The collaborative land management bill, more than a decade in the making as the Gunnison Public Lands Initiative (GPLI), is making its way towards legislative primetime.

The GPLI Working Group

On May 20, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet unveiled draft legislation for the Gunnison Public Lands Initiative (GPLI), a collaborative, locally led effort from a coalition of 10 stakeholder groups. The GPLI efforts are encompassed by the new Gunnison Outdoor Resources Protection (GORP) Act.

The draft bill makes two major types of land designations—Wilderness Areas and Special Management Areas—on more than 450,000 acres of land within the valley. Both of these designations can only be made by acts of Congress. 

The draft GPLI legislation is now in a 45-day public participation session, and can be viewed—and commented on, at Senator Benett’s website through July 19, 2022. More information about the legislation can be found on the bill’s new website

From the old GPLI website: “The interests represented in the coalition include ranching, water resources, motorized use, conservation, mountain biking, recreation, and hunting and angling.”

The 10 stakeholder groups.

Of the two major land designations within the bill, Wilderness Areas are the stricter variety, intended to protect a natural area’s character, excluding mechanized and motorized forms of travel, permanent human developments, and extractive industry, barring special exceptions.

Special Management Areas (SMAs), on the other hand, protect public lands according to the purposes and values identified for—and hopefully by—the communities they impact, which are then solidified in legislation. Although they typically disallow new roads and mining, they often permit mountain biking, OHV use, grazing, and other forms of recreation, agriculture, and development. 

The designations, hashed out after Senator Bennet tasked Gunnison Valley with assembling a cohesive legislative proposal in 2012, aim to strike a balance between recreational, ecological, economic, and cultural values—making use of the best scientific and historical information available. 

After several years of initial work spurred by a group which included the High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA), Gunnison Trails, the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association, and the Wilderness Society, the coalition was expanded in early 2016 to include the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Trout Unlimited, the Gunnison County Sno Trackers, and the Gunnison O.H.V. Alliance of Trailriders (the GOATS). This expanded group was called the Gunnison Working Group For Public Lands. 

Over the last six years, the working group has been refining the proposal, incorporating stakeholder feedback, adjusting land boundaries and designations, and striving towards a final, legislative product that is now ready for public comment. 

GORP Act designations. Explore them for yourself on the website.

The hope for the bill, originally outlined by initial conversations among conservationists more than a decade ago, was that the GPLI process could create a proposal that allows the Gunnison Valley to strategically manage its growing population, and the growing tourism within the valley. 

Therein lies the crux of the GPLI’s mission: to preserve the character of the Gunnison Valley while maintaining a healthy economy built on a bedrock of abundant recreational access but doing so in a manner that safeguards water resources and wildlife species–particularly the imperiled Gunnison sage grouse

Again, from GPLI’s original website: “The GPLI is built on the core value that public land recreation, conservation, and ranching form the very fabric of the county’s culture, economy, and way of life.”

And since the original task that evolved into the GPLI was outlined a decade ago, the central mission has only grown more relevant.

“Since 2013, visitation has more than doubled within Gunnison County,” says Lizzy Bauer, a Western alumna who graduated with a Master’s of Environmental Management (MEM) degree in 2021. She notes that those visitation increases became more pronounced during the pandemic, as people sought refuge in the outdoors. 

Bauer has served as the Community Organizer for GPLI for more than a year, coordinating with the group’s stakeholders, and with Senator Bennet’s office, to push out information concerning GPLI.

Lizzy Bauer shows off her love for public lands.

“They brought me on board to energize the community,” she says, highlighting the importance of grassroots community support to convince political representatives to introduce, and support, land designation bills. To date, GPLI has received official support from dozens of local business owners, and nearly 1,000 private citizens.

“Our public lands are what we consider to be our quality of life. People live here because of the public lands. When you start seeing degradation and deterioration happening on those landscapes, it starts chipping away at what locals hold dear in their community.”

GPLI, at its heart, is designed to halt that degradation. 

Bauer notes that these public land bills are often packed together as bundles, with bills from different states, many of which went through extensive processes just like GPLI, packed together into one large public lands package. 

You can see this in action in 2021’s “Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act”, which outlined a number of different land designations, establishments, and even withdrawals in seven different states, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

While the focus of national politics has drifted widely within the last year, from Afghanistan back to Covid-19, infrastructure, Ukraine, and other critical matters, Bauer sees GPLI as a no-brainer for the current Presidential administration. “GPLI completely aligns with Biden’s 30×30 goals,” states Bauer. 

At the same time, she points out that the bill is not merely boilerplate conservation and preservation legislation; it’s an innovative and bold attempt to capture the desires and values of a complex, ever-evolving Gunnison Valley community, with all the difficulties that entails. 

Bauer (second from right) on a High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) hike

“They [the Working Group] sought out groups that typically oppose public lands bills,” says Bauer, who notes that ranchers, off-highway vehicle (OHV) riders, and snowmobilers were present at the table throughout the primary process, providing input. 

Bauer notes that this strategy is not just a courtesy to our neighbors, it’s also a hard lesson learned from past failures. She mentions a previous public lands bill in Colorado that was nixed after a corps of conservation groups, without wider consultation, crafted a bill that was widely opposed by the community for being too restrictive. 

That bill attempted to create wilderness that would have wiped out popular mechanized and motorized trails, and upset local economic interests. It died almost instantly.

But in the GPLI’s case, Bauer notes that some proposed Wilderness Areas were reverted to SMAs to accommodate diverse interests, including recreational uses and historic grazing allotments. 

“The working group is really committed to not closing anything that’s on the ground today,” she adds. “If there’s an OHV trail on the ground today, and it’s within the GPLI [landscape], that trail is not going to close.”

Bauer adds that while the general recommendation throughout GPLI, and now the resulting GORP Act, is for no new trails or roads to be built, there are specific exceptions in areas that have been deemed ideal by the stakeholders for new recreational developments. 

“Everything was considered in a minute scope, to the [granular] detail, with people who are using the land on a daily basis,” relays Bauer, who notes that GPLI is not altering the land use on the ground. 

Rather, the proposed legislation seeks to take a “snapshot” of present-day uses, and preserve them as completely as possible for the future in the face of growing development pressures.

A wildflower hike in support of GPLI

“The community wants to preserve Gunnison County the way that it is—we see this growth that is happening at an exponential rate…How do we continue the legacy of Gunnison County in a way that we can be proud of? How do we capture what we love about this place?” asks Bauer. 

Bauer turns to wildlife to provide a close-to-home example. “There’s several species in Gunnison County that we treasure that are [facing] significant impacts due to increased recreation. Do we want to have elk here in the future to be able to hunt? If we want that, and that’s a value that Gunnison County has, we have to be able to say ‘we’re going to save this portion of the landscape so that elk have habitat to breed.’”

“Big game was a huge consideration in the GPLI proposal,” Bauer notes. “Gunnison County gets a lot of tourism because of [our] big game. Not only that, it’s a huge interest of local residents.”

Considerations for historic cattle grazing, OHV use, mountain biking, hunting and fishing, and other land uses are not just matters of sentiment or history, either, they have real dollars and cents implications.

“That’s why so many diverse stakeholders have been in support of this [initiative], is because they see the relationship between economics and public lands in Gunnison County,” notes Bauer.

“We want to make sure that we’re considering all aspects of the landscape, and considering all of the values of the community, and ensuring that those things continue [for] future generations.”

Supporting GPLI through art

Since 2017, the Public Lands Working Group has been dedicated to getting the elements of the GPLI into the revised Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison (GMUG) National Forest Plan, the first update since 1983 to the guiding document for over three million acres of public land.

“It could be 30 or 40 years before the Forest Service looks at this [plan] again,” says Bauer.

The draft GMUG plan identified four management alternatives back in August of 2021. Of those alternatives, Alternative D was strongly aligned with the GPLI, although Bauer notes there were some initial discrepancies in the Forest Service’s draft plan which she addressed in her technical comments back in the fall. 

The other management alternatives presented emphasized no action (Alternative A), a blended proposal that favors resource extraction (Alternative B, what most observers agree is the preferred alternative of the USFS) and active management with an emphasis on timber extraction (Alternative C). 

Public comment for the GMUG forest revision was open from August to November of 2021, and the Forest Service is now processing public comments. They will likely unveil a final GMUG plan towards the end of 2022 and into 2023. “Just to go through the public comments alone will take months,” adds Bauer, who is familiar with the process from her own MEM project, where she worked with the Forest Service on a recreation proposal.

An EcoFlight vantage of Gunnison’s public lands.

Bauer said it was disappointing to see that GPLI was only encompassed by Alternative D after years of collaboration between the Forest Service and the GPLI Working Group. That lukewarm response makes the GPLI legislation even more critical to congressionally enshrine the work of stakeholders over the last decade, as the Forest Service is likely to only adopt certain elements of the GPLI proposal. 

“What the [Working Group] was hoping for was that the Forest Service would be a champion of [GPLI] and say ‘this is how we want to manage our land,” notes Bauer. 

Regardless, Bauer is optimistic about the initiative’s future. “I’m very hopeful that GPLI will be a reality within the next several years,” she says, adding, “I really think that the GPLI Working Group has put together a proposal that takes into consideration the needs of people.”

Bauer believes that democratically-led, multi-stakeholder initiatives like GPLI, which bring diverse voices to the negotiating table to hash out difficult, complex land use issues, are the future of public lands management in America. 

“I see that spirit of democracy being reflected in GPLI, and I’m really proud to be a part of that.”

You can view the draft GPLI legislation, explore related maps and letters of support, and participate in the public comment session on Senator Bennet’s website.

Readers can also check out the Gunnison Outdoor Resources Protection Act’s new website, where they can view the legislation map and explore the designations, join the mailing list, read FAQs, view the bill’s history, and more.

Photos courtesy of Lizzy Bauer.