Trails advocate in support of Saltonstall property purchase |

Trails advocate in support of Saltonstall property purchase

EMMA – Mountain bikers are getting a bad rap in the debate over the purchase of the Saltonstall property in the midvalley and its potential to increase access to public lands known as the Crown, according to a proponent of the deal.

George Trantow, a longtime member of the Midvalley Trails Committee and a rider who has tirelessly promoted expansion of the trail network on the Crown, said he believes hikers, bikers and equestrians can coexist with cows, elk, deer and other critters.

Any potential problems between various users of the public lands can be “mitigated” once the Bureau of Land Management finalizes a land-use plan for the Crown, Trantow said. The Crown is a 9,000-acre mass of rolling terrain between the Roaring Fork Valley floor in El Jebel and the base of Mount Sopris. It’s been used by ranchers for summer grazing for decades. It’s also been popular with hunters and dirt bikers. It’s become increasingly popular with mountain bikers in the past 15 years, particularly the western section accessed from Prince Creek Road out of Carbondale.

Ranchers who hold summer grazing rights on the Crown have sounded the alarm that increased use of the land by mountain bikers will harm their operations. They contend that more recreation equates to more gates being left open and cattle being disturbed, intentionally or not. They don’t want Pitkin County Open Space and Trails to buy property in the valley floor and open another public access to the Crown. Some wildlife advocates also have objected to creating additional access.

Access has become a hot topic since four government entities are teaming to buy the 145-acre Saltonstall property, which includes 50 acres irrigated for hay production. Pitkin County is contributing $1.8 million; Eagle County’s open space program is adding $2 million; Basalt pledged $500,000; and the Midvalley Trails Committee contributed $50,000. A $600,000 grant is being sought to complete the $5 million deal, which is scheduled to be completed later this year.

Saltonstall is along Hooks Spur Road in the Emma area. If it is purchased and access is opened, it will provide a much more accessible route to the Crown from the Rio Grande Trail and potentially expand the use of the eastern section of the Crown.

John Groves, Carbondale district wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said he is concerned about wildlife on the Crown from late fall through early spring. The Crown, Light Hill and Williams Hill all provide critical winter range for deer and important winter habitat for elk, he said.

If the Saltonstall property is purchased by the governments and a new public access is developed, access to the Crown should be closed from Dec. 1 through mid-May, Groves said. Dale Will, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails executive director, previously has said that any closures are requested by state wildlife officers.

Groves said he isn’t concerned about summer use of trails from a wildlife perspective. However, if hikers and bikers get accustomed to using trails in summers, he wonders if they will stay off them in the winters.

“The bigger issue is, once that trail’s in, enforcement,” Groves said.

An existing access from the Rio Grande Trail is closed during winters because of a closure of the Rio Grande Trail. Two gates block the way and are difficult to circumvent.

Access to the Crown via West Sopris Creek Road and Prince Creek Road isn’t physically closed in the winter, though Colorado Parks and Wildlife urges people to stay away. Last winter, with the lack of snow, the Crown was heavily used by hikers and by a special model of mountain bikes with large tires, Groves said. The trails on the western section of the Crown “were pounded,” he said. He witnessed dogs with hikers harassing wildlife.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is urging the Bureau of Land Management to enact a stricter winter closure.

Trantow said he believes a winter closure would be honored by the vast majority of trail users if it is explained. If there are good signs that explain how use is detrimental to wildlife trying to survive the winters, most people will honor the closure, he said.

“People will buy into it,” he said.

The Crown is almost impossible to travel through in wet weather anyway, Trantow noted. The soil sticks like glue to tires and boots.

Trantow, who is intimately familiar with the Crown, said access through Saltonstall would enhance the use of public lands. The only current access via the Rio Grande Trail is extremely challenging to cyclists because it is so steep. It also crosses private land and could be closed at any time. The grade of that access approaches 20 degrees at points, Trantow said. Existing routes from Saltonstall to the Crown are much more manageable.

“You’re going to cut the grade in half,” Trantow said. “There are already old ranch roads and recreation roads – ATV roads – there.”

He envisions connecting those routes with the Buckhorn Traverse, roughly 1 mile to the west. That would make more of the Crown accessible from the Rio Grande Trail for intermediate cyclists and families.

Trantow said he doubts that cyclists present major problems now for ranchers, and he doesn’t think increased numbers of cyclists will generate problems. One key will be installing cattle guards at gates that ranchers want kept closed. Riders will prefer to keep rolling. They won’t stop to open a gate just to make it tough on a rancher, he said.

Rory Cerise, a rancher who has run cattle on the Crown for 45 years, previously said some users of the Crown are regularly leaving gates open now. He fears it will be worse with greater use. Even where a cattle guard exists now, someone opens a gate, he said.

Trantow said the BLM needs to finalize its Resource Management Plan for the Crown, which will show what uses are allowed on specific routes. Once that’s completed, he is optimistic that cyclists such as himself can work with ranchers on solutions to issues.

“The ability to mitigate this – our hands are tied at this point,” he said.

But the red tape shouldn’t stop the governments from purchasing Saltonstall and working to establish access to the Crown, Trantow added.

“We’re making decisions about this based on fear rather than looking at it objectively,” he said.

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