“It’s a lot to wrap your mind around”
There may be four different alternatives for the proposed Gunnison Travel Management plan that will determine where and how people will be able to use trails and roads in the local area, but there’s no telling yet which alternative will become the final management plan.
About 75 local residents had a chance to examine the proposed plans and maps and ask questions during a meeting on Tuesday, March 24 at the Crested Butte Community School.
More than a dozen resource planners from the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service were on hand to answer questions and provide information about the plans.
Travel Management project team leader Gary Shellhorn started the presentation by introducing the purpose of the Gunnison Travel Management Plan and the history of the process so far.
The two federal agencies began the planning efforts in 2006 by asking for public comments about how trails in their project area, stretching from Lake City to Crested Butte, should be managed.
In June 2007, the agencies released a draft travel management map with suggested route changes and once again asked for public comment during a preliminary scoping period.
Since that time, the agencies have been compiling and implementing the ideas they received to develop an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Travel Management Plan with four different alternatives.
The draft EIS was released to the public on March 6, starting a 90-day comment period that will end on June 4. After that, the agencies will once again review the comments and develop a final, preferred action alternative.
Once the final preferred alternative is developed there will be another 30-day comment period before a decision notice is issued by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.
Shellhorn said once the decision notice is issued, the plan would be implemented, “which is the most critical and hardest part of this.”
Implementation of the plan will involve distributing maps, educating land users about changes, creating barriers on some closed trails and roads, or destroying evidence of existing roads and trails that should be closed.
Shellhorn said the common strategy behind each of the alternatives is that travel will be restricted to designated routes only. Thus, if a road or trail is not on the final map, it will be closed to the public.
The no-action alternative means there will be no changes to the existing land use. Currently there are 4,852 miles of roads and trails open to the public within the target area, and another 540 miles of trails in remote wilderness areas. The amount of wilderness trails is the same in each of the alternatives; Shellhorn said wilderness areas were not part of the management plan.
“That equates to almost two miles of road for every square mile of land that’s out there,” Shellhorn said. “Road density has a lot to do with impacts to wildlife, impacts to the watershed, or impacts to fish.”
He said other forest areas like the White River National Forest average about 1.2 miles of roads and trails per square mile.
Alternative two reduces the amount of existing roads and trails, proposes some new trail segments, and restricts some roads and trails to varying uses such as non-motorized travel, or hiking only. Alternative two is considered the agencies’ “proposed alternative,” and Shellhorn said it was a compromise between alternatives three and four, cutting back on road density while expanding recreational opportunities. “It’s a little bit of everything,” he said.
There are a total of 3,435 miles of roads and trails in alternative two, including 60 to 70 miles of newly proposed trails.
Alternative three is seen as the most conservative, reducing the amount of available roads and trials to 2,913 miles, which is close to 1.1 miles of roads and trails per square mile. In this alternative, some popular local trails like the Teocalli Ridge trail will be decommissioned.
Shellhorn said alternative four is considered the most recreation-friendly. It includes 3,637 miles of roads and trails, and 75 to 110 miles of new routes. Regarding the new routes, Shellhorn said, “These new routes are just proposals—they are not approved. It just starts the ball moving in that direction.” He said any new trail segments would have to undergo an environmental review and public comment periods before final approval.
He said the three main alternatives seemed to make some big cuts to available roads and trails in comparison the no-action alternative. But Shellhorn said some of the routes were in complete disrepair, while others may have been damaging wetlands or impacting wildlife. Others still were very small and rarely used by anyone. He said the median length of the trail segments getting cut was less than a quarter mile, and, “often these are dead-end routes.”
Following the presentation, the public had a chance to ask questions.
One audience member asked how the agencies determined environmentally sensitive areas. BLM recreation and wilderness specialist Arden Anderson said in chapter three of the EIS there was a discussion of how various routes impacted specific resources, whether soil quality, air quality or wetlands.
Another audience member asked how the two agencies’ policy on dispersed camping would be affected. Historically, with the exception of designated campsite areas, camping has been allowed anywhere within 300 feet on either side of an existing road or trail.
Forest Service Gunnison Ranger District recreation planner Bill Jackson said the agencies would still allow dispersed camping within 300 feet of a road or trail, as long as previously existing campsites were used. “Basically what we’re trying to avoid is the enlargement of new dispersed camping sites,” he said.
Crested Butte resident Skip Berkshire asked if the agencies considered environmental impacts other than those directly on the ground, such as impacts to air quality and additional pollution.
Shellhorn said the EIS did consider some additional impacts, to a degree. Regarding pollution, he said he hoped eliminating roads would reduce the amount of miles driven, thus reducing pollution. However, he said, the Forest Service is currently creating an overall forest management plan for the Gunnison National Forest that will have an in-depth section on those issues.
Another member of the audience asked how the agencies made decisions regarding the proposed trail and road closures.
Gunnison district ranger Jim Dawson said even if there were a public benefit to a particular trail or road, nine times out of 10 if there were a serious environmental issue the route would be closed.
Local trail enthusiasts are encouraging trail users to take a look at the plans and make sure they like what they see.
In an interview after the meeting, Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association board president John Chorlton said at first glance, alternative four would provide the best options for mountain biking. But after further consideration, the best option may lie somewhere in between the current alternatives, Chorlton said.
He said some popular trails could be seriously affected under alternative four, but they might be unchanged under alternative three. Chorlton said, “It’s amazing what you’ll find on each map. The bummer is how huge these maps are and how many there are… It’s a lot to wrap your mind around.
“We’re just trying to sift through all the information,” Chorlton said. “It’s kind of scary, but at the same time it’s exciting.”
Gunnison Trails director Dave Wiens says most of the new trails proposed by his group are presented somewhere in the EIS, particularly on alternative four.
The preferred alternative (alternative two) contains a system of proposed trails in the Signal Peak area, but not some of Gunnison Trails’ other proposals.
Wiens says the Signal Peak trail system would be a great addition, but it would be even better if a proposed trail system northwest of Gunnison made it in the preferred alternative.
“We’re trying to encourage trail-based opportunities for recreation close to where people live, so we don’t have to get in our cars to drive to a trailhead,” Wiens says. “The Signal Peak trails are fantastic… but they’re pretty far out to get to them. The average walker is not going to see anything close to town” in the preferred alternative.
But overall, Wiens says, he is pleased with the content of the Travel Management EIS. “They put a ton of effort and work into it and overall we’re pleased.”
Elk Mountain Hikers Club member Maureen Hall says, “I think the different alternatives, just three really and the no action plan, give all the user groups something really concrete to look at. What we love is we can choose from each what we like and dislike.” Hall says she was pleased to see some hiking only trail segments in the different alternatives, but also had concerns about the impacts motorized uses can have on certain other trails. She says the Elk Mountain Hikers Club will be meeting in April to develop their comments on the EIS.
There are plenty of places to get more information about the Travel Management EIS. For starters, all the documents and maps are available on the Forest Service’s website at www.fs.fed.us/r2/gmug. Hard copies of the EIS and maps are also available at both the Crested Butte and Gunnison public libraries. Finally, the four alternative maps are on display in the Crested Butte Town Council chambers.