Off-roaders eye new Summit trail system
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY ” A local group of off-road riders is all but certain to land a $173,000 state grant to plan and design what could be a controversial 32-mile motorized-trail system on the lower slopes of Tenderfoot Mountain, between Dillon and Summit Cove.
Although still in early stages, the proposal already has some trail experts and biologists questioning the wisdom of creating about 15 miles of new motorized trails on national forest land.
Maintenance of existing trails is an issue, as is the potential for conflict with other public-lands visitors, said Mike Zobbe of the Summit Fat Tire Society, representing local mountain bikers.
The grant application from the Summit County Off-Road Riders has passed its first two hurdles, said Tom Metsa, off-highway vehicle and snowmobile program coordinator with Colorado State Parks.
A state trails committee has recommended approval to the Colorado State Parks board, set to meet in early November to make a final decision.
Chuck Ginsburg, one of the leaders of the motorized group, said he wasn’t up to speed on the status of the grant yet. In past interviews, Ginsburg has advocated for more opportunities for off-road vehicles in Summit County, citing the increased demand and economic benefits of motorized recreation. Ginsburg has headed up a trails and management task force for the Golden Horseshoe area dealing with similar issues. The local group gets high marks from the Forest Service for its commitment to stewardship.
State wildlife manager Tom Kroening said existing authorized off-road activity, along with a helter-skelter network of illegal trails, already has squeezed a herd of 100 to 150 elk on Tenderfoot Mountain.
“It’s a pretty important area,” Kroening said. “We have it marked as winter range and severe winter range.” That makes it especially important during hard winters, when the large ungulates can verge on starvation. Any additional stress can be fatal, Kroening said.
“When I came here (in 1997), they were all over the front side of that mountain,” he said.
At some point in the early 2000s, the county authorized motorized use in the area.
“That opened the crack in the door,” Kroening said, explaining that, ever since then, the illegal trails have been expanding up the mountainside. The U.S. Forest Service is aware of the concerns.
Ken Waugh, recreation staff officer on the Dillon Ranger District, said the motorized Tenderfoot trail proposal ties in with a new travel plan for the entire forest, due to be released in draft form early next month.
The idea is to limit the motorized use to non-sensitive areas, lower on the mountain, where wildlife impacts are not as big an issue.
“There will be a severe reduction in overall trail miles in the area,” Waugh said.
Development of a contained, well-managed off-highway play area is the best way to contain the impacts, he said. Motorized users have been squeezed out of many other areas in Summit County in recent years, while use has increased dramatically.
“We’re just trying to give these guys a place to go,” Waugh said. Part of the Forest Service mission, as formalized by the White River forest plan, is to provide diverse recreation, and motorized use is part of the equation, he said.
The mountain bike group was asked to support the plan with a letter to the state trails group, but decided against taking that step, Zobbe said.
The main concerns from a mountain biking standpoint is the potential for increased trail conflicts, already a big problem in some areas.
“I feel bad for them … We’ve got to give these guys a place to go,” Zobbe said. “But Summit County is getting crowded. Is there room here for everything that everyone wants?”
Along with concerns about elk and trail conflicts, at least one public-lands watchdog thinks the planning process is flawed.
Spending money on a trail system designed before the Forest Service solicits public involvement could, at the very least, create an appearance of a bias in favor of the development, said Roz McClellan, who promotes quiet recreational uses of public lands that don’t impact nature.
McClellan also questioned the use of state grant dollars to pay a private consulting firm to do the federally required environmental analysis. She said it could set a new precedent for privatizing the public lands decision-making process.
She advocated for more input from wildlife agencies, local governments and other user groups early in the process to help with the design phase.
McClellan said she’s not completely opposed to the idea of a motorized park. In the past, she’s supported that type of contained use as the best way to manage, monitor and mitigate impacts from motorized recreation.
But that requires more than just drawing trails on a map. Long-term maintenance, management and enforcement need to be part of the early considerations, she said.
“We have concerns,” said the DOW’s Kroening, who learned about the proposal just last month. “We’re skeptical, knowing that the Forest Service only has one law-enforcement officer to cover Summit County and parts of the surrounding area.”
Waugh said local ski resorts use a similar method for evaluating new lifts and trails.
“You have to have a design to take to the public. I made it clear that the decision may be to not build a trail system,” Waugh said. “The first step is to design a system that meets the use and demand and fits the forest plan. Then you start a public process,” Waugh said.
Summit County planning director Jim Curnutte said a proposal for new motorized trails would definitely draw some attention from local citizens and from the Snake River Planning Commission, which oversees land use in the area and recently updated a master plan for the basin.
The Dillon Town Council was also solicited for support, but the town hesitated, not sure if it wants to see that use increased in the area, according to Waugh.
The citizen planning board is receptive to holding informal sessions on proposed plans to help proponents shape proposals that meet master-plan guidelines, said commissioner Craig Suwinski.
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