Fossil Ridge is protected.

Gary led a 13-year campaign to protect this wild land northeast of Gunnison, CO.

Fossil Ridge Wilderness boundary sign
Fossil Ridge Wilderness boundary sign

See photo gallery, below.

When Congress passed the Colorado Wilderness Act of 1980, it left a half-dozen areas undecided in the form of official “Wilderness Study Areas.” Congress called on the US Forest Service to study those places and make recommendations as to whether they should be designated as Wilderness. Two were in Gunnison County: Oh Be Joyful, a valley close to Crested Butte and adjacent to the mountain proposed for a giant molybdenum mine; and Fossil Ridge, a 55,000-acre roadless area located south of the Taylor River and about 10 miles northeast of the City of Gunnison. Its name derives from fossils found in the Paleozoic limestone rocks, laid down at the bottom an ocean and now lifted to 11,500 feet.

The older folks who had got the 1980 Act passed were not excited about the additional work needed for Fossil Ridge. I distinctly remember when one of them called on me. It was in the Elk Mountain Lodge and Restaurant, in 1981, near the front door. Dave Frew said, “It’s up to you, Gary.” It didn’t take much convincing. Next thing you know, I was on it.

Step One: Organize grassroots support. I found some allies around the county and we organized the Friends of Fossil Ridge and had meetings and hikes into the proposed Wilderness.

Drawing of forest, mountains, and trilobite for Friends of Fossil Ridge brochure
Inside spread of the Fossil Ridge wilderness campaign brochure

Step Two was to make the case through a political pamphlet. I composed its text and drew a map. View it here.

Step Three: Find someone more conventional than me, a long-haired, wild-eyed youngster, to speak out in favor of the goal. I recruited Rudy Rudibaugh, a rancher and outfitter who grazed cattle in Fossil Ridge in the summer and also brought customers on horseback to a hunting camp in the fall. Rudy was about 5-foot-five, with a rugged but sweet face, a nice demeanor, and great physical strength. He didn’t want roads and mining in Fossil Ridge because they would disturb his cattle and ruin the experience for his hunter clients. He especially disliked the motorcycles that had found their way up onto the tundra trails.

Step Four: We developed a slide show and presented it to hundreds of people throughout Gunnison County. View its script to learn more about Fossil Ridge.

With that foundation, we went about trying to convince Congress, the Forest Service, and the Gunnison County Commissioners to support protecting the land as Wilderness. (The local Commissioners have no authority over the management of federal lands, but they sure do have tremendous influence.) In those days, the three-person Board of County Commissioners tended to include one from Crested Butte who supported Wilderness and two from Gunnison and its surroundings who did not. They were strongly influenced by the well organized, 100-year-old, Gunnison Stockgrowers Association. Although livestock grazing is allowed in Wilderness, most ranchers opposed the designation. Rudy was a bright exception.

In the early- and mid-1980s, the primary land-use competition with Wilderness was mining. Fossil Ridge did not contain the gold or silver that built many of Colorado’s mining communities, nor did it have coal, the substance that powered the economy of Crested Butte. But it was in the middle of the Colorado Mineral Belt and mining was a top issue of the day. A mining company began prospecting for uranium with helicopters in above-timberline rocks. Another company said that the fossiliferous limestone is very high grade and could be profitably mined for use in specialty products. But those ideas came to nothing because in fact the area’s minerals are just not so valuable as to be worth the cost of mining.

Later, backcountry motorcyclists came out in opposition because Fossil Ridge does have some exciting trails and Wilderness prohibits motorized travel. While the miners were out-of-town corporations, the motorcyclists were locals and thus were much more effective at blocking our proposal. Things stalemated for some years.

Sometime in the late ’80s, Morrill Griffith, who owned a motorcycle shop in Gunnison, stood in front of the County Commissioners and said that his constituency did not want to see the land trashed by mining and road-building. They just want to keep riding their bikes in that pretty place. Is there some way government could protect Fossil Ridge without banning motorcycles?

That opened the door for me and Morrill to talk. We came up with a compromise. We proposed a core area of Wilderness surrounded by what we called a national conservation area that would ban mining, logging, and road-building, but would allow motorized travel. We talked to the Forest Service about this and the District Ranger took us to the basement of their Gunnison office. He pulled out a big map of Fossil Ridge and told us to draw lines and left the room.

Soon we were in front of the Gunnison County Commissioners with our proposal and they were delighted to support our compromise. With that endorsement, the relevant members of Congress gave their okay, too.

But another problem rose an ugly head and blocked Congressional action for years. Old-West types said that the water rights that come with Congressional establishment could hurt existing water users. I still see their complaint as a fake to mask their real goal, which was to stop the new-fangled, general advancement of environmental protection in the West. The water rights that come with Congressional action get a “priority date” of the date of designation; in this case, 1993. The ranchers, miners, cities, and other water users have “senior” water rights with priority dates in the 1800’s or early 1900s. They get to take all the water they own before “junior” rights get any drops of what may be left over. This “prior appropriation doctrine” very strongly protects water property rights in the West and it effectively allocates the precious, scarce resource. Any federal rights to water are so junior as to make them irrelevant.

Somehow, members of Congress got over that hurdle. Someone crafted language that satisfied the water rights objectors and Congress passed the 1993 Colorado Wilderness Act which protected Fossil Ridge, Oh Be Joyful, and a host of other places. Yay!

By the way, the lines Griffith and I drew encompassed an area bigger than originally proposed. Whereas the wilderness movement initially sought protection of the 55,000 roadless acres, the compromise led to a 33,000-acre Wilderness and a 44,000-acre Recreation Management Area , for a total of 77,000 acres. This stands as a great example of the power of diverse designations to protect public lands. Wilderness does not have to be the only tool for preservation. In the Fossil Ridge Recreation Management Area, you now can drive a jeep on a road or ride a motorcycle on a singletrack trail where no logging, no mining, no water projects are allowed. That’s unique. We should do it more as a way to protect more land and get motorized recreationists involved in land preservation.

A year later, Senator Tim Wirth and I were walking on Elk Ave. in Crested Butte and he gave me a great compliment: “Gary, you did it,” he said. “You made Fossil Ridge happen. It wouldn’t have happened without you.”

Fossil Ridge Gallery

All photos by Gnurps / Gary Sprung, except as noted.