Buffalo Pass trails project remains on hold
Steamboat Springs — A plan to build a more expansive and sustainable trail system on Buffalo Pass for cyclists, hikers, equestrians and off-highway vehicle drivers is in a holding pattern because of environmental concerns.
Two local residents and an environmentalist from the Front Range are continuing to object to the project, which would bring several miles of illegally built trails into the United States Forest Service’s trail system along with miles of new trails.
Proponents of the plan say the project will give several types of trail users new areas to explore and a better recreation experience on the rugged mountain pass northeast of Steamboat Springs.
And local Forest Service officials are confident the plan will ultimately get the green light so construction can start in the coming days.
Project opponents have raised a number of concerns that range from a fear of rewarding those who illegally built trails in the area to the project’s overall impact on wildlife.
But the petitioners’ main concern centers on one of the proposed trails that would take travelers to a mountain peak that offers sweeping views of the Yampa Valley.
The petitioners don’t want the Forest Service to adopt and improve the illegally built trail that skirts around the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area on the way to the summit of Soda Mountain.
Steamboat Springs resident John Spezia said improving the Soda Mountain Trail would damage a fragile ecosystem.
“It’s an incredibly sensitive environment,” Spezia said.
He said that although the area of concern is below 9,000 feet, it resembles an alpine tundra because of its geology and how it is exposed to weather and wind.
He also has raised concerns about the trail’s impact on such wildlife as elk and bighorn sheep, the latter of which he says have been spotted within three miles of Soda Peak.
Spezia, who noted he is a cyclist himself and isn’t opposed to mountain biking, and the other opponents recently offered to withdraw their petition against the entire Buffalo Pass trails project if the Soda Mountain trail was dropped from the plan.
The Forest Service attempted to alleviate the environmental concerns about the trail by rerouting it around wetlands that are in the area.
Despite that plan to reroute the trail, the opponents have not withdrawn their objection.
Local Forest Service officials said they feel they have addressed the environmental concerns in the plan.
Trail builders have been ready to start construction on the project this summer, but they cannot move forward until the objection has been resolved.
A Forest Service official in Golden is currently reviewing the petition against the proposal and will determine how to proceed by Aug. 22.
Kent Foster, recreation program manager for the Hahn’s Peak Ranger District, said Wednesday he’s confident the trails proposal will soon get the green light, but some tweaks might be needed.
“Through this public process, I think the project has become a better project,” he said, noting the Forest Service has made other changes in response to public feedback.
For example, he said some portions of the trails were designed to be more technical and difficult so that cyclists would have to travel them at slower speeds.
Foster said that means cyclists will get more of a challenge that some are seeking, and there will be less chances of trail conflicts between cyclists and other types of trail users because of the slower speeds.
The Forest Service has also addressed concerns about rewarding the creators of the unauthorized trails that cyclists have built in the backcountry.
While the plan calls for the adoption and improvement of some of these pirate trails to make them more sustainable, it also calls for the closures of some illegally built trails that are not sustainable.
The Forest Service would be able to ticket anyone who is caught creating new trails or using a trail in a closed area.
A large portion of the construction, planning and environmental assessments for the Buff Pass trails is being paid for by city lodging tax dollars, which voters overwhelmingly approved to spend on trail construction and improvements in the area.
Foster said the goal for this summer is to improve and construct about 20 miles of trail, mostly on the lower part of Buffalo Pass near Dry Lake.
The entire plan calls for 46 miles of trail to be constructed and improved in the area.
The Dry Lake parking area also will be improved.
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