Newly formed group advocates to slow trail building in Routt National Forest to protect wildlife | SteamboatToday.com

Newly formed group advocates to slow trail building in Routt National Forest to protect wildlife

Mountain bikers ride down the Flash of Gold trail on Buffalo Pass, which was built using revenue from Steamboat’s accommodations tax. A new group wants to reevaluate how accommodations tax funds are used to build trail in the Steamboat area. (Courtesy of Bike Town USA)

Editor’s notes:

This story discusses trail building initiatives funded by revenue from Steamboat's accommodations tax, which is frequently called the 2A tax after the 2013 ballot initiative that designated the funds to be used to build trails in the Steamboat Springs area. The accommodations tax is different from the 2A commercial air program sales tax, which voters will find on their ballots in November.

The Steamboat Trails Alliance meeting is from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 22, in the County Commissioners Hearing Room in the Routt County Courthouse. The U.S. Forest Service is completing an environmental assessment, not an environmental impact statement. The meeting date and type of review have been corrected below.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A new group has coalesced around protecting wildlife by slowing down trail development in some areas of Routt National Forest.

Keep Routt Wild, a group of community members concerned by trails’ impacts to wildlife, held a meeting in the Routt County Courthouse. More than 60 people attended, including a number of hunters, hikers and mountain bikers both in favor of and opposed to trail development such as the Mad Rabbit Trails Project.

"Sometimes we love the mountains too much," said Nick Metzler, who led the meeting. "We're loving it to death, meaning the amount of use that our forest is getting is greatly concerning us. This is with or without any new trails going in."

Metzler said, as more people move to Routt County and the state, protecting wildlife should be a priority.

The group has outlined three action items it would like to accomplish:

  • Engaging landowners, producers and forest users who primarily use the forest on foot or horseback.
  • Requesting the U.S. Forest Service and partners pause the planning process on Mad Rabbit to consider trail projects closer to town.
  • Create a cooperating agreement with Routt County, Steamboat Springs, the Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Metzler said the group is not a "no-trails committee," but that wildlife is more important than trails, and "we need to be sensitive to the impacts."

Jason Landers speaks to a room full of people gathered for the first meeting of Keep Routt Wild, a group advocating to slow the development of trails in Routt National Forest to protect wildlife. (Photo by Eleanor Hasenbeck)

Much of the group’s concerns are focused on trail building initiatives funded by revenue from Steamboat's accommodations tax, which is frequently called the 2A tax after the 2A ballot initiative, which designated the funds to be used to build trails in the Steamboat Springs area in 2013.

Keep Routt Wild is explicitly concerned by the Mad Rabbit proposals for additional trails in the area of Mad Creek, Rocky Peak and Rabbit Ears Pass. They believe there has been misunderstanding in the proposal and process, according to their mission.

"This is kind of our coming out meeting for — our rallying cry to make that voice which I think has been missing in this discussion up to now, from what I can tell," said Cedar Beauregard, a member of Keep Routt Wild.

The Forest Service is currently drafting an environmental assessment on two Mad Rabbit proposals, one designed by the Forest Service and another aligned to a proposal created by the Steamboat Springs Trails Alliance.

After the decision on the environmental assessment comes out, more public comment will be accepted before the Forest Service makes a final decision. Should either proposal be approved, 2A funds would be used to start building trail.

At the meeting, some members of Keep Routt Wild shared their views and what they hoped to accomplish. Colorado Parks and Wildlife Area Manager Kris Middledorf presented on what the impacts of run-ins with humans and our infrastructure has on local deer and elk herds.

The herd north of Steamboat is the second largest herd in Colorado — Middledorf joked that also makes it second largest herd in the galaxy. Middledorf said trails should be planned strategically to allow people to connect to the outdoors while considering critical times in elk's life cycle, like calving and migration seasons. Parks and Wildlife also wants to see better enforcement of trail closures placed to protect wildlife.

Routt County Commissioner Cari Hermacinski said the Routt County Board of Commissioners sent the Forest Service a letter requesting that the agency "slow down the process a little" on the proposed Mad Rabbit trails.

"Our belief is that the community at large is just becoming aware of what the Mad Rabbit is, and what we can see now after four years of the 2A tax being in place is we can actually see what some of the actual impacts are," she said.

However, many members of the mountain biking community expressed frustration in how wheeled use is treated in an outline of Keep Routt Wild's mission. One audience member even encouraged the group to avoid divisive language. A line of the group's mission statement says, "We believe the existing and potential impacts of widespread increased wheeled use in our back county (sic) forested lands are unacceptable."

Members of Routt County Riders are frustrated because they feel that the hunters were invited to early discussions but did not attend.  Member Aryeh Copa said the Trails Alliance tried to reach out to all user groups, including hunters, to get input at 2A Trails Alliance meetings when the alliance first started meeting, but few hunters have attended 2A meetings to share their perspective.

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"Please forgive us for not showing up earlier," Beauregard said in response to Copa's comment. "The woods, according to us — the people that use it in the way we — what we get out of the woods — it's perfect right now. You guys have been advocating for change when we've just been happy with the way it is. Forgive us for not being involved, but this is a lose-lose for us.”

Kelly Northcutt, executive director of Routt County Riders, said the organization always considers sensitive habitat, sensitive species and where wildlife is moving.

"We have never just built right through something," she said. "We have biologists and wildlife specialists and geologists and hydrologists all walk through every single trail with us before it’s even on the ground." Trails are shifted based on their recommendations, and some proposed trails have already been excluded from the Mad Rabbit project due to concerns for habitat, she said.

Northcutt hopes public support for trails continues, and that mountain bikers and Keep Routt Wild can "talk to each other" to come to solutions. She also hopes to see Keep Routt Wild members at Trails Alliance meetings. Members of Keep Routt Wild said they planned to attend. The next Trails Alliance meeting is from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 22 in the Routt County Courthouse.

Northcutt said a “critical part of this is collaboration and open communication and respectful dialogue so that we can not all ‘win,’ but find the best working solution for the community as a whole."

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email ehasenbeck@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @elHasenbeck.

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