Featured Photo: Brett Henderson

In the early 1980s, only a few years after being founded, HCCA expanded its work beyond keeping Mount Emmons mine-free—we teamed up with other stakeholders to successfully challenge a proposed timber sale on Kebler Pass. Since that exciting time, our Public Lands Program has been protecting threatened landscapes, preventing harms to important ecosystems, and promoting sustainable enjoyment of the diverse public lands of the Gunnison Country. Our strategy for engagement is firmly tied to our efforts to “protect the best and defend the rest” of our local public lands. This entails securing permanent protection for the wildest and most ecologically important landscapes of the Gunnison Country, and avoiding and minimizing impacts to public lands from resource development and unsustainable user pressure. This two-pronged, proactive and responsive approach is implemented with a small but passionate staff and engaged membership.

How then, does HCCA’s Public Lands Program decide on what issues to engage?

First, we almost always limit our involvement to issues in or affecting “the Gunnison Country,” an area encompassing the Upper Gunnison River watershed and that part of the North Fork of the Gunnison River watershed that is in Gunnison County. This large expanse also includes parts of Saguache and Hinsdale Counties. If there is a proposal with public lands impacts in this area, it shows up on our radar.

Second, we ask if the proposed action would occur on or affect public lands, either Forest Service, BLM, or National Park lands. HCCA generally does not engage on private land development proposals or disputes. The main exception has been our ongoing challenge to a 150-well natural gas development in the Upper
North Fork. While primarily on private land, the cumulative impacts from that proposed industrial development on public lands, wildlife, and waters would be significant.

Third, because of HCCA’s small staff, we prioritize engagement around issues on which we know we can have a positive impact with our limited capacity. Resource extraction and energy development proposals on public lands (coal, natural gas, logging, and mining) are priorities. Their direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts to public lands can be significant. In addition, the expansion of developed recreation also can have impacts to both public lands and quiet enjoyment of those lands, and HCCA strives for sustainable, well-planned recreation in the Gunnison Country.

Last, while the nature of our work is often defensive, it is also about proactively conserving public lands for future generations. This means that HCCA leads efforts to develop and implement long-term policy and management changes, through such endeavors as forest plan revision, legislative proposals for new wilderness and conservation designations, engagement in federal, state, and county environmental rulemakings and regulations, and traveling to Denver and even Washington, D.C. to advocate.

At the end of the day, there is no algorithm that spits out an answer as to whether we lead engagements efforts, support others, or simply abstain from involvement. Using the factors above, and cognizant of staff capacity and membership interests, we strive to fulfill our organizational mission to protect the health and natural beauty of the land, rivers, and wildlife in and around Gunnison County now and for future generations.