“When is enough enough?”
By Seth Mensing
Several area sportsmen stood up at a meeting of the Gunnison County commissioners Tuesday, May 16 to share some of their concerns about a letter being sent to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) regarding the Signal Peak Trails Plan.
The Signal Peak area east of the city of Gunnison, along with Hartman Rocks, was identified in 2008 as a place that could support more trail development in the event that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Gunnison sage grouse as an endangered species and restricted development in other areas.
The original plan, proposed by Gunnison Trails, called for 45 miles of single track trail development, of which about eight miles have already been constructed. But after meeting with ranchers who have grazing rights in the area, game managers from Colorado Parks and Wildlife and members of the Sage Grouse Committee, a revised plan emerged that proposed about 25 miles of single track.
The revisions don’t go far enough, the sportsmen said. They told the commissioners the land surrounding Signal Peak is one of the last undisturbed sagebrush ecosystems left in the valley. It not only supports the sage grouse that land managers have worked hard to protect in the basin, but also provides important habitat for mule deer and elk.
Fourth-generation area resident Brad Phelps explained to the commissioners, “In the years after World War II, what my ancestors did is, they got Jeeps. And they put in thousands and thousands of two-track [roads] around this valley.
“In the late 1940s, nobody understood habitat fragmentation. So here in 2017, I just wanted to stand up here and speak about habitat fragmentation because in 2017 we do know about it. There are a lot of studies … and it does have an impact.”
Phelps drew a contrast between the Colorado Trail, which passes through the Signal Peak area—“It goes somewhere,” he said. “It has a destination.”—and the proposed Signal Peak trail development, which would keep users in loops and, according to Phelps, “effectively eliminates this area for mule deer and elk [habitat].”
Phelps also told the commissioners he likes riding his mountain bike and has since 1984. “But they’re as bad as Jeeps, though,” he admitted, urging the commissioners not to support a proposal that would send bikes into areas where they weren’t going before.
Phelps explained that the roads that exist in one particular area effectively avoid a large swath of sage in an area he knows as Fox Basin, leaving it relatively untouched. “[The proposed plan is] now putting a route through one of the few routeless areas we have in our sage brush ecosystem in the Gunnison Basin,” he said. “We’ve seen what happened with the invention of the Jeep. I just think we need to condense it down a little.”
Steve Guerrieri has a ranch that borders the Signal Peak area and told the commissioners he’s been on that land his entire life. Over the years he’s seen the system of user-created trails expand and the growing impact they have.
But he said the BLM, which manages 650,000 acres in the Gunnison Basin, employs just one law enforcement officer and doesn’t have the resources to consistently enforce trail closures. “There’s a proliferation of user-created trails, not just in the Signal Peak area but in the Gunnison Basin as a whole,” he said. “So I have great concerns there.”
Guerrieri pointed out that the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association’s website boasts of having more than 450 miles of trails available to mountain bikes in the north end of the Gunnison Valley alone. “Do we really need to develop another area that’s in critical wildlife habitat?” he asked. “It’s sad to see that our community has put 25-plus years into preserving sage grouse in this basin and now we’re going to develop a system of trails right in the middle of three sage grouse leks.”
He also brought a 2009 letter in which the state’s Department of Parks and Wildlife recommends that no new trails be constructed in an area that is included as part of the proposed plan. Echoing, in part, comments made by area resident John Nelson, Guerrieri said, “The sportsmen have not been represented in this proposal at all.”
The commissioners seemed receptive to the concerns they heard, but also made the argument that the Signal Peak area might be the best place to put the increasing number of people who use public lands in the Gunnison Basin in a variety of ways, and that the BLM process is the right way to find the right balance between conservation and recreation.
“It’s no secret that I’m an advocate for the development of a recreation infrastructure. My thought around that is that by developing recreation infrastructure in the proper manner we can concentrate uses in specific areas and minimize impacts in other areas,” commissioner John Messner said.
He added that he does see the damage that can be caused in areas of concentrated use and acknowledged that the decision to develop more trails in Signal Peak could sacrifice its ecological integrity. “And in my mind I think, ‘Does that take impacts off of … other significant wildlife habitats or other significant cold water fisheries?’” Messner said.
Phil Chamberland told the group, “I agree with you. When is enough enough? But the other side of that coin is people just keep coming and where do you put everyone? We’re already having major issues all over the county with overuse.”
To that point Guerrieri said, “To say that they keep coming and we need to provide for them is fine. But at what point are we going to … wish we’d thought about this a little bit sooner? We need these little islands of habitat that can support wildlife. It’s part of what makes this community great and diverse and different.
“I totally understand the desire for more trails and where they’re coming from. As sportsmen we want more deer and elk and it’s not about harvest. It’s about the opportunity to be out in the woods with nature and experience something like that,” Guerrieri continued. “But we’re only allowed to have the number of animals out there that our habitat will support.”
The Gunnison County commissioners have a long history of supporting trail development, especially in areas around the valley’s population centers. In 2008, the commissioners put their support behind the Gunnison Trails recommendations to the BLM’s Travel Management Plan. The BLM accepted Signal Peak into that plan in 2013, also with the commissioners’ support.
The commissioners did send the letter to the BLM but invited those at the meeting to stay involved in the conversation, since the county will be involved in the BLM planning process as a “Cooperating Agency.” That will give it special status beyond the public comment period for the proposal that ends May 22.