Public sounds off on Eagle’s proposed master plan for open spaces

Many residents express concerns around how to mitigate wildlife impacts

The town of Eagle has been working on an Open Space and Trails Master Plan since last summer. A presentation on the plan given before the Eagle Town Council on Tuesday, May 31, included a map of the town's existing open spaces and trails overlaid with some of the plan's recommendations.
Courtesy image

A master plan for how to manage Eagle’s trails and open spaces drew an outpouring of input from residents with differing views on how to strike a balance between protecting local wildlife and supporting outdoor recreation.

The Eagle Town Council held a work session Tuesday evening to get public input on the proposed plan, which has been in the works since last summer. The meeting lasted nearly three hours in what one resident called the most civic engagement the town has seen in eight years.

The town’s open space manager Brian Lieberman described the proposed plan as a “high-level,” “visioning document,” designed to establish priorities and recommendations for how the town can take a “balanced” and “collaborative” approach to managing its trails and open spaces moving forward.

The purpose of the plan has been a “point of contention throughout this entire process,” Lieberman said, clarifying that the plan’s recommendations would still need to be approved by the Town Council at a later date. For this reason, the plan was created with an emphasis on “flexibility and adaptability,” he said.

The Open Space and Trails Master Plan was developed by town staff with the help of SE Group, a Frisco-based planning and design company. The team first worked to take inventory of the town’s natural resources, which include approximately 1,357 acres of open spaces (about 860 of which are in or around Eagle Ranch) and “about 186” miles of trails and paths, according to a representative of SE Group.

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The plan recommends a more in-depth inventory and analysis of these areas in order to “appropriately invest in open space, natural resources, and wildlife habitat protection,” according to a presentation given Tuesday.

The master plan also establishes recommendations for how to maintain trails, promote equitable access to outdoor spaces and educate the public on “good etiquette, and an understanding of wildlife habitat and natural resource impacts.”

Residents speak out

This last piece will be crucial to gaining broader public support for the plan as many residents attended Tuesday’s meeting to express concerns around how to mitigate wildlife impacts while continuing to offer the outdoor recreation opportunities for which the town is known.

Many residents cautioned about the impact that trail use, particularly in the fall and spring, has had on the area’s elk population, stressing that they do not wish to repeat the mistakes of other municipalities by prioritizing development over the conservation of wildlife habitats.

“We need to close the trails that are through critical winter habitat (earlier), maybe Oct. 1,” one woman said.

Others warned of noxious weeds that hikers and bikers unknowingly transport from the town out to the brush surrounding Eagle. One resident said, if the town is not careful, these invasive species will soon overtake the natural foliage that sustains local deer and elk populations.

Residents were undecided as to whether mountain bikers cause more of an impact or off-leash dogs, but all agreed that the town needs to do a better job of enforcing trail closures and pet restrictions.

Lieberman and other representatives assured residents that this is a priority for the town, highlighting various wildlife-centered recommendations made, such as ecological assessments and noxious weeds management plans for open spaces and mandatory seasonal closures for any new recreation opportunities.

The plan’s goals were arranged by low-, medium- and high-priority items with high priority items set to be considered within the next one to three years, medium-priority items within four to six years and the low-priority items within seven to 10 years.

Numerous recommendations to protect local wildlife habitats were listed as high-priority items including “habitat improvement projects,” “regional habitat studies” and “noxious weeds management,” according to the presentation.

Eagle Town Council members took the advice of the town’s Open Spaces and Recreation Advisory Committee in moving the recommendation to dedicate human resources to enforcing trail closures and other rules to a high-priority item given concerns about misuse of trails and open spaces.

The plan expresses a goal to “strategically evaluate support for new recreational opportunities with consideration to wildlife habitat, natural resource impacts, system connectivity, user experiences, and accessibility.”

‘We want to work with everybody in the town’

Multiple residents spoke out against any new development on trails or in open spaces, with some expressing frustration around a perceived lack of communication and public outreach on the particulars of the plan.

One resident who attended Tuesday’s meeting said she felt the town has paid more attention to the opinions of “special interest groups” that have a vested interest in further developing trails for outdoor recreation purposes like mountain biking.

“The plan has been developed to tell us what we want and not to find out what we want,” the woman said. “We need to get the word out and we need to get more input.”

Off in the distance, the Flat Tops can be seen from the top of a mountain biking trail known as the “World’s Greatest” trail in west Eagle.Town of Eagle/Courtesy photo

Robert Tadlock, Eagle resident and president of the Hardscrabble Trails Coalition, attended Tuesday’s meeting to speak on behalf of one so-called “special interest group.”

“I really don’t want this to be a contentious debate about mountain bikers versus wildlife – we do care about wildlife,” Tadlock said, outlining the ways in which his organization works with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to look for potential trail impacts and monitor elk herd numbers.

“We’re just here with good intentions, and we’re trying to work within the rules that are set forth,” he said, echoing Lieberman’s statement that any new trail build would need to be approved by all applicable governing bodies and would require a “full environmental study.”

“We want to work with everybody in the town, and if that means no new trails being built, that’s fine too, we have a lot,” he added.

In his presentation, Lieberman highlighted 10 different communication methods his team used to get the word out to the public about the plan, which included the town’s website and social media pages as well as local newsletters, partner organizations, homeowner’s associations and the Vail Daily.

He also gave a timeline of the various public events held during the planning process, which included a guided walk in September, an open house and follow-up survey in October and an open house in March — all of which were open to the general public.

Another topic of discussion Tuesday night was the plan’s potential funding sources. The Open Space and Trails department has received funding from the town’s general fund for the past few years, but the plan aims to identify “a consistent source of funding” for the department, leaving open the possibility of an additional sales tax sometime down the line.

“I think we know the climate right now of passing a new tax, I mean, it’s just not there,” Eagle Town Council member Ellen Bodenhemier said. She advocated for using a portion of the town’s revenue from the marijuana tax, encouraging town staff to “get creative within the budget” rather than “punting” to a new sales tax.

Town Council member Geoff Grimmer advocated against a continued reliance on the town’s general fund while Town Council member Janet Bartnik disagreed, saying she believed the plan to be a worthy use of the fund given that maintaining trails and open spaces is a priority expressed in Eagle’s strategic planning documents.

Bodenhemier, Grimmer and Bartnik all commended staff for their hard work on the plan.

“It’s a great plan, very well done,” Bodenhemier said.

Ultimately, Town Council members directed town staff to make a few changes to the plan to upgrade the priority of a wildlife ranger and to recommend stricter seasonal closures for certain trails, among other things. The final plan will be put to a vote in the Town Council’s July meeting.

Bodenhemier thanked attendees for their participation and encouraged them to reach out and remain engaged in their local government as the town is set to begin recoding its municipal code, a process that is certain to have an impact on all residents.

“We cannot fix problems we don’t know about,” she said toward the end of Tuesday’s meeting.

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