Wilderness debate heats up

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— A Moffat County commissioner reacted angrily Thursday to a Steamboat Springs City Council resolution that supports designating 300,000 acres in Moffat County as wilderness.

Describing the decision as over stepping the city's boundaries, Moffat County Commissioner Les Hampton said the resolution threatens to jeopardize the shared partnerships between the county and city.

"I don't think that this is any of (the city's) business," Hampton said. "The citizens want the county, the local officials who work in the county, to determine how they feel they want their land to be utilized."

Moffat County commissioners have sent a letter to the council asking it to reconsider the resolution that states support for a grass-roots campaign to designate 1.6 million acres in Colorado as wilderness. None of the new acreage proposed is in Routt County but over 59 parcels of land accounting for 300,000 acres are proposed for Moffat County.

Commissioners have threaten to take away $12,000 in annual funding for the regional bus system if the City Council continues to support the resolution, city manager Paul Hughes said. A commissioner staff member had contacted him by phone two to three weeks ago to state their anger and ask the board to reconsider.

"The council had no idea (the commissioners) felt so strongly about this," Hughes said.

At an October 10 council meeting, Hughes said he discussed the issue with the council, who agreed to have the commissioners send a letter stating their concerns. That letter, which Hampton said was sent Monday, had still not reached Hughes' office by Thursday.

But for Hampton the only acceptable comprise between Moffat County and Steamboat Springs is for the council to take away their support.

"Moffat County as a neighbor would like to maintain our relationships with our neighbors, maintaining partnerships is good and well, but (the resolution) will place that in jeopardy," Hampton said.

Besides a regional transportation partnership, Moffat County also has joined with the city in the Bean Pole Fund, which is a telecommunications grant, air quality issues surrounding the Craig power plant and in regional groups like the Yampa Valley Economic Development Council and the Yampa River Legacy Partnership.

City Councilmen Ken Brenner said the city would be willing to listen and talk to a Moffat County representative but would not commit to reconsidering the resolution. That discussion could come on Nov. 6, the next time the council meets.

"A couple of us (council members) have wondered if some additional language may address their concerns," Brenner said.

Brenner would not give specifics on what that additional language may be and did note added language would not mean a reconsideration of the resolution.

The resolution was sponsored by City Councilman Jim Engelken and brought before the council in a September meeting. The council put it on its consent calendar and passed the resolution with little discussion at the next meeting.

"We looked at this for less than five minutest, passed the resolution unanimously unaware of their consideration," Brenner said.

Jennifer Seidenberg, the local organizer for the Colorado Wilderness Network, has worked with the City Council to gather its support for what she said would preserve some of Colorado's low elevation areas like rivers and canyons.

The council is one of 12 government entities in the state to voice support for the Colorado Wilderness Network.

"I think it is a shame that the council can't have its own opinion and stand by it if this is what the citizens of Steamboat want," Seidenberg said.

Fifteen Steamboat businesses and two local community groups have also signed on as Colorado Wilderness Network Supporters and many attended the September council meeting to show support of the resolution.

"Its quite a statement and a negative statement for the City Council to be pushed around and bullied by Moffat County," Seidenberg said.

If proposed land was designated as wilderness area, it would be restricted from any motorized and mechanical uses and from new drilling. But uses like cattle grazing would be allowed to continue if those uses were already on that land.

One of the most contested areas the network has cited as a potential wilderness area is the Vermillion Basin.

Although Seidenberg said the Bureau of Land Management has given this 134-square-mile area a 95 percent rating for suitable wilderness, it holds the possibility of containing natural gas.

Cindy Harding, a media coordinator for the network, said Moffat County commissioners and its land use board have opposed turning any of the county's public land into wilderness area, even those lands that are designated as wilderness study areas by the state's Bureau of Land Management.

Harding said Moffat County's behavior is atypical of how most Colorado counties respond.

"Every county affected by the proposal was supposed to evaluate and specifically comment on the recommendations for wilderness," Harding said. "Instead of doing that (Moffat County) allows for no wilderness and proposes to take over public land and mange it themselves."

Under the Northwest Colorado Working Landscape Trust, Moffat County's land-use board has designed a proposal to bring all users of public land uses together, Hampton said.

The management proposal would take away control from federal government and put it in the hands of a seven-member board appointed by the county commissioners and the state's governor.

"We'll manage that land in accordance with the board of trustees," Hampton said and noted it would be the trustees' decision, not the federal government, as to whether land would be turned into wilderness.

Although the plan has seen little oppositions from local residents, environmental groups have raised concern stating it would take the public out of determining how to use public land. Before the board of trustees could be in place, it would need approval from the U.S. Congress.

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