Old West politics on the Crystal River trail
January 31, 2007
One of the most fun things you can do on a bicycle in this valley is ride from Carbondale to the top of McClure Pass. If you do it early in the morning and come back after breakfast in Redstone, it feels like tailwind both ways.It kind of makes up for having to walk uphill and into the wind both ways to school as a kid.Unfortunately, many of us can’t make this ride. Traffic is getting worse and the shoulders on Highway 133 are often not wide enough for the white paint stripe that marks the edge of the road. Danger may be an attraction at the X Games but for casual riders and people who want to pull a baby trailer along the road, it’s not a realistic choice.In the Roaring Fork Valley, we have a paved, off-road bike trail from Carbondale to Aspen that accommodates slow riders, tow riders and non-riders on the old rail bed. That’s great for them and even better for riders who want to use the highway and go fast.One can’t help noticing a similar old rail bed along the Crystal River and Highway 133. That old road is littered with white marble chunks from the old quarry in Marble, chunks that were either discarded and used for road base or fell off the trains making their way to Washington, D.C., for monuments.An obvious location for a bike/pedestrian trail, right? A low-impact, sustainable economic boon to Redstone, Carbondale and Crested Butte?Not so fast. Athwart this dream lies an entrenched group of local residents who insist that a bike trail would be injurious to wildlife, that any such bike trail belongs not on the rail bed but adjoining Highway 133, that the county of Pitkin should relinquish any plans to let the public access its property on Red Wind Point just north of Crystal River Country Estates.Red Wind Point (pronounced “whined” because that’s where the rail line wound about, slowing the descent from the quarry) is a 65-acre open space parcel that could be a link in a trail on the east side of the river, away from the highway. Understandably, the residents of Crystal River Country Estates would prefer the county not create a trail through their subdivision or an access bridge to Red Wind Point. They have the ultimate sweet deal: county open space next to their homes that only they and a few stray elk can get to.One of the opposition leaders, former county commissioner candidate Tom McBrayer, lives right next to the open space and calls the bike trail and county access a form of urban sprawl. County Commissioner Dorothea Farris has been drawn into the fray. She accuses the McBrayer team of stacking the deck at caucus meetings to create an outcome against the trail. She’s right – the deck is stacked. But that’s the American Way: Get your people to the polls and the meetings, even if it means a small group has disproportionate influence.McBrayer and his neighbors have commissioned a pseudo-scientific study aimed at proving that outsiders riding bikes and hiking would be environmentally disruptive in a way that subdivision residents riding their bikes and hiking the same open space parcel would not be.This can’t be done. Elk, bighorn and bunny rabbits are pretty smart, but they just don’t know a property owner from a tourist. Humans pretty much look, sound and smell alike.In the second draft of the caucus’ wildlife and habitat report we find these statements: “Once incursion occurs, the geometric increase of human activity insidiously invades native habitat. … The critical nature of this habitat has not been diminished by the few homes that occupy the area.”The few homes are part of the approximately 35-lot Crystal River Country Estates subdivision next to the open space. If McBrayer and his “science” is correct, the subdivision should be renamed Grizzly Adams Acres or Dr. Dolittle Downs.Oddly enough, the same homeowners are not marching into the county and demanding that the entire parcel be declared off-limits to their own “insidious incursions,” nor do I remember anyone asking for house-size limits or development restrictions on Grizzly Adams Acres to cut down on the “geometric increase” of human activity that would occur if the remaining vacant lots were developed or the existing lots redeveloped.The trail opponents are honoring a Western tradition: using property ownership to obtain control of surrounding public lands. A century ago, some cattle ranchers were able to use ownership of watering holes and streambeds to control surrounding public lands by preventing rival outfits from grazing on those public ranges. By controlling access to water, these owners could obtain exclusive control of public land.Today we have a small group resisting public access to public land on the grounds that bikers and hikers are more environmentally destructive than subdivision residents doing the same things. Apparently, wildlife has a property-rights orientation that has escaped detection by wildlife biologists.The railroad may be long gone, but enough irony remains to build a new one.