Steamboat, Forest Service to hire outside group to lead discussions on Mad Rabbit project in Routt National Forest
January 15, 2019
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Amid conflict between people recreating in Routt National Forest, officials have hired a policy group to help develop a Mad Rabbit trails proposal with community support.
The city of Steamboat Springs has contracted with Keystone Policy Center to facilitate discussion on the Mad Rabbit project, a proposal that would build a presently undetermined amount of trails in the areas of Mad Creek, Rocky Peak and Rabbit Ears Pass.
In a December email to city staff, U.S. Forest Service Recreation Program District Manager Kent Foster said, "it appears the community is divided on this project." Foster is furloughed due to the federal government shutdown and was unavailable for comment.
He wrote that the Forest Service had two options. It could continue with its review with the expectation that those opposed to the project would object, and that the agency could face possible litigation with "no guarantee of a positive outcome." Or, the agency could collaborate with stakeholders to develop a proposal that "meets broader community support."
"We feel the success of this will not only get to an end result for the Mad Rabbit (National Environmental Policy Act review) but may act as building blocks for a community round table to help with sustainable recreation management in the community," he wrote.
"It would be really cool to see this group continue beyond this current process and become something like an advisory committee for land managers," Routt County Riders Executive Director Kelly Northcutt said.
In her role with the local cycling organization, Northcutt emerged as a de facto leader of the Trails Alliance. She said the Trails Alliance is trying to move toward a more inclusive group representing all users, including those who don't want to see more trails in the National Forest. She sees the Keystone Center's facilitation of the Mad Rabbit discussions as a start toward this goal.
So far, members of the Trails Alliance have been trying to work through conflicts between users as the Forest Service works through a National Environmental Policy Act review of the Mad Rabbit proposal.
"It got to the point where it wasn't appropriate — I personally felt that it wasn’t appropriate — to be facilitating the meetings anymore if we were going to be talking about trails," she said.
She added that she was glad to pass the torch.
"At the end of the day, a project won't work if it doesn't have community support," she said. "I think this is really the ideal route for the Trails Alliance to evolve because then we can all at least talk to each other and share our concerns and share our goals and look at the goals of Mad Rabbit. Hopefully, we can have a really respectful and open dialogue."
Some opposed to the project would rather see the facilitation take on a broader focus.
Larry Desjardin is a member of Keep Routt Wild, a coalition of people who would like to see the Mad Rabbit trails slowed or halted to protect wildlife habitat, but he spoke representing his own views.
"This is really a question about the proper expenditure of citizen-approved 2A funds, and because of that, I think the larger question before this group should be focused on where trails should be developed with those 2A funds, and not just Mad Rabbit," he said.
Each year, the city spends about $600,000 on trails using revenue from Steamboat Springs lodging tax, commonly referred to as the 2A tax after the 2013 referendum that earmarked some of the tax revenue for trails.
The priority of trails built was determined by the Trails Alliance proposal, developed by the group and then approved by voters. The first tread cut into the ground was on Buffalo Pass and resulted in the Panorama, BTR, Fiddlehead and Flash of Gold trails, among others. Mad Rabbit is the last proposed trail project that would be built in the National Forest using 2A funds.
Desjardin said many people believed they were voting to extend the Yampa River Core Trail, a concept that was included in the proposal but as a lower priority. For this reason, he believes the priority of which trails the funds are first used for should be re-evaluated.
Northcutt said she hopes those who voted for trails and those who feel confused by their vote in 2013 will express these concerns in future meetings.
Julie Shapiro, a senior policy director at the Keystone Policy Center, said the group aims to hold its first meeting this month, though it is still working through scheduling and stakeholder availability.
According to Foster’s email, the Forest Service selected the Keystone Group after reviewing a number of possible facilitators recommended by the National Forest Foundation. The city will foot the bill for the group, paying about $20,000 from the city manager's contingency budget.
According to Keystone's proposal, the group seeks to meet about once a month between now and April.
The group will establish ground rules for discussions of the project and summarize key issues after one-on-one interviews with representatives of different user groups.
“We come to it as a third party, and we're trying to get all the voices to the table,” Shapiro said.