The inherent conflicts between wildlife and a growing, outdoor-oriented population in the Roaring Fork Valley spurred Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials to take one of their toughest stances to date recently in a debate in Basalt.
Area Wildlife Manager Perry Will wrote a strongly worded letter to Basalt urging the town to reconsider major thrusts in its Parks, Open Space and Trails Master Plan — a document designed to guide town actions on its lands for years to come.
“It is understandable that this document focuses on recreation for the residents of Basalt, but this should not come at the expense of wildlife and the surrounding environment,” Will’s letter said.
Parks and Wildlife was particularly concerned about development of trails in the riparian areas along the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers and any action that encourages use, particularly during the winter, of habitat used by elk and mule deer in the hills surrounding Basalt.
The state agency also was emphatic that Basalt shouldn’t take any action to encourage hikers to enter the Basalt State Wildlife Area on the northern outskirts of town.
Will credited Basalt officials Friday with listening to the concerns of the agency and “working with us.” But he also said the agency continues to have concerns about expanding recreational use of the backcountry surrounding the Roaring Fork Valley floor.
“Trails are a big issue,” Will said. “Everybody wants trails everywhere.”
It’s not just a Basalt issue. Conflicts between wildlife and recreation on public lands stretch from Independence Pass — where campers had conflicts with hungry bears in late spring — to the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers in Glenwood Springs.
The Roaring Fork Valley attracts people who are, for the most part, lovers of the outdoors. Off-road, motorized vehicle enthusiasts believe they’ve been too restricted, and they’re fighting to prevent additional trail closures, as evidenced in the debate over the Hidden Gems wilderness proposal.
Mountain bikers are seeking more options, particularly in the midvalley as the population grows. Public land such as the Crown, regarded as marginal for mountain bikers in the early and mid-1990s, now boasts an interesting network of routes pieced together by visionary trailblazers.
Cross-country skiers yearn to take advantage of the entire Rio Grande Trail, but the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority has maintained a winter closure of the three-mile stretch between Rock Bottom Ranch and Catherine Bridge for the benefit of wildlife.
Aspen Skiing Co. is expanding its hiking- and mountain-biking-trail network as part of its quest to turn the Elk Camp section of Snowmass Ski Area into a summer hotspot for tourists. Parks and Wildlife officers past and present have been worried for years about the potential impact of summer activity on elk-calving grounds on Burnt Mountain. Skico delays its summer opening and discourages recreational use of Burnt Mountain.
In addition, trails in the Snowmass Village area are seasonally closed to try to prevent disturbances of big game in winters and springs.
Will’s letter to Basalt said seasonal trail closures in general are well-intentioned but difficult to enforce.
“Without frequent and stringent enforcement measures, violators have repeatedly disobeyed seasonal closures,” Will’s letter said. “Primary examples are Burnt Mountain and North Rim Trail near Snowmass Village where violations have been recorded on camera. Once trails are established, they are permanent and year-round use will ensue.”
In the midvalley, Parks and Wildlife is particularly sensitive about Light Hill and the Crown, mountains south of the Roaring Fork River that are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The federal agency is working on a management plan that will dictate use for years and determine how much trail development will be sanctioned. It is scheduled to be released before 2013 ends. Meanwhile, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails has purchased property at the base of the Crown, which has mountain bikers salivating over the potential for a new entry point.
The Crown and Light Hill came into play when Basalt collected public comments over the Parks, Open Space and Trails Master Plan. Avid cyclists Al Beyer and George Trantow used the town to create links that would provide greater access to those outlying federal lands.
Beyer noted that mountain-bike trails exist off both East and West Sopris Creek Roads on BLM land that provide connections to national forest around Hay Park.
“It would be good to have efficient trail connections from Basalt to this area,” he wrote to the town. “One obvious connection would be to use the irrigation ditch around Light Hill as a connector.”
Beyer also raised the prospect of resurrecting the once-popular Lake Christine Loop, which Parks and Wildlife closed to mountain bikers in the late 1990s or early 2000s.
“It is a shame to have that resource closed when science doesn’t support the closure,” he said. “(It’s) good for (Colorado Parks and Wildlife) to hear recreation beyond hunting is a priority for citizens.”
Trantow, a member of the Mid Valley Trails Committee, endorsed Beyer’s suggestions. In a separate letter, area resident Kate Alpert also urged the town to create more trail connections to Basalt Mountain and the Crown.
“I think this would help make Basalt a destination unto itself, as opposed to a ‘suburb of Aspen,’ requiring a drive to most recreational opportunities,” Alpert wrote.
Will responded that additional trails for mountain biking and winter recreation to the Crown and Light Hill are “strongly discouraged” because of the stress created for big-game animals during winters.
“Winter range and transition areas provide key habitat to ensure survival during periods when body condition is poor and animals are at their weakest,” Will wrote.
Parks and Wildlife drove home the point in its letter to Basalt that trail development must be limited for the benefit of wildlife.
“(Colorado Parks and Wildlife) would like to point out that all user groups cannot have exclusive trails and all lands cannot be accessible by all user groups,” Will wrote.
The state agency said trails aren’t an option in the Basalt State Wildlife Area.
“The creation of trails on State Wildlife Area lands goes against the goals for this property and does not align with the desires of (Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s) constituents,” Will wrote.
Basalt Town Council members were sympathetic to the wildlife division’s concerns while reviewing the Parks, Open Space and Trails Master Plan.
Councilman Rick Stevens said there is a changing dynamic on public lands. Everybody feels they should be allowed to go everywhere, he said, and that’s forcing more aggressive management practices. He said the town should take Parks and Wildlife’s comments seriously and not take any action that pushes people toward areas like Light Hill. The town owns property on the lower slopes of Light Hill, south of Basalt High School.
Councilwoman Karin Teague concurred with Stevens. She said the town must be careful with the type of infrastructure, such as trailheads, and informational signs it puts on its property so that it doesn’t encourage use of abutting lands that (Colorado Parks and Wildlife) is concerned about.
Staff members indicated they got the message loud and clear.