ECO Trails team working on raising final $4.5 million to complete Eagle Valley Trail
County commissioners hear update on latest accomplishments, future goals from ECO Trails and open space leaders
Two of the departments working to keep Eagle County green and eco-friendly, ECO Trails and Open Space, gave updates on their yearly progress at Tuesday’s Eagle County Board of Commissioners meeting.
ECO Trails is overseeing the creation of a paved regional trail system that runs 63 miles from Vail Pass to Glenwood Canyon, with a connection to Red Cliff. The construction of the Eagle Valley Trail has spanned over two decades, and is now closing in on completion with only 12 miles left to construct. Last summer, county commissioners approved a financing plan to provide up to $22 million of the estimated $26.5 million required for the final sections of the trail.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the ECO Trails team provided an update on the progress made in trail construction, as well as the efforts to close the final $4.5 million in fundraising.
Eagle County Trails Director Kevin Sharkey said that of the four remaining sections, two are slated to begin construction this year, one next year and the final section in 2024. The EagleVail to Dowd Junction and the Dotsero sections are both currently open for bids, the design for the Minturn section is complete and out for review by the U.S. Forest Service, and the Horn Ranch to Edwards section is slated for completion in 2024.
Sharkey said that it has been difficult to get bids for the EagleVail to Dowd Junction section due to the complexity of the project, but they have high hopes that the bids will roll in this summer. He also noted that with the changing economic dynamics of the pandemic and other world events, pricing estimates for the total project will likely have to be adjusted, and the first two bids will provide a clearer picture of just how much that funding mark has moved, if at all.
On the financial side, fundraising head Robin Thompson spoke about a feasibility study that the project is undertaking to connect with community members and get a better sense of why the trail is important to people. Thompson said the study has identified six impacts that community members value about the trail: addressing climate change by getting more cars off of the road, creating connectivity throughout the county and Western Slope, enhancing quality of life, boosting economic activity for local businesses, increasing trail accessibility for lower income populations and motivating sustainable tourism.
Thompson said officials are hoping to use this information to inform their upcoming fundraising and marketing efforts. The goal is to raise $2.5 million from private donors, a push that will begin later this spring along with expanded community outreach and education about the project.
The ECO Trails team also gave updates on the submission of grant applications that will close the final $2 million gap in financing. Sharkey and Thompson walked through a list of grant opportunities that have the potential to fund the Eagle Valley Trail, and said they will be applying over the course of this year and next.
The commissioners were satisfied with the current pace of the project, and the ECO Trails team expressed confidence that the trail will be completed by 2024.
The Eagle County Open Space Program was created in 2002, when voters authorized a new county tax for the purpose of acquiring, maintaining and preserving open spaces in Eagle County. Since inception, the program has acquired or helped to conserve over 15,000 acres of land.
Peter Suneson, the county’s outreach and stewardship coordinator for Open Space, listed a number of highlights from the previous year. Among these are the opening of the Adam’s Way Trail in Eagle, completed in memory of Adam Palmer last September, the installation of bilingual interpretive signs at Eagle River Preserve, as well as barbed wire removal and the start of a seeding project at the latest Open Space property acquirement, Brush Creek Valley Ranch and surrounding areas. The program hosted a total of 62 programs and special events, reaching nearly 1,400 participants.
The first year that the program allowed select permitting for commercial activities on Open Space lands was 2021. Suneson said that 19 outfitters were permitted, 12 of which were based out of Eagle County and the remaining seven of which were out of the Front Range. Commercial permits generated $440,000 in the first year, a number that provides a sense of the potential economic activity created by these actively preserved properties. The permitting was considered a success, and Open Space has approved 22 commercial permits for the upcoming year.
The Open Space Program also received a 2021 Starburst Award from the Colorado Lottery, which recognizes excellence in the use of lottery funds for community and conservation projects.
A new ticketing and citation system has enabled greater enforcement of proper open space land use from visitors, leading to 54 formal warnings and five citations issued since last August.
Looking ahead to 2022, the team is placing an emphasis on Brush Creek Valley Ranch and Open Space management. A grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service will help fund new piping infrastructure, which will take place alongside the continuation of a seeding project and the planned renewal of leases for the current lessees on the property.
The Open Spaces Advisory Committee is also going through a significant transition period, including the start of a new director and the selection of seven advisory seats. The program has received 17 applications for seven open seats, and 10 finalists will go before the county commissioners for selection in the upcoming months.
Phil Kirkman, a ranger and senior natural resource specialist, closed the presentation by mentioning that the program is in a very good place financially, and the tax revenue allocated to preserving open space will likely increase to over $5 million this year to reflect rising property values.
“We need to get to work, because we know that it is better served spent out on the property than sitting in a bank somewhere,” Kirkman said.
Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney encouraged the program to start looking for additional land acquisitions and project opportunities so that the increase in revenue can be put to use for the active preservation of Eagle County lands.
“When you have a fund balance that’s growing like that, I think the public does expect you to be investing it, it’s not supposed to be in the bank just growing,” McQueeney said. “You know, future commissioners might see that and go, ‘hmmmm, what else could we do with that?’ And I think we’re much better off investing it in properties and the upkeep of those properties.”
Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry drew a connection between ECO Trails and Open Space, and noted that each project mutually supports the other’s objectives.
“It’s really heartwarming to see what good shape all these properties are in,” Chandler-Henry said. “I think the Eagle Valley Trail fundraising benefits from open space. That goodwill sort of flows over, when people see that outdoor property being well taken care of by Open Space and translating to the trail.”