Pursuing a regional approach to meet community needs
by Crystal Kotowski
“Where would the trail users of the Crested Butte area like to see more trail opportunities, even if they seemed a fantasy?” asked the Gunnison County Trails Commission in 1995.
Residents of the valley and passersby have no doubt dreamed about that for the years since—but local trails groups have worked to cultivate their ideal over the decades.
A new Baseline Trails Report, proposed in November 2016 to the Board of County Commissioners by the community and economic development office and released to the public on Tuesday, January 31, seeks to lay the foundation for future trails and recreation planning projects.
The report balances the needs of the local agricultural community and the Gunnison sage grouse with the growing tourism-based economy and the shrinking budgets and differing priorities of federal land management agencies—all while trying to take advantage of the county’s expansive public lands.
The One Valley Prosperity Project (OVPP), a collaborative initiative formed in 2014, identified the creation of a Gunnison County Comprehensive Trails Plan as a high priority. The OVPP is tasked with developing a long-term framework to support countywide collaboration in defining and supporting local community projects with regional economic significance. And outdoor recreation maintains a critical position in the Gunnison County and Colorado economy: The Outdoor Industry Association’s “Colorado Outdoor Recreation Economy” report finds that outdoor recreation in Colorado generates $13.2 billion in consumer spending and 125,000 Colorado jobs.
The report identifies mapped trails in the county, stakeholder groups, trail plans, priorities and challenges, and overlapping priorities, gaps and opportunities for trail connection, maintenance and development.
Gunnison County community and economic development director Cathie Pagano and Western State Colorado University environmental management graduate student Timothy Kugler presented preliminary findings to the county commissioners on January 24.
After surveying the community, Pagano noted they found many stakeholders had overlapping priorities, but lacked an approach to achieve them. “Part of our recommendation is a strategic approach that is regionally developed… What I would like to see going forward is to assemble a stakeholder group that is reflective of a wide variety of people,” said Pagano.
She noted the importance of having a set timeframe on trail development plans to build trust among the population, particularly the ranching community, who are wary of further development.
With 750 miles of mountain bike trails already in the county, 1,200 miles of trail in the Upper Gunnison Basin Unit of the Gunnison National Forest, and more than 2,000 miles of ATV, Jeep, and four-wheel-drive trails and roads in the Gunnison Basin, some stakeholders may think there are already enough trails—or too many.
“In today’s landscape, however, the conversation has shifted from ‘Where would we like to see more trails?’ to ‘Aren’t there enough trails already?’ Many ranchers in the valley have begun to feel the effects recreation has on their day-to-day operations. Issues that continually arise throughout the busy summer months include trespassing on private lands, gates being left open allowing cattle to escape, and heavy recreational traffic during cattle drives,” the report notes.
Yet the increasing number of visitors and residents, the lack of sanitary facilities at trailheads, insufficient accommodation in campgrounds, and busy trails beg for more infrastructure to combat the pollution, improper disposal of human waste, and creation of new camping areas on non-designated sites witnessed throughout the valley.
The One Valley Prosperity Strategy identifies the following key strategic approaches to recreation management: to better manage summer tourism; grow tourism in the winter and shoulder seasons to accommodate additional visitors; communicate diversity of recreational opportunities to better distribute visitors; and enhance recreation infrastructure, such as campgrounds, signage, trails, and restrooms.
The strategy notes the significance of growing the capacity for long-term sustainable management through improved cooperation and collaboration between governments, non-profits and user groups.
The report expands on the strategy, advocating for a trails plan that would prioritize future trail development and current maintenance needs within the Gunnison Basin and encouraging the county to take a leadership role in unifying stakeholders behind priority trails that would connect communities, such as the Gunnison to Crested Butte trail.
At the county commissioner meeting, there were questions about the feasibility of the recommendations due to the inevitable funding gap.
“It’s not that the feds don’t have any money now; they never have and they never will,” said county manager Matthew Birnie, discussing potential opportunities to accrue more funds that he noted could be included in the report.
Pagano and Kugler introduced the idea of launching a campaign to build support for their recommendations similar to Governor Hickenlooper’s. In his 2015 State of the State Address, Governor Hickenlooper presented the Colorado the Beautiful initiative to “grow, enhance, connect, and market statewide outdoor recreation resources and opportunities.” A focal aspect of this initiative is to identify the state’s 16 highest priority trails, missing trail segments and unbuilt trails.
“Hickenlooper has a ‘16 in 2016’ campaign—we should do that on a smaller scale here,” added Kugler.
Gunnison received one of the 16 priority projects with the Crested Butte to Carbondale trail. “There are far less grand but equally important priorities and gaps within our regional trail system that a comprehensive trail plan could effectively address,” the report states.
Federal land management agencies have outlined their trail priorities, and the report reminds readers, “within the basin, the Gunnison sage grouse dictates much of the planning and development around recreation.” Beginning in January 2010, federal land management agencies and the Gunnison Basin Sage Grouse Strategic Committee developed a Candidate Conservation Agreement (CCA) to identify and address threats to the Gunnison basin population of sage grouse. This CCA identifies three areas for recreational development: Hartman Rocks, Signal Peak, and Van Tuyl Ranch.
Current Gunnison BLM priorities include: Signal Peak, Hartman Rocks, identification of new areas in Powderhorn and Almont, and connecting the Lower Loop with the Oh Be Joyful campground, and possibly beyond to Pittsburg.
The Gunnison National Forest 2010 Record of Decision outlines its trail priorities, including the Baxter Gulch trail, Block and Tackle trail, Waterfall Creek trail, Carbon trail, Granite Basin and Eccher Gulch trails, and Waterfall cutoff and Fenceline trails.
The Baseline Trails Report outlines the following trails as having been identified by multiple groups, including the USFS and BLM as listed above, as priorities and that should be vetted with a diverse stakeholder group to determine prioritization: Crested Butte to Crested Butte South trail connection, Baxter Gulch, city of Gunnison to Hartman Rocks, Signal Peak, Gunnison to Crested Butte backcountry trail, Crested Butte to Carbondale trail, and the motocross practice area.
“Once we have direction from the BOCC on the results that they’d like to achieve related to sustainable tourism and recreation, we will come up with strategies for achieving those results. A strategic trails plan may be one of those strategies but we have not yet made that determination. We have not identified funding opportunities at this time,” noted Pagano of the next steps toward realizing fantastical trail opportunities.