Routt Recreation Roundtable working through new alignment of trails in Mad Rabbit project
March 5, 2019
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct a quote from Keep Routt Wild President Larry Desjardin.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Members of the Routt Recreation Roundtable considered a new alignment of trails in the Mad Rabbit project between Mad Creek, Rocky Peak and Rabbit Ears Pass in Routt National Forest.
The newest alignment incorporates input from public comments the U.S. Forest Service received on initial proposals. On Monday, the roundtable discussed this proposal and the benefits and drawbacks of specific proposed trails.
The meeting was also the only Mad Rabbit Roundtable meeting scheduled to include verbal public comment. All seats were full, and as the meeting approached public comment, it quickly became standing room only.
Of the 30 people who spoke, about 15 offered comments in favor of the project, about nine spoke in favor of pausing the project, and six commenters did not state clear support or opposition.
Giving context to the project, Forest Service District Recreation Manager Kent Foster explained to the audience that the Forest Service aimed to enhance its existing trail system as the Steamboat Springs area sees more visitors and locals using the forest. The agency also wants to reduce conflict between people recreating on the trails, he said, by spreading out that use.
He added that trails planning also allows the Forest Service to address unplanned social trails and to navigate trails around sensitive habitats or archeological sites. Foster said a Boreal toad breeding site and an archeological site were destroyed previously by a pirate trail on Buffalo Pass.
The Forest Service released two proposals on the Mad Rabbit trails project in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act in January 2018.
Proposal B calls for 68 miles of new trails, including a loop on Walton Rim and between the Ferndale area and Mount Werner. Proposal B resembles a trails plan suggested by the Steamboat Trails Alliance in 2013. The Forest Service revised the Trails Alliance's proposal to create Proposal A, which would see 79 miles of new trails designed by the Forest Service.
The Forest Service received more than 400 public comments on the proposals. After the public comment period, the Forest Service assembled Proposal C, which placed a number of proposed trails on the chopping block.
As the Forest Service was developing the next proposal to put before the public, the Mad Rabbit project became publicly contentious with the first meeting of Keep Routt Wild, an organization of people concerned by the impact of trails on wildlife.
In January, the Forest Service and the city of Steamboat Springs, which is contributing accommodations tax revenue to the project, hired the Keystone Policy Center to work through different stakeholder groups' values to develop a recommendation that creates a compromise. What emerged was the Routt Recreation Roundtable, made up of people representing a broad range of forest uses, including agricultural producers, cyclists, equestrians, trail runners, off-highway vehicle enthusiasts, backcountry skiers and wilderness and wildlife advocates.
Voices from public comment
“People with disabilities are going to start flooding this area. It's going to become a mecca for outdoor recreation whether you guys like it or not. Right now, we have Buffalo Pass trails, maybe one trail on Emerald and the Core Trail. In ten years, 15 years, it’s going to be flooded with adaptive users, so let’s expand and make the adaptive users use other trails, and then I’ll get to enjoy public land more.”
— Tim Nagel, program coordinator at Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports. Nagel uses a wheelchair.
"I really like mountain biking, and I support that we build a lot more trails."
— Ezra Halladay, age 10
"Let the people do their job. Let democracy reign. This is ridiculous that you're wasting the people's time and money. The elk are going to live regardless (of) if we take a few acres up there and build some trails."
— Ted Moss
"Trails can certainly have very negative impacts to wildlife, but trails can also have very positive impacts to wildlife. That can’t really happen if a trail isn’t planned properly to avoid sensitive habitat … Trails can be very beneficial for wildlife in numerous ways, but they do have to be planned right. You do have to go through a NEPA process to discover the damaged areas."
— Aryeh Copa, Routt County Riders
"I'm not necessarily in support of (a trail near) Gunn Creek, but I think any involvement in that area should consider an expansion to the (Mount Zirkel) Wilderness Area."
— Ben Beall (not Ben Beall, Sr.)
“A lot of people come from out of state to hunt the Routt National Forest and the Zirkel Wilderness. The more pressure you put on the elk, the more people hear about it, and the less people you see coming out here to hunt, and that’s a huge revenue generator for this city, Craig (and) down south. There are a lot of people that come here to spend money to go elk hunting.”
— Ron Buchart, general manager of Colorado Outfitters
"If you go out to Strawberry Park, and you go out to the middle school, and you watch that herd of elk — five years ago, it was five or six head of elk. Maybe a raghorn bull. That herd this year was 150 head because they were pushed out of where (Flash) of Gold is right now."
— Todd Lodwick, Keep Routt Wild
"You cyclists, you need to start paying and a lot. Why not get together, organize and pay a rancher a million dollars or two million dollars to put trails down their ranch property. For that kind of money, you might find a rancher that would do it."
— Bill McKelvie
Foster said the Forest Service "can't come up with all the answers" and hopes to continue to use the roundtable as a resource for public engagement, no matter what happens with the Mad Rabbit project.
"We could just do everything internally and then come out for public comment," he said. "Then, we get lots and lots of letters and lots of feedback, or we can engage people up front before we get into a planning process and identify what's out there as far as issues, concerns (and) opportunities that we're not seeing and really develop something that's going to be better for the community in the long run."
On Monday, this group worked through an amended version of Proposal C to identify issues and benefits of possible trail alignments.
Foster said the Forest Service hopes to include trails for which there is a consensus of support in a new proposal. Then, Forest Service natural resource specialists, in collaboration with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, will identify design elements and impacts to resources, including seasonal or time-of-day closures.
The Forest Service will then release another proposed action, which could include any combination of the proposed actions, a completely different suggestion or no action at all.
For some, no action is the preferred action. The roundtable meeting also included presentations from Keep Routt Wild, vocal opponents of the project, and Routt County Riders, vocal supporters of the project.
"Trails don’t cause impact to wildlife, trail users do," said Keep Routt Wild President Larry Desjardin. "It’s not the trail. You can go and bulldoze with a D8 on a ranch, and the elk will use that for sunbathing. It’s not the trail. It’s not the dirt path. But it’s people, particularly if there are high volumes of people, that push elk away, and the reason we’re so focused on elk is they’re an umbrella species. If elk can survive well, other species can too."
Desjardin's organization is calling for a pause to the Mad Rabbit NEPA process as Parks and Wildlife completes a study on the impact of recreation on wildlife. It will take eight to 10 years to have published results that could be used to make management decisions, according to Area Wildlife Manager Kris Middledorf.
Routt County Riders Executive Director Kelly Northcutt argued the trails are needed to fill gaps in trail difficulty for cyclists, adding more beginner and expert trails.
"The NEPA process is specifically designed to address wildlife and environmental concerns," Northcutt said.
She worries about the message that a no-action decision would send to other communities planning trails.
"It is saying that if you vote, if you participate and engage in a public process and if your trail organization diligently follows federal regulations for public land proposals, that none of that matters," she said. "It shows other communities that it is not worth it to be collaborative, transparent and inclusive, and instead, anyone can undermine the needs of the community if they complain loudly enough. Steamboat should be an example of responsible and collaborative trail building and not one of land managers catering to special interest groups."
While the topic is still an impassioned one between those that support and oppose the project, Foster said the conversation is becoming more constructive.
"Instead of an all-or-nothing type attitude before, I heard both sides talk a little bit more about what's important to them and their values," he said of Monday’s meeting. "That's what we're hoping to get to — is to understand everyone's values and concerns and opportunities and move forward with something that everyone is going to be happy with at the end of the day."