Public takes first look at Carbondale to Crested Butte trail

The first open house for a proposed trail that would span 83 miles from Carbondale to Crested Butte drew dozens of locals to the Church in Redstone Thursday evening.

This trail has been a vision of the community for a couple of decades now, said Lindsey Utter, planning and outreach manager for Pitkin County Open Space and Trails.

Plenty of people spoke up about the project’s benefits at the open house, and most agreed that the project’s two biggest hurdles are going to be wildlife impact and resistance from property owners.

One of the displays at the open house prompted visitors to answer a question: What makes the Crystal Valley a special place?

One sticky note response succinctly responded, “The lack of development!”

The corridor is already so tight in many places that some worried that cramming a trail there would push into the riparian habitat along the Crystal River.

“Wildlife concerns will be the number one thing for us to look at,” said Utter. The challenge will be to balance conservation and recreation, which is important to Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, she said. “We’re not just a trail-building organization.”

Utter said the project is now in the data-collecting phase of planning.

Seasonal closures of the trail could be necessary to protect wildlife — as is done on the Rio Grande Trail — but that will depend upon the route alignment, said Utter. “We’ll also have wildlife studies to determine where seasonal closures might be necessary.”

Cyclist safety is a big driver of the project.

With little shoulder to speak of and trucks moving at high speeds, Colorado 133 going up McClure pass is dangerous for cyclists, said Mark Hilberman, a member of the Crystal Valley Caucus.

Chuck Downey, a Redstone resident and cyclist (among many other sports) said he totally supports the project, as it frees up people in the Crystal Valley to go up and down the valley. “As it is, it takes a guy with a deathwish to go up 133,” he said.

Inevitably, the project is going to be tugged between people concerned about wildlife and recreationists, and there has to be some middle road, he said.

“You can’t just put the path on the highway right of way; that’s a non-starter,” he said.

Chuck Ogilby, owner of Avalanche Ranch, said his family would think it wonderful to have this trail right outside their front door.

But, certainly, some property owners are going to have a problem with it if the trail comes too close to their property and they don’t want the public to have access, he said. “That’s a legitimate issue, but the trail design will take that into account, as well as any wildlife issues.”

Filoha Meadows is a location important to wildlife that the community will focus on, said Ogilby.

The community has been pretty united behind preserving that area from interference with the wildlife as herds of elk and bighorn sheep use it, he said.

Ogilby, too, said some seasonal closures in such areas may be necessary. Other people will be opposed completely to placing the trail near some wildlife areas, so it might be controversial, he said.

Another suggestion focused on keeping the trail adjacent to the road and out of wetland areas.

Gov. John Hickenlooper selected this project as one of his Colorado the Beautiful’s “16 in 2016” trails of critical connection. Pitkin County Open Space and Trails is spearheading the project, having put up $200,000 for the planning phase, alongside another $100,000 from a Great Outdoors Colorado grant.

Connecting the two mountain towns by a single-track, and in some places paved, trail is expected to be a two-year process.

In 2017 the project will be in its planning and data gathering phase. Then the National Environmental Policy Act and federal environmental review process would begin in 2018. If all goes smoothly, construction on the trail could begin in 2019.

The trail project would benefit from some existing segments of trail. The Crystal Trail already branches south from Carbondale to the KOA campground. And Crested Butte has already constructed about six miles of single track to its west.

Left to be constructed would be the 20 miles between the KOA campground and the top of McClure pass.

Nearly another 20 miles of trail already exist from the top of the pass south to Ericson Springs, though some reroutes may be necessary on this stretch.

However, some of the existing trails are ATV trails that are difficult to bike, said Albert Borkowski, special uses program manager for the Paonia Ranger District. From there, the project would need to construct new trail sections totaling up to about 30 miles to Crested Butte.