EAGLE - Is Hernage Gulch a vital area where wildlife seek solitude or a tract of public land that the public can't realistically access? Should its future include a bike trail?
Tuesday night, the Eagle Planning and Zoning Commission took up those questions for the third time with deliberations over a proposed bike trail.
The Hardscrabble Trail Coalition's proposed trail is 2.65 miles long and would be accessed at the second cattle guard located on Third Gulch. The trail would end at Hernage Creek Road.
The Hernage Creek area is part of Eagle's open space lands and currently, pedestrians hike through the area. But unlike other open space holdings in town, the Eagle Travel Management Plan - which is part of the town's comprehensive master plan - sets aside the area as pedestrian-only access.
Ed Sands, Eagle Town attorney, advised members of the planning commission that master plan documents are not legally binding and while the Hernage Gulch area would have to remain as "undeveloped open space," the Eagle Ranch agreements allow for "equestrian, pedestrian and bicycle trails" on town open space.
But neighbors of the area maintain they bought their lots with the assurance that the area would remain a "pristine" wildlife area without a recreation focus and that the original Eagle Ranch agreements backed that vision. During hearings last year, they convinced the planning commission to back that argument. Tuesday night, neighbors and bike enthusiasts again filled Town Hall to debate the future of Hernage Gulch.
Adam Palmer, president of the Hardscrabble Trail Coalition, presented the volunteer group's proposal for a "multi-use" Hernage Trail. He noted the group's purpose is to provide appropriate recreation opportunities on town open space, and the proposal is an example of that goal.
"To our knowledge, the trail does not impact critical wildlife habitat," Palmer said. "We wouldn't be proposing this trail if we thought it would threaten our wildlife."
Palmer suggested lessening the trail's impact by enforcing the same seasonal closure rules that are in place on other town open space areas and argued that Hernage Gulch should function like other town open space properties.
Scott Lengel, a member of the Hardscrabble Trail Coalition, said that because pedestrians are allowed to use the area, Hernage Gulch isn't a "pristine" wildlife zone. He argued that because of access and parking issues, the reality of Hernage Creek is that the only people who can realistically access it are the ones who live adjacent to it.
"It's public land and I would like to be able to access it, and right now I can't," Lengel said.
"We are not proposing to change open space. We are just proposing using it in acceptable ways," said Laura Turitz, another mountain biking enthusiast.
Wildlife and homeowners
But neighbors in the Hernage Gulch area, with support from representatives of the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife, vehemently opposed the trail proposal.
"We are not a group that is anti-mountain biking. Our opposition to the proposal is its impact to the wildlife and the homeowners in the area," said Neal Arney, representing a newly formed group called the Eagle Open Space Protection Coalition.
Arney said that when people purchased their properties in the Hernage Gulch area, they relied on assurances that bike trails would not be developed there. "It's going to change that neighborhood from a serene, quiet neighborhood to a recreational neighborhood," he said.
Bill Andree, of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, strongly advocated for leaving Hernage Gulch as it is. He said the area is an important "security" habitat for wildlife as well as an elk calving ground. "Recreation is the biggest impact to wildlife in Colorado," he said.
Andree maintained that when Eagle Ranch was being developed, the goal for Hernage Gulch was to be an area where wildlife could retreat from the more heavily used and recreation-focused Third Gulch and Abrams Gulch areas. With that plan in place, Andree said the town and wildlife officers have spent nearly $1 million on wildlife habitat improvements in the Eagle Ranch area.
"It's counterproductive to do a habitat enhancement project and then put in a trail," Andree said. "Every time you put a trail in, you fragment habitat."
Andree also specifically took on the argument that the area isn't critical wildlife habitat. He said it might not have that specific designation, but as a documented elk calving ground, it is a vital refuge for animals. He cited an elk study done in the Vail area that he co-authored that showed when public use in an elk calving area increased, elk calf production dramatically decreased.
"Approving this trail would discount and disregard less impactful alternatives," said Craig Wescoatt, a Hernage Gulch resident who is also a wildlife manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. "Trails are a community benefit. I don't think you would get any argument from anyone in this room, but they need to be well designed."
The Hernage neighbors argued that there is an alternative to provide access from Third Gulch to Abrams Gulch along U.S. Bureau of Land Management property. However, the BLM is currently developing its Resource Management Plan for the area, and no new trails will be considered until that document is completed. Trail opponents argue a bit of patience will resolve the issue, while trail proponents say the BLM's reaction to a trail suggestion has been lukewarm at best. There is no guarantee the federal agency will sign off on a plan, agreed John Staight, Eagle Open Space Coordinator. He said he came away with a very pessimistic view of the trail's chances following a meeting with BLM representatives.
After nearly three hours of public testimony, members of the planning commission opted to continue the issue until the Sept. 4 meeting for deliberations. They requested more information from staff, including disclosure statements provided to homeowners when they purchased property in the Hernage Gulch area.