Forest Service officials answer questions surrounding Mad Rabbit trails project

The updated Mad Rabbit trails proposal adds 52 miles of trails around Steamboat, while removing 36 miles of unsanctioned trails.
U.S. Forest Service/Courtesy

When the latest plans for the Mad Rabbit trail system were unveiled earlier this week, the U.S. Forest Service knew the community had questions and concerns.

On Thursday, Oct. 27, Brendan Kelly, the project’s lead and a recreation specialist for the Forest Service, hosted a Q&A session at Colorado Mountain College regarding the proposed trail system.

One person asked Kelly if the 52 miles of new trails near Rabbit Ears Pass were considered a need, and why the Forest Service chose the area around Rabbit Ears Pass specifically. 

Kelly responded by saying the demand for outdoor recreational use has been growing in Steamboat and across the state and about 2 million visitors come to the Routt National Forest every year.  

“We’re seeing increasing trends,” Kelly said. “Downhill skiing is the most popular activity. We have Steamboat Ski Resort, but our next one is hiking and our next one is biking.”

He said the Rabbit Ears Pass area was determined as the best location because of its proximity to town, and the Forest Service’s Forest Plan had designated the area as a focus for outdoor recreation opportunities. 

Kelly was asked how the Forest Service intends to work around historical resources in the area, such as popular unsanctioned trails that have been used for a long time but would be decommissioned and rehabilitated, according to the agency’s proposal.

“We actually have an archaeologist that is on our staff that analyzed all of the archaeological heritage resources in the project area,” Kelly said, explaining that preserving certain “heritage resources,” such as the color of rocks, would be an important aspect of the project.  

He said that earlier versions of the trail system included more of the non-commissioned trails that have been popular, but he and his staff had to reconsider after reviewing the overall impacts on the area’s natural resources. 

“We had to get rid of some of those historic trails,” he said. 

Someone asked Kelly if he knew how much the project would cost, which Kelly admitted isn’t certain yet. Kelly said his efforts have been focused on analysis so far and he wouldn’t have a firm cost estimate until a final decision on the project is made. 

One concerned citizen asked Kelly if he worries about trail users, particularly those from out of town and unfamiliar with the local ecosystem, disrupting the sheep that graze near Dumont Lake. 

Kelly responded that education would be an important function of the project. He also said there would be kiosks at each of the trailheads, and the ones near the ranges where sheep and guard dogs frequent would have information specific to those areas, including instructions on how to interact with guard dogs, for example. 

He also said the Forest Service would work with “ambassadors” such as the Routt County Riders and the Steamboat Chamber, which will include information on its website as part of its destination management services. 

Kelly was asked if hunters could use non-motorized game carts off trail to retrieve downed animals, considering that bikes and other non-motorized vehicles are restricted to the trail system. 

“That is one thing that’s exempt only during hunting season,” said Kelly, who clarified that hunters could make a single trip to retrieve game.

Kelly added that the Forest Service has been especially considerate when drafting rules for non-motorized vehicles, saying that historically it was assumed motorized vehicles were the culprits in impacting animal habitats, but that perception has changed.  

“The newer peer-reviewed Forest Service research shows that, yes, elk and other species are also avoiding where non-motorized humans are going as well,” said Kelly, who explained that recent research prompted him and his staff to keep the designated trails along the recreation corridors that are included in the Forest Service’s plan.

It was for those reasons, Kelly said, that trails in the Long Park Colorado Roadless Area, noted in the map, were taken out of the trail system. 

“They would have been great trails, but holistically, as part of this project, we had to scrap those trails because it was dissecting some critical habitat for elk,” Kelly said. 

Someone asked Kelly if winter biking was included in the proposal. 

Kelly replied that the proposal only relates to summer activities at the moment, but once there’s enough snow to protect vegetation, the area transitions to winter management and fat bikes would be managed just like cross country skis. 

Craig Frithsen, president of the Routt County Riders, attended the Forest Service’s presentation and said their proposal was “balanced” with concessions from both recreators and hunters. 

“We get a great new trail system here,” Frithsen said. “They get some more protected land. They did a really good job finding a good compromise solution that is going to provide a really high-quality trail system at an underutilized corridor.” 

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