Gunnison Trails, High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA), The Wilderness Society, Trout Unlimited, and the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District.

Houck and John Whitney, southwest regional director for Senator Bennet, are acting as ex-officio members on the committee.

“I am looking forward to working with the other representatives and stakeholders to couple our local knowledge and values with scientific principles for developing workable, long-term solutions to land use in Gunnison County,” said Kevin Alexander, a working group representative for Trout Unlimited. “I am confident that we can have appropriate recreational use while also maintaining sportsmen’s values such as protecting cold water fisheries and supporting productive wildlife habitat.”

“Gunnison Trails is participating in the GPLI process because it’s critical that we protect our public lands,” said Dave Wiens, executive director of Gunnison Trails. “Everyone involved in this process has one thing in common and that is great passion and concern for our public lands: the access, the trails, the hunting and fishing, the viewscapes, the value of ranching and grazing and more, and the importance of everyone being able to work together to share this amazing place.”

Each of the representatives on the working group committee has agreed to serve as liaisons from their respective organizations to the committee. The working group is designed to be a core group of people who can represent a broad range of opinions and needs.

“We are very excited to be a part of this collaborative group, comprised of so many amazing organizations and individuals,” said Ben Breslauer, president of the GOATs. “We feel confident that we will be able come to an agreement and an acceptable compromise for the future protection of public lands in Gunnison County.”

Tony Prendergast, a member of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said, “Sportsmen have a strong interest in bringing long-lasting stability to the landscape. This process is an opportunity to do that.” Prendergast also lives in Crawford and is working to bring different geographic perspectives to the working group. He said, “I plan to do my best, as the only participant from the western side of Gunnison County, to represent the various interests of the North Fork communities.”

Over the coming year, the working group is tasked with developing a legislative public lands proposal that aims to have community buy-in and support. They are considering mineral withdrawals, special management areas, and wilderness for public lands in Gunnison County. The group is not addressing travel management, or trail or road designations.

John Chandler, board president of CBMBA said, “The Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association is very excited to be a part of this unique opportunity to work alongside various stakeholders who all share a love of Gunnison County, and Senator Michael Bennet to draft legislation that will provide long term, meaningful protection of our cherished natural landscape.”

The group will meet once a month and will use a professional facilitator from Durango, Colo. to help lead discussion. They have hosted four initial meetings.

“The first four meetings have been very productive, in large part because of the level of respect and spirit of collaboration all of the working group members have brought to the table,” said Sandy Shea, board president of HCCA. “I am hopeful that we can come together to find solutions to protect our natural landscapes.”

“Discussing land management face to face with a variety of stakeholders is the best way to make land use decisions, to make sure that eventual legislation works for everyone,” said Jeff Widen, senior regional conservation representative for The Wilderness Society.

Senator Bennet plans on holding public comment periods before any legislation is introduced.

“The formation of this working group is the result of years of collaborative work by local officials and conservation, recreation, and sportsmen’s groups to develop a plan for the future of Gunnison County’s public lands,” said Colorado U.S. senator Michael Bennet. “This is a great step forward, and our office is committed to working with local stakeholders to ensure that any resulting legislation reflects the community’s wishes. This is another great example of Coloradans coming together to find commonsense solutions that will help preserve this region for future generations, while respecting existing uses of the land.”

For more information about the working group, go to www.gunnisonpubliclands.org/workinggroup.

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