Crystal Valley trail debate exposes rift among Carbondale-Redstone environmentalists
After the fight against oil and gas extraction in Thompson Divide brought Carbondale-area environmentalists together, the debate over a recreational trail has splintered them.
Two prominent environmental organizations are on opposite sides of the debate over the proposed Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail section in the Crystal River Valley.
Wilderness Workshop, one of the oldest homegrown green groups, spent in excess of $50,000 on a study that showed the potential harm the trail could cause to wildlife.
But members of the low-key but historically significant Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association have been some of the most vocal proponents of the route. The group was formed in 1972 to fight a ski area proposed in Marble.
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The trail debate came to a head Wednesday at a Pitkin County commissioners meeting when Peter Westcott, a member of CVEPA’s board of directors, questioned the credibility of Wilderness Workshop’s wildlife study and raised questions about its motivations.
Westcott credited the county commissioners with not being swayed by wealthy landowners who are opposed to the trail, then turned his focus to Wilderness Workshop.
“I’m still confused about Wilderness Workshop. My guess is that money was talking there as well, that there was donation or something,” Westcott said, “because Wilderness Workshop hasn’t been concerned about the Crested Butte side of the trail. They’ve been concerned about private property rights, which isn’t part of their mission.”
Karin Teague, president of Wilderness Workshop’s board of directors, responded later in the public hearing.
“We have never been bought and sold and we never will be,” she said.
The commissioners also were divided by the trail. They voted 3-2 to approve the Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail Plan. That will lead to additional study.
Teague remained peeved by Westcott’s suggestion Thursday.
“Those (are) kind of fightin’ words,” she said.
Wilderness Workshop isn’t against the trail “per se,” Teague said. It is focused on protecting wildlife and wild places.
“That’s the way we’ll always be,” she said.
Sloan Shoemaker, who retired as Wilderness Workshop’s executive director in October, said Wednesday the suggestion that Wilderness Workshop was influenced by a wealthy donor, as Westcott has repeatedly inferred, is “utter nonsense.”
The not-so-subtle suggestion by Westcott is that Wilderness Workshop received a donation from Leslie Wexner, Shoemaker said. Wexner is a wealthy landowner who has acquired numerous properties to assemble the vast Two Shoes Ranch, which stretches from the Prince Creek drainage over into the Crystal River Valley south and southeast of Carbondale.
Wexner has funded his own wildlife studies about the trail and his team of specialists has spoken in opposition to the proposal at every opportunity.
Wexner contributed $5,000 to Wilderness Workshop in June 2017 with no strings attached, according to Shoemaker and Teague. It was a general contribution that wasn’t earmarked for any specific use. Shoemaker said there has been no effort to cloak funding for the wildlife study. The funds came out of the organization’s general operating fund.
Shoemaker said Wilderness Workshop’s position on the trail has alienated two members that he is aware of, but he declined to name them. The board is steadfast in its position that wildlife impacts must be avoided or mitigated with the trail.
Teague said it is impossible to please all members when the organization takes a stand on a major issue.
“There are lots of us environmentalists who love trails,” she said. “Lots of good people can have a difference of opinions on this one.”
At the commissioners’ hearing, Westcott said he considers himself “both a strong environmentalist and a recreationalist.”
“I would say my environmentalism would take precedence,” he said, “and I think any time that the trail really threatens wildlife, I would be concerned.”
Westcott said he was “thrilled” when Wilderness Workshop said it would study the impacts on wildlife but “shocked” when it was presented.
He doesn’t believe it was a credible study of comparable situations. The workshop’s consultant looked at a trail’s effects on wilderness.
“It was in a valley with complete wilderness and this is a valley that already has a road,” he said.
Dorothea Farris, a well-respected former Pitkin County Commissioner and president of CVEPA’s board of directors, has dodged the controversy over the trail but said Thursday she supports development of trails in communities from the Roaring Fork Valley to Grand Junction. Like Westcott, she expressed doubts that the Crystal Valley trail will have the environmental impacts portrayed by opponents.
Vital segments such as Filoha Meadows have been ruled out for the trail alignment, she noted.
“I don’t think it’s as dramatic of impact as we want to see,” Farris said diplomatically. “I agree that there’s much more impact from the houses than the trail.”
Westcott said Thursday the environmental concerns about the trail were blown out of proportion.
“Wilderness Workshop got involved and made it a bigger issue than it otherwise would have been,” he said.
CVEPA supports a thorough study of the benefits and impacts of the trail, Farris said. In fact, she said, it could inspire more environmental protection.
“It gives people a chance to get out there and see what’s around them and why we need to save it,” Farris said.
John Emerick quit the organization’s board because it didn’t oppose the trail, according to other board members. Board member Bill Jochems went on sabbatical over the issue.
Teague said she hopes there is no long-lasting rift in the environmental community over the trail. Nevertheless, Wilderness Workshop is unapologetically sticking to its position.
“It’s inconvenient to people who want to see a trail in the Crystal,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”
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