Vail Daily column: Vail Trail a jewel —leave it as it is
I served the Vail community for more than two decades on various town boards and in those positions I worked on the original master plans such as the Open Lands Plan.
That plan focused on the protection of our open lands with the goal of preventing over development on lands identified as open space and natural areas. Its purpose was not to build trails all over it as is indicated on every staff memo. It identified several areas where trails might occur but it was not meant to be an approval of those concepts. No research was done on those conceptual trails. They were ideas. Just possibilities. Which leads me to the Vail Trail.
The existing Vail Trail was never built or studied. It is a happy accident. In the ’60s and ’70s, people started using the irrigation ditch from Golden Peak to ski, snowshoe and hike the side hill as a shortcut to undeveloped areas before there was much development east of the ski mountain. The trail followed the ditch and when houses blocked it, the trail followed natural contours and game trails up and around the new homes but on private property.
In the ’80s the town decided to move the trail mostly off the private property. The trail continued to follow the natural topography and game trails. The “new” sections were built entirely by hand by staff and volunteers, including an Olympic marathoner who trained on the trail, and were less than 2 feet wide. No trees were cut. Soon the uphill cut had slipped onto the trail due to the steepness of the hill.
At this time, Russ Forrest, the town environmental officer who became head of the Planning Department, also took a look at extending the trail to the east. He states, “I recall making improvements to the trail. We looked at trying to force a connection all the way to East Vail but concluded the topography and environmental impacts were too great.” That statement is of critical importance. He then concentrated his efforts on the North Trail. What has changed since then? The entire south side of Gore Valley is still rated as high hazard and prone to avalanches, mud flows, rock falls and soil movement as indicated by leaning aspen trees and depressions where the ground has moved just enough to form a sort of dam. The many gullies of all depths indicate the consistent presence of considerable water probably just underground. And it has not flattened out.
One memo suggests the Vail Memorial Park endorses the trail. I am on the executive board and we did not endorse the trail. Our concern was it going through the Vail Memorial Park as first considered. We have had mountain bikes use our memorial walls as jumps and breaking and dislodging engraved memorial stones. They use the trail above the Vail Memorial Park and usually enter the Vail Memorial Park a bit too fast. By the way, this parcel is leased by Vail Memorial Park and existing trails may remain. I assume the Vail Memorial Park would not approve “renovating” the existing trail within our leased area.
The spring of 2015 I got wind of work on the South Trail and called a council member to ask about it. I was told it referred to the Vail Trail and that the issue was “moot.” I could get no other information from him although I have since learned he is viewed as the council member that is representing the town and he will “get the Trail built.”
I then called Public Works and learned the proposal was for a 6-foot platform to support a 4-foot trail. That means a destroyed area more than 6 feet wide. Picture a 4-foot road and how much area is destroyed just to get 4 usable feet, especially on a hillside. I hate to picture this cut and fill project on this steep and fragile hillside. And it will not be a beginner trail or a trail to share with pedestrians because of the steepness of this slope. The switchbacks on the rough plans are another indicator of the steepness. I was also told there would be several open houses, which have not happened. The plan was co-presented as an Eagle County (Vail Valley) trails plan, which was misleading and not transparent but did happen Feb. 29. Vail open houses have traditionally been presented by the town with opportunities to present opposing views and discuss options. This one was a meeting for the biking community when the Vail Trail has been a walking trail for the most part of nearly 50 years. I cannot think of another trail or even pedestrian area in Vail that makes a pedestrian feel safe from bikes. Not even Bridge Street, our urban stream walks and the Nature Center. At least bikes that use the Vail Trail have to go slow or they hit their knuckles on the trees or fall off the hill.
I also noted in various memos for council work sessions, not evening meetings where business is supposed to be discussed, that environmental studies are to consider new impacts even though it has never been formally studied. I have always understood that one rule of government is to never increase the number of people you expose to natural hazards such as avalanches, rock fall and debris flows, all of which have already been identified and experienced on the entire length of the proposed and existing Vail Trail. The new proposed ski lift on Golden Peak will also introduce more chute skiers above much of the existing trail, increasing the chance for avalanches.
The one property owner I have encountered that had been informed by the town had no idea it was 4 feet wide and surrounded by an even wider destroyed area. They do not support it. I know I was told that 4 feet is the width of the trail on the irrigation ditch at the west end. Perhaps when it was an active ditch, but most people don’t even know they are walking a 100-plus-year-old ditch, although historical artifacts are still visible. In fact, to suggest it is 4 feet wide anyplace is a misrepresentation of the worse kind.
It is impossible to build an environmentally friendly “beginner-level hiking and mountain-biking trail” on this hillside. Vail cannot afford to urbanize another inch of our open space and natural areas. This natural environment dictates that this trail should remain as is: no renovation, rebuilding or extending as proposed. Even though there are hundreds of dirt trails in Eagle County for biking, this is a unique jewel for a mountain trail and rivals anything in the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness. Please protect it for the walkers, cautious riders and future generations.
Diana Donovan has lived in Vail since 1965. She has served on the Vail Town Council and several other town boards.