Advocates Look Downhill to Protect Colorado's Wild Lands

Gunnison County is quintessential Colorado, brimming with snow-capped peaks, spectacular wildflower meadows, rolling sagebrush landscapes, and stunning aspen and pine forests. It is also home to the headwaters of the Colorado River, providing outstanding fishing opportunities. So it’s no surprise that the county attracts outdoor enthusiasts from around the world for activities such as hunting and angling, backcountry skiing and hiking, mountain biking, and more.

In the summer of 2012, Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) met with a diverse group of Gunnison County stakeholders, urging them to collaborate on a vision for protecting the region’s public lands. As a result, business leaders, conservationists, mountain bikers, sportsmen, and others crafted a proposal that would protect nearby headwaters, wildlife habitat, recreation spots, and scenic vistas through new designations as wilderness or special management and protection areas.

Mountains© Hilary Henry

Whetstone Proposal Area

Led by the Gunnison Public Lands Initiative (GPLI), local advocates have reached out to community members over the past three years to broaden the base of support for wilderness and recreation opportunities, including mountain biking. Their thinking is explained on the group’s website: “By proposing both wilderness additions and special management areas carefully tailored to existing uses, we were able to protect a greater diversity of lands—some focused on protecting wildlife, some focused on protecting headwaters, and others focused on protecting outstanding recreation and scenic beauty.”

One goal of local advocates is to safeguard the county’s best wildlife habitat. Much of Colorado’s existing wilderness designations are located at 10,000 feet or above, which is critical habitat for bighorn sheep in the summer. However, in the winter months, these animals must move down the mountains, where decreased snowfall makes more forage available. To preserve these areas for the sheep, advocates have set their sights downhill to include mid-elevation lands in their proposal. The lands offer year-round habitat for many species and are more accessible for recreation, but they are also more coveted by developers, and consequently more threatened.  

An ideal place for lower-elevation wilderness designation is the beautiful West Elk Additions. This proposed protection would extend the West Elk Wilderness’ southern boundary from its current high alpine tundra all the way down to sagebrush country, safeguarding outstanding wildlife habitat for elk and mule deer, bighorn sheep, Colorado River cutthroat trout, and the Gunnison sage-grouse.

Mendicant Ridge West Elks© Hilary Henry

Mendicant Ridge-West Elks

Stakeholders also seek to preserve the Whetstone Watershed Protection Area near Crested Butte, a region that contains Whetstone Mountain, Carbon Peak, and Mount Axtell—all of which rise more than 12,000 feet. Stakeholders crafted a proposal for this area that would protect wildlife and waterways while still allowing some mechanized recreation. 

Top of Mountain© Hilary Henry

Top of Axtell-Whetstone Proposal Area

Other areas in the GPLI Proposal are also deserving of conservation, like North Fork, Raggeds to Maroon Bells, Kebler Pass, Cement Creek, Poverty Gulch, Fossil Ridge, East Gunnison Divide, Powderhorn, and Uncompahgre (link to the full list These places were all included for their wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities, ecological values, scenic beauty, and more. 

By continuing to work together, the community can help ensure that this stunning landscape is conserved for future generations, so they, too, can experience classic Colorado for decades to come. 

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