Is a bird in the hand worth a path by a ditch?

The idea that people would commute from homes in Crested Butte South to jobs in Crested Butte on their bikes used to seem a bit crazy to me. I know there are some living here who could do it on their old school single speeds 365 days a year, but I always assumed if a commuter bike path were built it would remain largely unused. Thanks to the popularity of e-bikes, I think I was probably wrong.

Living close to Brush Creek I sometimes ride from my house to the office. It takes just under 20 minutes on my mountain bike. I see my neighbors zipping by on their e-bikes and I would guess it takes them less than half the time. Given that metric, I would assume an e-biker could get from CB South to CB in a reasonable time and not have to search for a parking space by their workplace in July. Win-win.

So, the idea of a commuter bike path between those two points is a good idea. Few would argue otherwise. But political reality has emerged this month and where such a path could be located is causing tension in the North Valley and the county. Ideally, the path would take a safe, speedy and scenic route away from Highway 135. But that entails crossing private property and this is still America where that doesn’t happen without the permission of the landowner. That permission can be given, or it can be bought, but it is needed. 

The county has held such a CB to CB South commuter path as a priority for years. County planners have gone out to see if they could develop such a route but they say they met strong resistance from private property owners. So, this month they officially suggested a possible path along the highway that would be separated by vegetation (not just a shoulder widening) but still be in the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) right-of-way. The Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association (CBMBA) and executive director Dave Ochs thought that was a horrible idea, so it is pushing heavily for more effort to find a literal path forward away from the highway using private property easements. 

Assistant county manager for community and economic development Cathie Pagano says the county has pursued that option for years and hit several brick walls making a private property option not viable. CBMBA says that is how these things always begin so the right thing to do is to keep pushing for the ideal route and figure out how to convince private property owners to hop in and pay for it all later. 

The out of the gate tenor of CBMBA’s reaction and alternative idea was a bit, shall we say, aggressive, and it didn’t endear any of the other stakeholders to the CBMBA proposal. The county says the proposal running parallel to the highway works in places like Aspen, Telluride and Jackson Hole. In their mind it is meant to be a safe multi-modal commuter path and not another scenic mountain bike trail. Fair.

Pagano says a straight-line path between Buckhorn and CB South would cross a minimum of 11 private properties and could impact up to 24 individual private parcels. CBMBA says the ideal route follows a ditch through the Hidden River subdivision and crosses nine private lots. It also has a secondary route that touches just three parcels of private property between Buckhorn and CB South. 

This is the stuff I thought was supposed to be worked out collaboratively in the STOR (Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation) committee meetings and I was under the impression it had. I guess perhaps I was wrong again. The next STOR meeting on Thursday will no doubt be “lively.” Forty minutes of the afternoon meeting is set aside on the agenda to discuss the topic.

Looking at some old STOR meeting minutes, it was noted in November of 2021 that the committee “came to a general agreement about alignment” using the CDOT right of way while looking for opportunities to include “branches” for more access. While in my ideal world, given CBMBA’s knowledge and Ochs’ energy and enthusiasm, perhaps he would to have been directly involved on a STOR subcommittee with the county representatives to figure this from the very beginning. But CBMBA seems to have been included in the discussions and it could also now be a matter of not getting everything they want and picking a fight with your friends. That’s not productive. 

Several people that attended the county’s open house on the topic last week felt the county should do anything and everything to make the ideal path happen. Some advocated paying whatever it cost to obtain the needed easements — even if that cost included using eminent domain to have the government condemn the land. I can’t see that being a wise move either politically or financially. It would immediately cause a war and cost millions of dollars in lawyer fees and land costs, not to mention the time needed in court to sort it all out. It’s just not how business should be done in this valley. 

It frankly feels there have been some bonds broken between people who should be working together. The reality is that given the situation as it stands, moving ahead with the CBMBA idea will be neither easy nor fast and the percentage of success dropped significantly after CBMBA’s ‘aggressive’ response to the proposed alternatives. The trade-off is getting a commuter trail that isn’t perfect sooner, rather than one that is probably not perfect but better, later…if at all. 

After several conversations this week, my feeling is that CBMBA hasn’t delved into the deep due diligence of looking at the actual physical, legal and relationship hurdles—of which there are many. I’m not sure they’ve even stuck a toe into the shallow end of that pool. I love CBMBA (and Ochs) and their Crested Butte Conservation Corps and know they do a lot of good things in this valley — but I would argue my CBMBA friends should have fleshed out the easiest bits of their alternatives before voicing such strong push back to the county’s alternatives. Ahhhhh, small town politics.

With the accessibility of e-bikes, more people would certainly use a commuter path to get between the two North Valley population hubs. I see it happening between Mt. Crested Butte and CB on the Rec Path. I see it on the Deli Trail with people in the Brush Creek area. Do I think people will use it all year round like CBMBA is advocating? No. But I’ve been wrong before and to me that sounds like an expensive endeavor to maintain even if the idea is to use a snowmobile or snowcat to pack the snow for e-bikes with fat tires in winter.

Look, putting any path on the ground between Crested Butte and the Cement Creek drainage will take time, creativity and money.  Oh, and probably compromise. It’s rarely easy but it’s been done before with other successful local trails. Is a bird in the hand worth two in the bush – or in this case, a path through private property that may or may not materialize? 

It almost seems like there are two different goals—one is a commuter trail to get people between point A and point B and the other is a cool, meandering, scenic mountain bike trail that connects the Cement Creek drainage trails to those in the Brush Creek drainage. That might be worthy of two different conversations and two separate efforts. That STOR meeting on Thursday will be interesting…

—Mark Reaman

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