Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail stirs passions

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Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

A possible alignment of the Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail would squeeze the trail between the river and Colorado 133. The costs of building a trail in the narrow canyon could exceed $100 million if the alignment follows the highway.

The border-to-border rush to mine Colorado for recreation is built on a lattice of paths promising a future of fortune. Trails are pitched as the fuel for rural economies, fostering an appreciation of Colorado’s public lands and luring employees seeking an outdoor lifestyle.

But recreation, like the hard-rock mining that sparked Colorado’s economy for decades, comes at a cost to local residents and ecologies. And nowhere in Colorado is the struggle over the impacts of a new trail more evident than in the narrow Crystal River Valley between Redstone and Carbondale.

Pitkin County surveys show strong resident support for the planned Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail, an an 83-mile trail winding through the Crystal River Valley and climbing over McClure Pass. Issues arise over where, exactly, the trail should wind, leaving neighbors wondering how to craft boundaries around booming recreation that can limit impacts to residents and wildlife.

“We can see what happens with the crowds, development and impacts that follow recreation. We see it when it trickles down from Aspen into Basalt and Carbondale,” says Nathan Helfenbein, the son of a Carbondale coal miner who is raising his family along the Crystal River in Redstone. “Like me, I think a lot of people moved to this valley to get away from the hustle and bustle in the I-70 corridor and the Roaring Fork Valley. We want to keep this place scenic and wild and preserve the reasons we moved here.”

For more than 15 years, simmering plans for an 83-mile trail between Carbondale and Crested Butte have troubled residents of tightly clustered communities on the banks of the Crystal. Simmer turned to boil in 2016, when Gov. John Hickenlooper named the Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail among 16 high-priority trails in his Colorado the Beautiful plan to place trails and parks within a short stroll of every resident.

Hickenlooper counts seeding a vast network of regional trails among his top accomplishments as governor, with “16 for 2016” helping drive his vision for a robust Colorado economy and populace.

“It’s part of health care … making sure people get outside and exercise,” Hickenlooper said in an interview with The Colorado Sun last week, championing the Colorado Trail Explorer app that maps 39,000 miles of trails across the state as part of his trail plan. “So I think it’s a big deal.”

A grant from Great Outdoors Colorado and support from Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails program accelerated planning for the Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail in 2017. County leaders held several public meetings, responded to hundreds of comments and conducted thousands of hours of research into the ecological and social impacts of the trail, which winds closer to remote homes than any other trail proposed in the 16 for 2016 plan.

On Dec. 19, the Pitkin County commissioners voted to move a portion of the trail forward, with several possible alignments for 20 miles of the trail from the BRB Campground upstream of Carbondale on Colorado 133 to the top of McClure Pass. (See stories in The Aspen Times and Aspen Daily News).

The roughly 7-mile span climbing from Redstone to McClure is planned to be developed first, using unpaved single track that follows an existing historic route. Not too many people seem concerned with this stretch through White River National Forest land.

But the 13-mile stretch between the BRB Campground and Redstone fires emotions. Crystal River residents with homes close to this likely paved trail are critical of the plan, emphasizing impacts to wildlife, habitat and private property along 13 riverside miles of the 20-mile stretch to McClure.

One proposed alignment puts the trail along the highway. That’s a very expensive plan, with bridges and infrastructure to wedge the trail between the highway and the river priced at more than $100 million.

A possible alignment of the Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail would squeeze the trail between the river and Colorado 133. The costs of building a trail in the narrow canyon could exceed $100 million if the alignment follows the highway. (Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism)

Another alignment follows an old railroad grade on the river opposite the highway, traversing parcels of open space already owned by the county. Wherever Pitkin County commissioners choose to route the trail, construction will span at least two decades, with each individual segment requiring federal environmental review.

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

A view of the former coal mining village of Placita, with the upper Crystal River winding along the valley floor as seen from from Colorado 133 as it climbs up McClure Pass.

Wants and needs

“It seems that priorities have shifted to a focus on recreational development at any cost,” said Jason Sewell, who farms the Sunfire Ranch at the base of Mount Sopris that his great-great-grandfather homesteaded. “We need to be asking ourselves, what are the real cost benefits, from a holistic perspective? Then, we can accurately weigh them against the wants and needs of the communities burdened by these recreational expansions and make the right decisions.”

Sewell is a member of the Crystal River Caucus, which has spearheaded opposition to the trail, uniting residents of the valley’s secluded communities to question the cost and impacts of the trail.

Among the most influential residents of the valley is Leslie Wexner, the businessman behind clothing giant L Brands. Wexner’s Two Shoes Ranch is close to 6,000 acres in the valley, amassed since 2002 including a 1,200-acre land swap with the BLM finalized in 2017. His ranch team — including its lawyer and wildlife biologist manager — has been critical of the trail plan. The billionaire’s support has amplified opposition by paying for a wildlife study that showed impacts from eight of the proposed 14 bridges damaging riparian habitat along the Crystal River.

Residents along the once-industrial Crystal River are veterans of blocking big-project plans in their valley. In the 1950s, federal legislators prioritized two 280-foot dams for reservoirs. The Osgood Reservoir would have flooded Redstone and Redstone Castle. The Placita Reservoir near Marble would have flooded wetlands in the upper stretches of the Crystal, with hopes of providing hydroelectric power and irrigation water for far-off mesas. Those dam plans lingered into the 1980s, with water rights for the reservoirs finally abandoned in 2013 after years of challenges from Crystal River Valley groups as well as Pitkin County.

“We are pretty protective up here. There are a lot of residents who don’t want to see development coming into this valley,” said Gary Miller, whose father, artist Jack Roberts, built a studio in Redstone in the late 1960s, where he painted Western-themed landscapes and penned acerbic political cartoons lambasting plans for the dams and a ski area near Marble.

Miller isn’t wading into the Crystal River Valley trail conflict. He doesn’t ride road bikes. He rides mountain bikes. So he’s offering his full-throated endorsement of a different plan to develop mountain bike trails between the miles of roads threading across the former Coal Basin mine property above the Crystal River, now owned by members of the Walton family, including Sam Walton, the grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton. The project marks yet another transition from old-school extractive industry to recreation in the Crystal River Valley.

Crystal Basin Holdings, with an Arkansas address for Walton Enterprises LLC, is seeking Pitkin County approval to build 4.5 miles of beginner-friendly mountain bike trails and restore damaged land on 221 acres of the former coal mine. The trails will be open for free public use. (Full-disclosure: Sam Walton’s Catena Foundation has made a grant to Aspen Journalism supporting coverage of regional trail systems in Colorado and Aspen Journalism has partnered with The Colorado Sun.)

Bentonville, Arkansas-based Progressive Trail Design plans to build the downhill-focused flow trail system, dubbed Gateway, mirroring projects the group has done across the country, including trails in Snowmass, Glenwood Springs, Meeker and in Denver, where it created the Ruby Hill bike park.

The Crystal River Caucus also voted to oppose the Gateway trail plan at Coal Basin, where a coal mine operated from 1956 to 1991.

“I can’t imagine my dad would have ever imagined something like this happening to the coal mine up there,” Miller said. “I mean this whole valley was pretty much built on mining. There are so many old mining roads up here. This is private property and it was a big mine. Seems to me that mountain bike trails certainly can’t hurt that land up there.”

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The Crystal River, below McClure Pass. The Hwy 133 road-cut leading to the top of the pass is visible on the hillside in the background.

“Recreation does not come without costs”

In recent years the Roaring Fork Valley has seen a network of trails linking towns and communities with outlying public lands, including the popular Prince Creek and Crown trails on Bureau of Land Management land outside Carbondale.

Al Beyer, a longtime Roaring Fork Valley trail advocate, understands locals irked by a trail passing through their backyard. (He also points to open space acreage in the Crystal River Valley that is enjoyed by residents there but paid for with a county-wide tax that supports Pitkin County Open Space and Trails’ more than $8 million annual budget.)

“On some level, bless them for slowing down progress,” Beyers said. “At some point, all these discussions boil down to a population question. Do we need 16 trail projects or 46 trail projects to keep the growing population of the state happy? At what point does the population of the state exceed our ability to keep everyone outside and recreating?”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Perry Will is in charge of protecting Colorado’s wildlife in Pitkin and Eagle counties. His team has recommended that Pitkin County align the trail along the highway and install seasonal closures to protect bighorn sheep and elk in the corridor.

“There’s not a lot of places for wildlife to go in that valley other than the valley bottoms,” said Will, noting that the county’s leaders have been receptive to seasonal restrictions in other areas, including on the Rio Grande Trail between Carbondale and Basalt.

The pressure for new trails is a growing part of the job for Will and his fellow wildlife managers statewide. Closures during winter and other restrictions are a common tool used to protect wildlife near trails. Will said most people understand why a trail needs to be closed and that recognition is a benefit of the intensive planning and public process that goes into trail development.

“Everyone gets it. Everyone wants to recreate and we want them to recreate. But sometimes, you can love a landscape to death,” Will said. “Recreation does not come without costs.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Colorado Sun on coverage of regional trails. The Sun published this story on Dec. 18, 2018. This version of the story was updated on Dec. 20 to reflect the county’s vote on Dec.19.

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