Council may hold the power
The Crested Butte Town Council is two weeks away from accepting a trail easement in Baxter Gulch that would make the hiking or biking in the area easier… but the question of whether to allow both seems to now be at the crux of the situation.
The issue was brought to the council by local attorney Jim Starr, and the council agreed Monday to proceed with accepting the easement. Starr has negotiated a price of $50,000 for the easement that mellows out the trail and crosses Lot 19 in the Trapper’s Crossing at Wildcat subdivision. The 1% for Open Space board of directors is considering contributing $45,000 for the easement but has ordered an appraisal of the trail. Starr is contributing $5,000.
Given the timing of the situation, Starr is trying to push back the closing date of the easement purchase to October 1.
At the request of mayor Leah Williams, Starr reported that the Gunnison Trails Commission likes the idea of the trail up Baxter Gulch. He said they did not take a stand on the purchase of the easement. The idea of paying for an easement has caused some consternation among some members of the public, particularly board members of the Crested Butte Land Trust.
But chairperson of the Gunnison County Trails Commission Kay Peterson said Tuesday that the group is totally in favor of purchasing the easement and allowing mountain bikers on the trail.
“We had consensus that we wanted the easement purchased through the Zipper parcel because it would create a much better route through the area,” she said. “All the trails commissioners agreed they wanted it open to cycling as well. We represent trail users. The more we can represent, the better. We’d like to see it be a non-motorized single track. We’d definitely like to see it open to cycling.”
Starr explained that Forest Service trail number 565 is a 1.7-mile stretch of trail west of the easement up Baxter Gulch. Under the Forest Service Travel Management Plan about to be adopted for the area, the Forest Service will soon prohibit that section of trail to bikes and motorcycles.
The Crested Butte Mountain Biking Association (CBMBA) has filed an appeal of the Travel Management Plan to try to change that use and thus make a long trail up Baxter Gulch that would be open to bikers.
“We weren’t aware of the potential of that trail when the plan was being formulated so we didn’t comment on it at the time,” explained CBMBA president John Chandler. “So we filed an appeal last week to see if it could be changed to allow mechanized use. The Forest Service officials I spoke with said they likely wouldn’t change the use under appeal but did indicate they would change 565 if the Crested Butte council recommended the change. I don’t work for the Forest Service so you can’t take my word on it, but I got the impression they would look for the town council’s opinion and react accordingly.”
It is unlikely CBMBA’s appeal of Trail 565 will go through, because CBMBA would have to prove the Forest Service violated regulations, law or policy when making decisions in the travel plan. However, that doesn’t mean it’s off the table once the travel plan is on the books, and there is a process in place for developing future projects and changing trail designations. That process includes an environmental assessment and public comment period, among other things.
Forest Service Travel Management Project planner Gary Shellhorn confirmed Tuesday that a town representing its constituents carries more weight than special interest groups when it comes to making this type of change. However, he said there is no rush, especially when the easement is not yet in place.
“A lot of this is very speculative,” Shellhorn said. “But, what drives the federal government is if the local government comes to us and says, ‘We’d like you to review this decision.’ The town and the interest groups have to convince the district ranger that there’s a need for change.”
Chandler made his comments at the council meeting in response to Williams, who was pushing for an indication in the proposed easement that the town would limit trail use to the same parameters as the connecting Forest Service trail. “We are inviting misuse of that trail if we allow different uses than what the Forest Service allows,” she said. “Until the trail use changes, we need to be consistent with the Forest Service.”
“I don’t think most people will abuse it,” responded councilperson Jim Schmidt. “I think people will ride it up and back. I used to enjoy the up-and-back ride up Oh-Be-Joyful until bikes were prohibited when it became Wilderness. I don’t think having it dead-end is a big deal.”
“I do think it is a big deal,” said Williams. “But tonight might not be the time to talk uses.”
“I think we should open it up to bikes,” said Schmidt. “CBMBA builds most of the trails around here and we can use their expertise and they are more likely to provide it if they know bikes will be allowed.”
“If they don’t open that 1.7 mile stretch, it would be a rare amenity to have a hiking-only trail near town,” said councilperson Dan Escalante. “If the Forest Service is looking to us for our opinion, I don’t know. We aren’t the experts here.”
“The Trails Commission is the expert and they want to stay consistent with the Forest Service so we should look to them,” said Williams.
“If I hear it right, it is incumbent on you to take a stand if you want it,” said town attorney John Belkin.
“As a businessman I think allowing more uses up there is better for the economy,” said Dan Loftus of the Brick Oven. “It is better for everyone. Multiple use works well. People are more polite these days and everyone shares the trails pretty well. Plus CBMBA does more trail work around here than anyone.”
Longtime local biker Don Cook pointed out that the 565 Trail is currently open to mechanized and motorized use; it’s the private property at the east end of the trail that is the problem. “Until the new management plan goes into effect, it has always been used historically as a mountain bike ride,” he said. “There is no need to make a hikers-only trail. The bikers have never asked for a bikers-only trail. What if the new Smith Hill trails were designated biker-only? How would that go over?
“It’s an inward fight of futility,” Cook continued. “With the 565 designation, it will be a new closure as of 2010.”
“I’m not opposed to bikes up there but I just want to be consistent with the Forest Service,” explained Williams.
“It’s consistently allowed all public uses up there,” Cook responded. “The historic use of that valley is public. Even an out-and-back ride is fine. Don’t be nearsighted and give up control.”
“Then maybe we decide a use when the trail is put in,” said Williams.
“But if you get the bikers involved it will happen sooner,” said councilperson John Wirsing.
“I’ve heard from some mountain bikers that it is too steep up there anyway and it won’t be used. I think we need to wait until the trail is built to determine uses. That could be a while,” insisted Williams.
“You’re in a good position. If it is too steep, the bikers will go up there, try it once, and not go back. Problem solved,” said Chandler. “Basically, CBMBA feels that if you allow cyclists, we think it is a great idea. If not, we wouldn’t want you to spend the money.”
The council took no formal position on potential uses at the meeting.
The council will formally consider an ordinance accepting the easement at the September 7 council meeting.