Public debates what to do with Sutey Ranch at Carbondale open house

Thomas Phippen
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
U.S. Bureau of Land Management planners are busy taking input from the public and various recreational user and resource conservation groups in an effort to come up with a management plan for the recently acquired Sutey Ranch parcel, pictured here and located to the north of the existing Red Hill Recreation Area outside Carbondale.
Erin Leifeld | Courtesy BLM

Advocates for wildlife, mountain bike enthusiasts, equestrians and ranchers are clambering to have a say in what happens to a coveted new parcel of public land just north of Carbondale.

The 557-acre Sutey Ranch, which the Bureau of Land Management acquired through a land swap in 2017, abuts the popular Red Hill Recreation Area trail network that includes Mushroom Rock. And the rare acquisition to public land in the core of the Roaring Fork Valley has stoked local passions.

“We have some really strong competing interests associated with this parcel,” said Gloria Tibbetts, acting field manager for the BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office. The agency held an open house Thursday in Carbondale to accept public comment on the different proposed options for the land.

BLM developed several options for Sutey following a public comment period this summer, and has proposed three options emphasizing three different uses. It released the preliminary management plan Oct. 5, along with an environmental assessment.

Alternative one includes strong protections for wildlife habitats and allows recreation for part of the year; alternative two excludes mountain biking to focus on hiking and equestrian trails; and alternative three emphasizes mountain bikes and includes horse trails.

The BLM prefers the first option, but the final plan may incorporate elements of each alternative.

wildlife concerns

The principal attributes of alternative one, the wildlife-focused option, is a winter closure to all human activities from December to mid-April. It would also designate the Sutey parcel as a Priority Wildlife Habitat, which prohibits activities that disturb the surface.

That special designation is critical for the area, according to Will Roush, executive director of Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop.

Sutey is “a rare habitat type to be available to animals,” Roush said, and closing it completely to human access would help the ecosystem, while also providing opportunities for recreation. The open meadows on the land provide opportunities for elk and deer to dig through the snow to access grass in the winter months, he said.

Under alternative three, Sutey would be added to the Red Hill Special Recreation Management Area (SRMA), which means that “over the long term, when BLM is weighing future decisions, they’re going to prioritize recreation over wildlife,” Roush said. As the BLM chooses location of trails, for example, only under the first option would wildlife be the priority, according to Roush.

To Holly McLain, who leads communications for the Roaring Fork Horse Council and runs a small horse-breeding operation, horses and hikers mesh with wildlife preservation better than mountain bikers.

“We would like to see mountain bikes kept off that area, because it is a perfect place for families with children and grandchildren,” McLain said. The horse council proposed a more aggressive winter closure for the area with no human access, like in alternative one.

The horse council also feels that the area needs more equestrian trails, and bemoans the loss of access to the Red Hill trail system. The group has sent delegates to implore the Carbondale Board of Trustees and the Garfield County commissioners to intercede in protecting the Sutey area from mechanized recreation.

Historically, Red Hill was a popular area for horseback riding, McLain said, but around a decade ago, the trails became quite popular with hikers and eventually bikers, and riders weren’t able to park in the lot at the base of the hill where Highway 133 meets 82.

“I don’t want to appear to be against the mountain bikes,” McLain said. “What we’re trying to do is promote a positive view of keeping the land quiet, peaceful, predictable, safe,” without disrupting the wildlife habitat.

ranching interests

Keeping the area predictable and safe also is a priority for ranchers interested in running cattle on the property, which is an option in some of the BLM’s proposals.

Mountain bikers and animals do not mix, according to Kathy Weiss, who owns property bordering the Sutey property and would like to graze cattle on the parcel eventually.

“As a neighbor, I’m already feeling the pressure of all the hikers and the hunters going down there,” Weiss said. She said she wants to see the land grazed “for the historic preservation of Sutey ranch,” and because that’s what the Suteys would have done.

But that would be difficult with mechanized recreation, because cattle and horses interpret the fast movement of bikes as predators.

The third alternative is most attractive to mountain bikers for the chance to extend the existing Red Hill trails. The first alternative would allow mountain bike access for the summer months, but likely only on one trail, and the second prohibits mountain bikes entirely.

Mike Pritchard, executive director of the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association, said he hopes the public process will result in a balanced approach that allows for nonmotorized bike access to the property.

Mountain bikers would benefit from access to the north side of the trail system, to alleviate the congested Red Hill trails and allow more intermediate riders more options than the technically demanding hills at the current trailhead.

Even if the BLM selects the third alternative, there would still be plenty of option for comment on the trail placement, according to Pritchard.

“In any of these cases there’s going to be a future process for any particular trail,” Pritchard said.

The BLM’s public comment period closes Nov. 5, and after the proposed management plan is selected, the public will have a chance to protest the decision.