Wildlife deserves a hearing before work on trail begins
December 27, 2005
What’s more important: a scenic and safe bicycle and walking trail along the Roaring Fork River for all to use, or preservation of what has become a critical river access corridor for wildlife?It’s a question valley residents and their elected representatives need to ask themselves this winter before work begins on the trail planned between Hooks Lane in El Jebel and the bridge over the Roaring Fork River at Catherine Store Road.As reported in Monday’s edition of The Aspen Times, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s plans for extending the Rio Grande Trail from Catherine Store bridge to Hooks Lane will result in a strip of pavement and a lot more people and dogs moving through a critical wildlife corridor.The 4.5-mile stretch, currently occupied only by abandoned railroad tracks, has become one of the last sections of riverfront undisturbed by driveways, roads, homes and, yes, trails. It provides access to water and food for bears, elk, deer, bobcats, mountain lions, ermine, coyote and just about every other creature that inhabits the area around Mount Sopris. Kevin Wright, a wildlife officer in this area for 21 years, pointed out that the presence of a trail will likely drive away species that are less tolerant of human activity.RFTA’s stuck between a railroad tie and a hard place. It has a clear mandate from voters to build an uninterrupted bicycle/pedestrian trail from Aspen to Glenwood Springs along the old Denver & Rio Grande Railroad right of way. Until now, it has managed to extend the trail through rural neighborhoods and working ranches, along the river in some places, and along hillsides in other locations along the rail corridor. While it makes logistical sense to continue along the rail corridor between Hooks Lane to Catherine Store bridge, it doesn’t necessarily make environmental sense. Unfortunately, work is scheduled to begin in just a few months.The RFTA board of directors, made up of elected representatives from valley governments, should commission an environmental impact study – even though they are not legally obligated to do so – in order to fully understand the nature of this section of the rail corridor.Alternate routes for cyclists and pedestrians should also be considered, particularly on the route along Catherine Store Road and the frontage road next to Highway 82 that is currently used by people who travel between Carbondale and El Jebel without a car. It may not provide the same scenic experience as a trail next to the river, but it is a safe alternative that keeps people off the highway.This is one of those classic clashes we experience in the Roaring Fork Valley between two equally important values. In this case trails and the environment are at loggerheads. In this case, we must ask ourselves what’s more important wildlife or recreation and then work hard to find the answer.