Environmentalist questions DOW bike-trail closure
The closure of some of the best mountain biking trails in Basalt has come under fire from one of the town’s most accomplished environmentalists.
Basalt Town Councilman Chris Lane said he isn’t convinced the Colorado Division of Wildlife needed to close trails in the Christine State Wildlife Area for protection of deer, elk and songbirds.
The closures have taken one of Basalt’s most popular outdoor routes out of circulation. The backcountry road that’s part of the network climbs steeply up from Lake Christine onto what locals call Brutal Hill. Narrow single-track trails branch off that road.
“That trail on Basalt Mountain, in my mind, is the Smuggler Mountain of Basalt,” said Lane, comparing it to Aspen’s popular route.
Lane is the director of environmental programs for the Aspen Skiing Co. and is affiliated with numerous environmental causes and organizations. He also happens to be an avid cyclist.
He said he wouldn’t advocate use of the trails in the state wildlife area if he felt biking came at the expense of wildlife. But he said he’s aware of no scientific data that show biking on established trails during summer months is detrimental to wildlife.
“Seasonal closures in the spring and fall I can understand,” said Lane. “But a categorical closure for bikes I can’t.”
The seasonal closures, he explained, are often necessary to protect deer and elk during spring calving season and fall migration.
The wildlife division changed two major policies at Christine State Wildlife Area in May. Dogs were prohibited because wildlife officers said too many people were letting their pets off leash. Some dogs harassed wildlife and hunted down nesting songbirds.
In addition, bikes were banned from all roads and trails. All routes were open until about three years ago. In fact, local cyclists even used to run races up Brutal Hill.
Then the wildlife agency closed single-track trails and allowed bikes only on the main road. The policy didn’t work, according to DOW area wildlife manager Patrick Tucker, because bikers wouldn’t stick to the main road.
In a letter to the town, Tucker wrote, “Unfortunately, bikers did not stay on this designated route and created many other trails, leading to habitat fragmentation and disturbance into areas that had not been intruded on in the past.
“As mountain biking gained in popularity in the past few years, the impacts caused by them also increased,” he added.
Lane was out of the country when the policy change was announced. When he returned from vacation, he said numerous constituents had contacted him to complain about the change. He intends to contact wildlife officers to lobby for a compromise.
Lane said he believes Basalt bikers are environmentally-minded and could ride the trails in a responsible way.
Tucker was reluctant to discuss issues surrounding the trail use because he didn’t want it to appear he was arguing with Lane in the newspaper. He said his goal since taking over recently as area wildlife manager is to improve relations with local governments.
However, Tucker said any compromise on trail use by bikers is “unlikely.” The agency isn’t picking on bikers, he said. There are concerns about high levels of any type of use of area intended to provide wildlife habitat.
Tucker acknowledged there is little information available on the effects of trails, such as habitat fragmentation. But he noted that the relatively “new science” is currently being researched.
In addition, Tucker said bike bans have always been the policy of the wildlife commission, the DOW’s governing board. The ban was enforced everywhere but Basalt, he claimed.
When Tucker took the top post in the region that includes Basalt, he took steps to enforce the ban. He said his field officer has reported excellent compliance with the ban.
“I know it’s not universally accepted, but I hope it’s understood,” he said.
Lane said the agency’s concerns about loose dogs makes sense. Some dogs are known to harass wildlife and hunt out songbirds nesting in grasses.
But he noted that bikers stay on existing trails in terrain like that in the wildlife area. That removes the risk to songbirds.
As far as effects on big game, Lane said he didn’t think mountain bikes would cause as much distress for the animals as the sounds coming from a shooting range that’s within the wildlife area.
Another member of the Basalt Town Council said his concern was with the DOW’s decision-making process. Councilman Jonathan Fox-Rubin said he wasn’t sure cyclists and dog walkers were aware of the restrictions.
“The public was not involved at all in that decision,” he said. “People came up to me and said, `Why didn’t you do anything about this?'” Fox-Rubin said. “I said I got hit in the back of the head with it, too.”
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