Avon works with Forest Service to maintain status quo on Road 779
New pact seeks to bring new life to the much-debated road that is desperately in need of maintenance
Motorized vehicle use on U.S. Forest Service Roads in Wildridge has been a highly continuous issue for many years as the town of Avon attempts to strike a balance between allowing use and access while preserving the natural environment.
The issue came to a tipping point in 2011 when the U.S. Forest Service released a Travel Management Plan, which slated Forest Service Road 779 in Wildridge for decommissioning. At this point, the town of Avon appealed the decision and came to an agreement with the Forest Service to keep the road open in the summer. It was at this time that the road was closed for use in the winter.
“The Forest Service has more miles of road than the federal highway administration. Basically we had so many miles of roads that it was impossible, nationwide, to maintain all of the roads to the standard they needed to be,” said Leanne Veldhuis, the Eagle-Holy Cross district ranger, at Tuesday’s Avon Town Council meeting. “We were told to analyze our road system and determine what was sustainable to manage. Roads that have those weak points in terms of sustainability are on list as not being part of our capacity to maintain.”
The intent of this agreement was to address certain resource issues, parking and maintenance improvements that led to the decommissioning decision in the first place. However, since 2011, aside from improvements made to the road base within Tract I by the town, no progress was made per the agreement and no scheduled maintenance of 779 has taken place.
Now, as the agreement ended in 2019, the town and U.S. Forest Service are working to craft a new memorandum of understanding. According to Matt Pielsticker, the Avon planning director, this new agreement “solidifies the current status of the roadway and outlines the expectations for future maintenance of the road.”
The goal is to present this agreement to the Town Council later this summer.
While the new agreement will maintain the status quo of allowing motorized and recreational access on 779, a recent debate over off-highway vehicle use on the roads within the Wildridge subdivision brought up community concerns regarding motorized access on these National Forest trails and roads.
The town of Avon passed an ordinance in May to allow Wildridge residents to drive from their homes or place of storage to the Forest Service Roads within the subdivision — 779 and 717.1B. In the process, the town received hundreds of comments, many of which addressed the use of such off-highway vehicles on the Forest Service roads.
Proponents of allowing use stated this as their reason for moving to and staying in Wildridge.
“One of the reasons we picked this location was the Forest Service access for summer and winter. The road first was closed to snowmobiles and now the talk of closing it to summer access takes away one of the main reasons we stay,” wrote Wildridge resident Dave Wilkison in an email to Town Council in May 2021.
Opponents of allowing motorized use cited environmental concerns including greenhouse gas emissions, wildlife preservation and wildfire danger.
“We support the Forest Service decision in 2011 to close winter access to all motorized use and subsequent decommissioning of FSR 779,” wrote Wildridge resident Pam Warren in an email to the Town Council in May 2021. “We believe FSR 779 should remain closed to protect wildlife and reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions as detailed in the Eagle County Climate Action Plan.”
As part of the agreement currently in the works, the roadway will remain open during the summer for motorized access and will also require the Forest Service to provide the town with notice of any possible status changes in the future.
The main reason, according to Veldhuis, that the road was to be decommissioned was due to its “unsustainable nature.”
“The bigger question for (779) isn’t whether it’s appropriate to be open, and that type of thing, it’s really there’s a chunk there that’s just not very sustainable in terms of tax payer dollars, essentially,” Veldhuis said, citing erosion and sentiment issues along the trail.
While maintenance of this road is scheduled to be on a five-year rotation, these problem areas have yet to be fixed. Currently, residents of Wildridge take most of the credit for maintaining the road.
“We are also very interested in sustainable access to the road,” said Devon DeCrausaz, founder and president of the Wildridge Trail Coalition. “We have over 100 constituents in our group. We are interested in helping do whatever is necessary in terms of maintenance. We actually have been performing maintenance, clearing trees after storms and things like that.”
It is for this reason that the agreement currently in the works will create some sort of cost sharing proposal to ensure the road is properly cared for. Other Eagle County municipalities have reached similar financial agreements with the Forest Service to provide light maintenance.
“I think there’s a bit of a give and take that’s needed for the road. Given that it’s considered not sustainable, it’s going to be a challenge for 779 road to be elevated in terms of priority,” Veldhuis said. “The Forest Service would want to have a conversation with the town of Avon about a financial cost sharing or contribution from the town, because justifying just the Forest Service doing it, from the smart use of tax payer dollars side of things, it’s not a sustainable road.”
After the agreement is reached, the town will also take a look at other improvements that could increase public access and improve the quality of the trails, including adding parking, gates and more.
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.