Wilderness Workshop wildlife study: Crystal Valley Trail alignment should be ‘no-brainer’ | AspenTimes.com

Wilderness Workshop wildlife study: Crystal Valley Trail alignment should be ‘no-brainer’

This section of the Crystal Valley just north of Filoha Meadows is one of the places where the alignment of a proposed trail is creating debate. Wildlife advocates want to keep it west of the Crystal River, close to the Highway 133 alignment.

The alignment of a hiking and biking trail in the Crystal River Valley would be a "no-brainer" if the decision was based solely on what's best for deer, elk and other critters, a wildlife biologist told an audience of more than 50 people Monday evening in Redstone.

Rick Thompson said the trail has the potential to affect about 875 acres of habitat if not constructed with best interests of wildlife in mind. It's feasible to reduce that number to about 111 acres of affected wildlife habitat, he said at the presentation at the Redstone Church. He will make another presentation today in Carbondale.

Wilderness Workshop, a Carbondale-based conservation group, commissioned Thompson to study the potential alignments of a proposed trail from BRB Campground south of Carbondale to the summit of McClure Pass and gauge potential impacts to wildlife.

It would be best if the trail could follow the alignment of Highway 133 for the entire 20 miles, Thompson said. The human activity on the road already creates a "zone of influence" between 100 yards and a quarter mile that isn't used as wildlife habitat, he said.

Previous alignment studies have suggested it would not be safe to build a trail along the road in Hayes Creek Canyon, south of Redstone where Hayes Creek Falls is located. If that remains the case, Thompson said, it would be best for a 1.5-mile bypass to follow the abandoned Bear Creek railroad grade in the high country above the falls. But it would come at a price. It would affect about 111 acres of existing wildlife habitat, he said.

One of most sensitive stretches encompasses Filoha Meadows, just south of Penny Hot Springs and north of Redstone. That area is habitat for bighorn sheep, elk and deer, Thompson said. Putting a trail on the east side of the highway and river would introduce relatively high levels of human disturbance into high quality, critical wildlife habitat, he said.

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A trail on the east side of the river along a 7-mile stretch including Red Wind Point, Filoha Meadows and Janeway would affect 541 acres of habitat, Thompson said. Officials with Colorado Parks and Wildlife don't believe seasonal closures covering winter and spring would be effective because of possible violations, he said.

Dale Will, an official with Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, said at the meeting it was inaccurate to say seasonal closures cannot be effective. It all depends on how well a given agency enforces the closures, he said. Will said Pitkin County has a good track record for getting rangers on the ground.

Pitkin County Open Space and Trails is early in the process of studying the alignment of the Crystal Valley Trail. The cost will likely be more expensive if it hugs the Highway 133 alignment. Pitkin County already owns property in places such as Filoha Meadows.

After the county selects a route, which will be a lengthy process with public input, it must apply to the U.S. Forest Service because some of the trail would cross public lands. The agency would put the project through a thorough environmental review.

Thompson said the trail should hug the road climbing up McClure Pass rather than using the "Old McClure Pass switchbacks," which some people use as a hiking trail. If the old switchbacks are used, it would degrade 223 acres of habitat, he said.

The only section where a trail wouldn't have much effect is along Redstone Boulevard, a high-use road serving the quaint town.

There is the potential, Thompson said, for the trail to affect 875 acres of wildlife habitat if it goes east of the highway and river along Red Wind Point, Filoha and Janeway; bypasses Hayes Creek Canyon; and utilizes the old McClure Pass switchbacks.

That was unacceptable to former Pitkin County Commissioner Jack Hatfield, who drove from Snowmass Village to attend the meeting. The decision-makers on the project might try to find a balance among cost, recreation opportunity and wildlife benefits, Hatfield said. He wants the decision weighted toward wildlife benefit.

"For those of us who are wildlife advocates, there are no compromises," Hatfield said.

The issue isn't that simple, said Redstone resident Mark Hilberman. He said issues such as road kill, hunting, residential development in habitat and livestock grazing in the high country all affect wildlife populations. Placing so great of blame on recreation for population decreases oversimplifies the issue.

"I think it's incredibly complicated," he said.

Wilderness Workshop wanted to get ahead of the debate with an independence analysis of the wildlife issues. Will Roush, Wilderness Workshop's conservation director, said factors such as cost of trail construction, acquiring easements and safety will factor into the decision along with wildlife impacts.

scondon@aspentimes.com

IF YOU GO

What: Wilderness Workshop wildlife study of Crystal Valley Trail

Where: Third Street Center, Carbondale

When: Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.

Free and open to the public

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