Rep. Joe Neguse proposed legislation directing the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to work together to finish the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail in time for the trail’s 50th anniversary in 2028.
The trail spans 3,100 miles from Montana to New Mexico going through Colorado and Summit County, but the trail has about 160 miles of incomplete routes due to gaps in public lands. The trail ends up following along roads to connect its separated portions, which can be dangerous for hikers.
“The Continental Divide Trail traverses some of the most beautiful and rugged landscapes in our country, and of course that includes our wonderful congressional district and Summit County,” Neguse said in an interview with the Summit Daily. “Completing the trail, in my view, would kind of fulfill a promise that Congress made more than four decades ago … to provide the American people with world-class recreational opportunities that span the length of the Continental Divide.”
The highest priority of the legislation is a 15-mile gap outside of Steamboat Springs, where thru-hikers must walk along Colorado Highways 14 and 40 at Muddy Pass.
In order to complete the trail, the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service would work together to acquire lands from willing sellers using authorities such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This can be done in the form of outright purchases from landowners or land exchanges.
While the Continental Divide Trail was created by Congress in 1978 as part of the National Trails System, it remained around 60% complete until the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 was passed. Teresa Martinez, executive director of the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, said prior to this act, land managers didn’t have authority to buy land from willing sellers, making completing the trail arduous. The trail is now closer to 96% complete.
Martinez said the next step was the permanent authorization and funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund so land managers could get money to purchase these lands.
”Up until that point, we didn’t have that tool, and it was really hard,” Martinez said. “Even though we had really dedicated land managers, they didn’t have the tools they needed to complete the trail, so no matter what they tried, they couldn’t get there.”
Martinez said the Continental Divide Trail Completion Act is the “final trifecta” of legislation to make completing the trail a priority.
“It really gives the agency partners, who now have all these other tools, the priority setting they need to keep moving forward and getting these acquisitions across the line,” Martinez said.
While Neguse said he does not know how much the project would cost, he said funding should not be an issue since the Land and Water Conservation Fund was secured last year.
“(Land and Water Conservation Fund) funding was designed to be available for projects like this one,” Neguse said. “We’re certainly open to amending the bill to include an appropriation, but we think based on what we’ve seen thus far that there should be ample funds to be able to complete it on the targeted timetable that we have placed into the bill.”
Summit County and the surrounding area is home to some of the highest peaks on the Continental Divide Trail, including Grays Peak, which is the highest point on any National Scenic Trail. Martinez said the section of trail in Summit County won’t change much but that the area between Georgia Pass and Grays Peak could see minor relocations to avoid steeper segments, making it safer and more accessible.
“Summit County has these incredibly high peaks at some of those quintessential Colorado sections,” Martinez said. “When people think about the Continental Divide, Summit County is probably what most people envision.”
After Neguse became chair of the public lands subcommittee earlier this year, he did listening tours across the state to get a better idea of what priorities folks would want to see addressed by the committee. It was in one of those meetings where the idea of completing the trail was introduced to Neguse, whose congressional district contains 230 miles, or 7.5%, of the entire trail.
Neguse said the legislation will also help the economy by creating short-term jobs for trail construction as well as additional long-term jobs for guides, outfitters and service workers in outdoor recreation.
Martinez also said the legislation will ensure the divide is fully protected so that when hikers experience the trail, they see as little impact as possible from previous trail users.
“It allows us to ensure that the trails and that highest-quality landscape itself is protected — not just for our experience but for the wildlife, for the watershed, for climate, for air quality — all so it ensures that my experience will be very similar to someone 100 years from now,” Martinez said. “I think that’s what it means to Summit County is that, what Summit County has in its segment of the Continental Divide Trail doesn’t really exist anywhere else in the world.”
Martinez said she and her organization have an “incredible amount of gratitude” for Neguse for envisioning and creating this legislation to see through the trail’s completion.