Group seeks public opinion on wilderness designations

Organization wants 20 percent of county designated as wilderness

Hoping to clear up a few myths about their mission, and to educate the public in the process, the Colorado Wilderness Network held an open house Wednesday evening to discuss some of the reasons for its recent explorations of a number of Northwest Colorado ranches.

About 30 people attended the meeting, held in Meeker, to hear why Network's members recently surveyed several Moffat County properties.

"The reason that we are having this meeting, and ones similar to it across the state, is to let people know just exactly what the Colorado Wilderness Network is," Colorado Mountain Club spokesperson Claire Bastable said. "What we want to do is protect the few remaining areas in the state that are still undisturbed, where we can institute a plan to continue to protect the undisturbed environment in these areas. We aren't looking to close these areas to public use at all, but rather, we want to be able to preserve these natural, undisturbed areas where people can have a place to recreate in true solitude.

"Our Wilderness Network is made up of fishermen, hunters, campers, hikers and outdoorspeople who want to have a pristine, wilderness area where they can go out and experience nature in its natural setting," he said. "Many of the areas that used to be considered wild now have roads that lead almost right to them. We want to be able to find the areas that will remain completely undisturbed."

The Wilderness Network's mission is to protect public lands so there will always be enough habitat for wildlife, enough plants maintain the environment, and restrictions in place to limit the types of travel allowed in these areas.

In Moffat County, the Network would like to purchase about 20 percent of the land in the county for its program. Of that 20 percent, 9.7 percent is private land, with the remaining 19.3 percent being Bureau of Land Management land.

"We are looking at leaving 80 percent of the county just as it is now, while protecting the remaining 20 percent for future generations. I know that we are not going to get all of the land that we are looking for to put into this program, but we are just figuring the amount of land that qualifies for a program such as this," said Pete Kolbenschlag, west slope field director for the Colorado Environmental Coalition. "We are not shutting these lands down to ranching, we are just looking at areas where we can keep motorized or mechanical vehicles from ever entering. This is one of our last, few places left where we can experience nature the way it was thousands of years ago."

To qualify for the CWN plan, an area must consist of 5,000 acres of roadless terrain, where man's impact has not yet been substantially noticed. Areas must also give visitors the opportunity to experience a feeling of solitude, while offering unconfined recreation in the wilderness environment.

"We have thoroughly checked these areas out, prepared field maps, completed field work, researched the possible recreational opportunities, and reviewed what we compiled," said Kurt Kunkle, of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. "Some of these areas can exceed 25,000 roadless acres, many which have no surface mineral uses, so there really isn't much that they can be used for aside from personal recreation."

Designating the areas as wilderness will not eliminate grazing on these lands, but will change the way it is done. No longer would mechanized vehicles be allowed on the land the Network is looking to purchase, so all future herding would have to be done on horseback. Mechanized vehicles would also include bicycles, so those who wished to visit the wilderness areas would have to do so on either foot or horse.

Residents and local ranchers did raise a few concerns as to how the area data was compiled. Moffat County Commissioner T. Wright Dickinson asked the panel if they could provide a list of local residents who participated in researching the land.

"I know when we held our studies, we invited everyone to participate," he said. "I don't want to get into a debate about it tonight, but if you could provide me with a list of Moffat County residents that participated in the survey, it would be helpful."

Matt Sura, organizer for the Western Colorado Congress, said responding to concerns is the reason the Network is holding the meetings throughout the state.

"We don't want to be out here looking around and appearing as if we were hiding something," Sura said. "This is not something we are tying to do behind closed doors, we want people to know about our effort, so if they're interested they can get involved. This is something that will benefit future generations for years to come, if we can educate the public about why we are making the effort to preserve these lands."

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