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Pitkin County approves segment of Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail with promise of decades more scrutiny

“This is a really long process ... but this is just the beginning," said Gary Tennenbaum, the head of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails

Pitkin County's commissioners on Wednesday approved further study of a section of the Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail through the Crystal River Valley. One possible alignment of the trail could follow Colorado Highway 133 as it parallels the Crystal River. (Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism)
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ASPEN — Pitkin County’s commissioners on Wednesday narrowly approved a portion of the Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail, touting the intensive two-year process as a model for trail development in Colorado.

But keep the bikes in the garage. The board’s 3-2 vote moves the trail forward a mere pedal stroke. The trail-approving resolution doesn’t actually greenlight any construction and calls the plan a “living document” and “a vision for potential options.” This means if there is ever a day when cyclists speed along a paved path following the Crystal River into Redstone, that day is decades — and many meetings — away.

The 83-mile Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail is one of 16 high-priority trails pushed by Gov. John Hickenlooper as he worked to connect every resident in Colorado with an outdoor space.

MORE: Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail stirs passions as final vote looms

The stretch of the trail between Carbondale and Redstone is the most controversial on his list, with residents in the narrow Crystal River Valley lamenting the trail’s cost and impacts to wildlife.

The vote Wednesday — following a three-hour meeting — requires federal environmental review as well as further analysis of every segment along the 13 miles downstream from Redstone by county commissioners and the Open Space and Trails program. Future planning for segments of the trail in that stretch will include a “significant public process” in addition to federal review, said Gary Tennenbaum, the head of Open Space and Trails.  

“This is a really long process that we got to this point. But this is just the beginning,” Tennenbaum said.

Tennenbaum said the two-year planning process for the trail has forged a state model for weighing both public input and wildlife protection when planning a recreation trail.

The county’s plan supports a review of wildlife diversity along the river corridor, including bighorn sheep populations in the canyon. The plan funds the restoration of riparian habitat as well as prescribed burns and the battle against invasive weeds in the Crystal River Valley.

Tom Cardamone, who led the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies for almost 40 years and now is shepherding a biological inventory of the Roaring Fork watershed led by Colorado State University’s Colorado Natural Heritage Program, spoke in support of the trail plan, telling the commissioners that their funding for biological diversity study along the Crystal River allows for “a new paradigm for restoration and protection on a landscape scale.”

“At the state level, they are watching Pitkin County and this watershed. We are looking at our statewide landscapes without adequate information and this could be a model for changing that,” Cardamone said.

The first phase of trail building — really the only section the commissioners approved on Wednesday — will focus on the roughly 7-mile climb up McClure Pass from Redstone, the least controversial section of the Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail in the Crystal River Valley. That plan — with two possible alignments — will be unpaved and could follow the old road through Forest Service land that climbed McClure before 133 was built in the late 1960s.

Karen Teague, the head of the board that guides Wilderness Workshop, which opposes the trail, said wildfires, drought, insect invasions like the spruce beetle, and low-flow waterways “are the new normal.” Any big investments in recreation should not eclipse efforts to mitigate these impacts of climate change, she said.

Pitkin County’s commissioners approved more review of the McClure Pass North section of the Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail, which winds through Forest Service land. The commissioners will scrutinize other segments of the trail through the Crystal River Valley in later years for a project that will likely span decades.  

“I don’t believe we have the luxury of new trail projects like this anymore,” Teague said. “I think things are urgent and I am worried. I would love to see Pitkin County and Open Space and Trails be a leader and be the example of how a community can band together with resources and initiatives and prepare for what is coming.”

Gideon Kaufman, the attorney representing clothing tycoon Leslie Wexner’s 6,000-acre Two Shoes Ranch near Carbondale, urged the board to analyze the results of the biodiversity study before selecting any alignments. Wexner has supported a study critical of the trail plan, especially an alignment that might follow an old railroad grade on the east side of the Crystal River. If the trail must be built, Kaufman said, it should follow Colorado 133, a pricey option with bridges and abutments that could drive the cost past $100 million.  

The county’s open space program is supposed to protect wildlife over providing recreation and the commissioners should follow the program’s mission, he said. “How can any resolution or draft plan you adopt not conform to or champion your own wildlife policies?”

Commissioner Greg Poschman, who voted against the plan, expressed concern that while the region was doing so well promoting recreation, leaders could do a better job of mitigating the impacts of recreation. “Do we need to put so much energy into something that honestly is not going to be used by that many people?”

But Rachel Richards, Aspen’s former mayor and councilwoman on the final lap of her third term as commissioner, was less reticent, saying she was comforted by the promise of more study for each future step on the trail. Richards wondered if opposition to the trail in the Crystal River Valley had more to do with growth than with hikers and bikers rolling through the river canyon.

“The trail is not going to be the growth generator that 400 more homes will be,” she said, noting that future families arriving in the Roaring Fork and Crystal River valleys will need space to recreate and ride bikes. “I think there’s a lot of merit to this trail. This is a multi-year, multi-decade effort and I think this gives it as long a shot at happening as possible.”

This article was reported and written in partnership with Aspen Journalism.


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