Strong support for trail-friendly alternative
Mountain bikers, hikers and motorcyclists showed up in droves to the big yellow courthouse on Tuesday to discuss the Gunnison Travel Management plan with the county commissioners and to provide suggestions for the commissioners to consider when writing comments to the federal agencies that are creating the plan.
Nearly everyone who spoke among the standing-room-only audience voiced support for the most “trail friendly” alternative the federal agencies are proposing, but there were some who supported a more conservation-oriented approach.
The Gunnison branch of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest Service, along with the Bureau of Land Management, began creating the Gunnison Travel Management plan in 2006, distributing preliminary travel management maps and taking comments from the public. The objective was to cut down on the use of illegal or proliferated travel routes, to provide recreational opportunities, and to protect the environment.
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.
Alternative Four, which most of the commissioners’ audience supported, is considered the most progressive, or “trail friendly,” of the alternatives. It proposes many new biking and hiking trails and has the fewest closures on existing trails and roads.
Alternative Three is considered the most conservative of the alternatives. It contains the most trail and road closures and provides hardly any new trail systems. Alternative Two seeks a balance between the two extremes and is the federal agencies’ preferred, or “proposed,” alternative.
There is also a no-action alternative, which would not make any changes to travel management in the Gunnison Valley.
The draft EIS was released to the public on March 6, starting a 90-day comment period that will end on June 3. After that, the federal agencies will once again review the comments and develop a final, preferred action alternative.
Representatives from the Gunnison County Trails Commission had the first chance to speak to the county commissioners. Trails Commission member Kay Peterson-Cook said the commission was in support of Alternative Four because it “provides new trail loops and it keeps existing routes open.”
Trails Commission chairwoman Joellen Fonken said the commission felt Alternative Four was the most aligned with the group’s mission statement.
Peterson also said Alternative Four would provide more options for recreational tourism. “I don’t know where we derive the money that makes our county work, but we definitely need to have people coming here and moving here to recreate,” she said.
County commissioner Paula Swenson noted that Alternative Two was the federal agencies’ preferred alternative and asked what made Alternative Four better.
Fonken said Alternative Two eliminated motorized and mechanized travel from many routes that are not in a wilderness area. “As a group we didn’t feel that was appropriate. We have a lot of wilderness in this county,” she said.
Peterson said the commission was also pushing for the development of additional trails. At the request of the Forest Service the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association (CBMBA), of which Peterson is also a member, developed plans for 20 new trail segments several years ago. While many of those new trails made it in Alternative Four, “there’s really only a couple on the proposed alternative,” Peterson said.
Fonken said, “We definitely aren’t supporting Alternative Four completely.” She said the federal agencies had asked for specific details on a trail-by-trail basis, and the Trails Commission had compiled a long list of specific comments regarding Alternative Four.
Peterson said Alternative Four was the closest to what the commission wanted to see. She also said Alternative Four would provide the fewest management challenges. “It’s the most similar to what we have right now,” she said, adding that it would require more work by the federal agencies to manage the additional closures on the other alternatives.
Swenson said she was informed that Alternative Three was the best from a wildlife standpoint. “Our wildlife coordinator has pointed out that Alternative Four provides the least amount of protection, especially for Gunnison sage grouse,” Swenson said.
Maureen Hall spoke on behalf of the Elk Mountain Hikers club. She said they were making more than 300 comments on specific trails. “We are endorsing Alternative Three,” Hall said. “It’s considered a resource protection alternative, but it still needs a lot of tweaking.”
Hall said the club supported many of the new routes proposed by Gunnison Trails, but they took issue with a segment of the proposed Crested Butte to Gunnison single-track that would pass through a “recommended wilderness area.”
Hall said her group was working on a list of comments they would provide the commissioners with.
Gunnison Trails president Dave Wiens said he was in support of Alternative Four. “I’m all for tourism… but my goal is to create great opportunities for the people who live here,” Wiens said.
He said the agencies’ preferred alternative had a lot of good elements, such as a group of new trails to the northeast of Gunnison, but it left out a proposed trail system to the northwest of the city. That system would provide miles of non-motorized trails suitable for high-level athletes, as well as children and the elderly. The trail system would also be situated close enough to Gunnison that users wouldn’t have to drive to access them.
Commissioner Jim Starr asked Wiens if a proposed trail would be prevented in the future if it doesn’t make it in the final Travel Management Plan. Wiens said that was true. On the other hand, Wiens said, just because a trail is shown on the final plan doesn’t mean it’s completely approved. Those trails would still require additional review by the federal agencies. “If it goes in it’s still one step at a time,” he said.
In response to Swenson’s comments about wildlife impact, Wiens said any of the three primary alternatives would provide more protection for wildlife and the environment than currently exists. He said the federal agencies already determined that the closure of hundreds of miles of proliferated and illegal roads and trails would more than offset the impact of adding several new trails. “Alternative Four is a good step in the direction of resource protection,” he said.
Starr asked about the proposed Crested Butte to Gunnison trail passing through a recommended wilderness area.
Wiens said he heard if that parcel of land is officially designated wilderness, the chance for a large scale molybdenum mine near Crested Butte would be eliminated. “I won’t push for that trail if it prevents mining operations up there. Everyone needs to huddle together and figure that one out,” he said.
Starr asked if there would be a way to reroute the trail if the land does become wilderness. Wiens said a reroute might be possible, although the trail would end up longer and more challenging.
Gunnison city manager Ken Coleman said the City Council was in support of Alternative Four and the new routes proposed by Gunnison Trails. Councilmember Jonathan Houck said, like the other groups, the council made specific comments on Alternative Four, such as adding the northwest trail system near the city.
Hall also encouraged the commissioners not to endorse one alternative altogether, but to consider trail-specific issues between each alternative.
Local business owner Travis Underwood of the Alpineer, and Peak Sports manager Andy Eflin both supported Alternative Four as a way to bring more business to the valley.
CBMBA president John Chorlton said the biking group also supported Alternative Four, but they too had specific trail-by-trail comments. “It’s not 100 percent, but its pretty darn good,” Chorlton said.
Gunnison Valley native Garrison Garcia spoke on behalf of the Western State College biking club, and said his club was also in support of Alternative Four.
Several unidentified men spoke on behalf of motorbike users and said they also supported Alternative Four.
The county commissioners will draft a letter to the federal agencies during their meeting on May 19, and plan on signing the letter on June 2. Swenson said they might have a special work session between those dates if more work needs to be accomplished.