Gunnison Public Lands Initiative hosts gathering at the GAC

It’s time to bring the broader community into the process

by Toni Todd

The Gunnison Public Lands Initiative (GPLI) coalition recently held its coming-out soiree at the Gunnison Arts Center (GAC). Members of the GPLI Working Group were on hand to discuss their initial proposal for how to best protect and preserve Gunnison County’s local public lands. The June 20 gathering represented the culmination of the coalition’s work, and marked their official presentation of that work to the broader community.

It was standing-room-only in the lower gallery of the Gunnison Arts Center on the warm Tuesday evening. Some took refuge in the air-conditioned Black Box Theatre, where a giant map of the county was projected onto a screen. Others pored over smaller maps, spread out on tables around the perimeter of the gallery. Paper and pens were on hand so attendees could contribute their own suggestions.

The GPLI Working Group met monthly from February 2016 to June 2017, duking it out in what they describe as respectful, mostly friendly fashion to arrive at what they say is a proposal that should work well for all stakeholders.

County commissioner Jonathan Houck, himself an ex-officio Working Group member, kicked off the evening with an analogy. “Everybody loves to eat, but everybody hates going to the grocery store,” he said. “The Working Group filled the shopping basket. But we need the community. The community has the recipe.”

Houck noted the diversity of the Working Group, as well as those in attendance at the gathering. Ranchers, fishers, hunters, cyclists, dirt bikers, hikers, and conservationists mingled, studied maps, and asked questions while enjoying cold beverages and snacks. “Look around this room,” he said. “We all have one thing in common. We love our public lands here.”

In presentations to local governments the last few weeks, organizers have described the initial effort as “a unified, consensus-based proposal that includes using a combination of proposed wilderness areas and special management areas designations for portions of public lands in Gunnison County.” They say the goal of the GPLI is to protect public lands in the county, enhance a strong and sustainable economy and support historic uses of public lands in Gunnison County.

The proposal identifies key public lands in Gunnison County to be protected as either wilderness or Special Management Areas (SMAs). By using a range of designations, the Working Group was able to identify a broad set of lands to recommend for recreation, water, grazing, science, wildlife, and other values. “Generally, the Working Group agreed that they valued the backcountry feel of our landscape,” says a synopsis within the document’s executive summary.

“The Working Group also felt that some lands should remain undeveloped—without roads, natural gas, commercial timber cutting, or mining. Protecting existing ranching and water use were also priorities for the Working Group. In cases where Working Group members felt that there were conflicting values on public lands (such as the desire to retain un-fragmented wildlife habitat and the desire to build trails), they did their best to balance these values. Attempts to balance uses included making protections for some areas more stringent, while providing more relaxed guidelines on others, and making allowances in the proposed legislation so the land management agencies could make decisions about use at a later date.”

The GPLI effort grew out of conversations among stakeholders concerned with the wellbeing of Gunnison County’s local landscape, which includes vast expanses of public lands. Those initial discussions caught the ear of Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, who encouraged talks to continue. His office has actively participated as part of the GPLI coalition since its inception.

In early 2016, Gunnison County commissioners officially created the Gunnison Working Group for Public Lands, which became known as the Working Group. They met monthly with a facilitator from February 2016 through June 2017. Over the course of those meetings, the group hashed out its proposal.

The Working Group included representatives from the Crested Butte Mountain Biking Association (CBMBA) Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Trout Unlimited, Gunnison Country Snow Trackers, Gunnison O.H.V. the Alliance of Trailriders (G.O.A.T.s), Gunnison Stockgrowers, The Wilderness Society, High County Conservation Advocates (HCCA), the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District, and Gunnison Trails.

Two county commissioners Jonathan Houck and John Messner, as well as a representative from Sen. Bennet’s office, rounded out the coalition.

“The challenge was to layer all different uses without giving one higher priority than another,” said Houck.

Jeff Widen, a Working Group member representing The Wilderness Society, explained the difference between Wilderness and SMAs to those who attended the GPLI gathering. Wilderness, he said, garners the highest level of protection. These lands remain undeveloped and natural as defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964. In a designated Wilderness area, motorized, mechanized and industrial uses are prohibited or restricted. “Only Congress can designate a Wilderness area,” said Widen.

By contrast, he said, “SMAs are a much more tailored type of designation.” Some SMAs are best suited for protection similar to Wilderness, he said, while some are better for motorized use, some for mountain biking, some for wildlife habitat, etc. “It’s a more flexible type of management,” Widen said.

With this kickoff, the GPLI expands its reach beyond the Working Group to draw additional input from members of the community at large. The hope is that a broad base of local support will give the community greater leverage influencing decisions made by legislators and federal agencies in determining how our public lands should be designated and managed.

The GPLI’s full initial proposal is available on their website, gunnisonpubliclandsinitiative.org.

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