Mad Rabbit project still contentious, but Routt Recreation Roundtable works toward compromise
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A group of skiers, hikers, bikers, hunters, ranchers and other Routt National Forest users are working to find a compromise on the U.S. Forest Service’s Mad Rabbit Trails proposal. Though some are still calling to halt plans to build trails in the area, others in favor of expanded trails in Routt National Forest have offered up support for a more narrow proposal that would concentrate trails on Rabbit Ears Pass.
The Mad Rabbit Project proposes multi-use trails in the area of Mad Creek, Rocky Peak and Rabbit Ears Pass in Routt National Forest, many of them aligned to a 2013 Steamboat Springs Trails Alliance Proposal. This proposal was put forward and approved by voters as the city determined where it would spend accommodations tax revenue.
The Routt Recreation Roundtable, a group of stakeholders representing agricultural, wildlife and recreational interests, are working through proposed trails in conversations facilitated by the Keystone Policy Center.
Two proposals were put before the public in 2018. Proposal B resembles the Trails Alliance proposal. Proposal A was a revised version of the Trails Alliance proposal and was assembled by Forest Service. Trails in this proposal were more clustered near existing infrastructure. A third proposal, Proposal C, was put forward after the Forest Service received hundreds of public comments on the first two options.
In January, the Forest Service and the city of Steamboat Springs — which is contributing accommodations tax dollars to the planning and eventually the construction of the trails — hired Keystone in an attempt to find a consensus among different user groups. This resulted in the Routt Recreation Roundtable.
During Thursday’s meeting, roundtable members offered up their own proposals. All users coalesced around a need for more enforcement and maintenance of trails and National Forest infrastructure.
In the discussion, many said they hoped to prioritize trails in the Ferndale area of Rabbit Ears Pass, a roadless area across the highway from the Forest Service’s Meadows Campground. They also expressed an interest in compromising by not building several trails in the Mad Creek area with concerns for infrastructure, traffic and worries that trails in the area would push wildlife onto nearby private land.
“We support what the Forest Service has presented so far,” said Routt County Riders Vice President Craig Frithsen as he directed a laser pointer at the Ferndale area. “They have essentially addressed the three major concerns. … Essentially, what they’ve done is they’ve maximized the preservation of the roadless area in here, and they’ve minimized the habitat fragmentation that those trails would cause for that area. That said, those were intended to be kind of the flagship epic trail and connector trail of the Steamboat Springs Trails Alliance (proposal).”
Frithsen proposed a new trail which would run nearly parallel to U.S. Highway 40 south of the highway, then route north across the highway to circle a cluster of proposed trails located within 1.5 miles of U.S. 40. He said this would allow trail users to take spurs and shortcuts to create smaller loops or complete a nearly 40-mile loop of trail in Ferndale.
This proposed trail and others that were not included in the original 2013 Trails Alliance proposal could not be constructed using the city’s accommodations tax funds.
“We’re not trying to ram trails down anyone’s throat,” Frithsen said, responding to a question about Routt County Rides’ position on Mad Creek trails. “That’s not what we want, but we want the opportunity to provide a really high-quality riding experience, and if it gets concentrated in one area, instead of being spread out all around, we would be supportive of that.”
“We like the Gunn Creek trail,” he said of the trail that would connect Mad Creek to Dry Lake through a designated roadless area. “We like that it has connectivity and basically allows you to ride all the way from Rabbit Ears over to (Routt County Road) 129, but we’re willing to compromise. If that’s the trail that is the trigger point, for causing friction in our community and problems, then yeah, we would definitely back off of that.”
Representatives of several groups called for a no-action alternative, which would mean none of the proposed trails would hit the dirt. Keep Rout Wild, the local chapters of Great Old Broads for Wilderness and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation called for this.
“We need to pause and put these in already impacted areas,” said Keep Routt Wild President Larry Desjardin. He proposed a planning process for trails similar to what buildings undergo.
Many of those who supported this option said they wanted to see the results of a Colorado Parks and Wildlife study set to launch later this year.
“Right now, the Northwest Colorado RMEF chapter cannot agree to any of the proposals offered,” said Edward Watson of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “Proof will be in the science of (Colorado Parks and Wildlife)’s study that they’re about to launch, and only then will we know the impacts to wildlife habitat to Buff Pass and the surrounding area.”
Parks and Wildlife Area Wildlife Manager Kris Middledorf emphasized that the study and new trails aren’t mutually exclusive. The study, which will take six years to complete, aims to inform future management decisions.
“These studies are not meant to be put in place and then wait until we have information,” he said. “They’re taking advantage of an opportunity that exists right now at a focal point of future recreation development in Routt County. It’s a laboratory setup, where we can look at what’s happening now, and we can study it, and then we can implement certain treatments, such as recreation, and see what the effects are.”
Steamboat resident Eric Meyer, a member of the Trails Alliance, offered up the idea of taking no action in the Mad Creek area.
“I would say, while the CPW study goes for the next six or seven years, you do a no-action (alternative). Let’s see what happens,” he said.
“We have to make this network better than Buff Pass,” he continued. “If we don’t make it better than Buff Pass, Buff Pass is going to be five times what you saw last summer. … If we do a total no-action, we’re all going to be really cranky about how Buff Pass went down, including myself.”
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