Mountain biker Greg Heil rides the Solstice Trail south of Salida. An expansion proposal by a local gravel mine could impact the trail, which was built in 2019 with state grant funding after environmental review. (Provided by Salida Mountain Trails)

Mike Smith remembers a meeting with Bureau of Land Management officials in April 2019 as the agency reviewed plans for a new trail on Methodist Mountain in Salida. John Ary, the longtime owner of the Hard Rock Paving and Redi-Mix, Inc., was also at the table with Smith and his team from Salida Mountain Trails. Ary’s gravel mining company wanted to expand onto BLM land near the trail. 

“The Hard Rock guys said they were OK with the trail, even if they pursued expansion plans,” Smith said. “Now it looks like they have changed their minds after we constructed the trail.”

Salida’s downhill-friendly, 1.3-mile Solstice Trail, built in June 2019 with $50,000 in grant funding from the Colorado the Beautiful trails program, could be threatened by a proposed expansion of the Hard Rock mine. The BLM last month announced it was studying the proposal, which would expand the mine’s footprint onto 50 more acres of BLM land that includes the Solstice Trail. 

“We talked to them the whole time about expanding our boundaries so we could both operate in the same area and those conversations are not over,” Ary said in an interview with The Colorado Sun. “We wanted to expand our boundary and we learned about the bike trail and said ‘no problem,’ we can adjust our boundary and they had the same attitude. We have said that if the BLM and all parties concerned are in agreement to move the trail to a more scenic area, we would pay for moving it. We went and walked the actual bike trail that got built and it is not built where the mapping we were given indicates.”

Mountain biker Greg Heil rides the Solstice Trail south of Salida. An expansion proposal by a local gravel mine could impact the trail, which was built last year with state grant funding after environmental review. (Provided by Salida Mountain Trails)

The expansion study — still in its very early stages — comes as Nestle Waters North America seeks Chaffee County permission to renew its 10-year permit to pump 60 million gallons of water per year from the aquifer upstream of Salida, near Nathrop. A group of citizens has united to fight the permit renewal, arguing that not only is drought threatening water supplies in the valley, but the initial approval of Nestle’s permit in 2009 was flawed. 

“This is the wrong way to go for where we want to be,” said Tom Bomer, who co-founded the group Unbottle and Protect Chaffee County Water

And it comes as Salida and Buena Vista enjoy record-breaking visitation and sales tax revenue from a booming economy based in large part on outdoor recreation. 

The first round of public comment on the Hard Rock plan ended last week following a 20-day extension of the public scoping period requested by mountain bikers and homeowners on Methodist Mountain. Opponents of the expansion said people submitted thousands of comments asking the BLM to protect the trails and buffer homes near the aggregate mine. 

“We asked for a copy of the proposal and we asked for more maps of the expansion and we can’t get it. We are running a little bit blind here, but we have had about 7,000 letters opposing the expansion so far,” said Jerry Mallett, a longtime Salida local who is also president of the Methodist Mountain Homeowners Association, one of several homeowner groups uniting in opposition to the mine that has operated on the mountain for several decades. “We understood what they were doing when we moved here but we did not sign up for a 50-acre expansion onto public lands.”

A map of the proposed expansion provided by Salida Mountain Trails shows the proposed expansion of the Hard Rock gravel mine overlapping with the new Solstice Trail.

BLM officials are quick to note that the National Environmental Policy Act review process is in its early stages. As the BLM continues its review, alternatives will be outlined and then the public will get another chance to weigh in. 

“There will be a second comment period once different alternatives are identified,” said Suzanne Copping, the acting district manager of the BLM’s Rocky Mountain District. 

The exact proposal won’t be detailed until the Environmental Assessment advances past the scoping period, Copping said. The scoping period is the first step in what should be about a six-month process and a draft Environmental Assessment with detailed information and analysis should come in the next three-to-four months, she said. 

Hard Rock operates on 37 acres, which includes about 10 acres of BLM land. The BLM permitted access to the 10 acres in 2009. The gravel mine has operated in the area since the 1950s and John Ary bought the operation in the early 1980s. 

Hard Rock’s request, which is briefly noted in an Aug. 10 news release announcing the BLM’s review of the mine expansion, would expand the mine onto about 50 acres of BLM land. That would extend the life of the mine by about 38 years, providing access to 10,000 to 50,000 tons of gravel a year for producing asphalt and concrete.

“Access to the BLM reserves would help sustain supplies of aggregate to help meet future demands in Chaffee County and surrounding areas,” the BLM release reads, also noting that in 2018, mining of non-energy minerals on BLM land in Colorado generated about $194 million in economic activity and supported 650 jobs.

Ary said the expansion would not translate into increased activity or traffic at the mine, but it would add to the longevity of the operation. 

“The volume and the type of business is not going to change,” Ary said. 

The Decker Fire last year scorched 9,000 acre south of Salida, including swaths of Methodist Mountain. Salida residents have asked about the potential impacts of removing more trees from the mountain as the mine expands — specifically flooding issues for homes downhill of the mine and burn scar. They’re also concerned about truck traffic, air quality and wildlife impacts, Mallet said. 

The maps provided in the BLM release announcing the requested expansion showed the mine’s proposed new boundary overlapping the Solstice Trail. Salida Mountain Trails built Solstice as part of the group’s nearly 20-year plan to develop a network of trails for all levels of riders. 

Ten years ago, only one trail went through Methodist Mountain, but now there are more than 12 trails, all purpose-built and ranked for beginners to experts. Those trails, built by Salida Mountain Trails, were approved in a 2017 BLM Environmental Assessment that noted surging numbers of mountain bikers and “the largest demand in the Salida area is for more hiking and bicycling trails.”

Read more outdoors stories from The Colorado Sun.

“The following proposed trails would greatly expand and enhance the stacked-loop system and provide all-day or multi-day hiking and riding opportunities,” reads the BLM’s final review of the trail construction proposal.

“Solstice is one of our most popular trails over the course of the year,” said Smith, describing how the trail’s alternative options, with aggressive and tame lines, attracts a wide variety of mountain bikers.  

Gravel mines have a challenge when it comes to expanding operations on the Western Slope. A limestone aggregate mine above downtown Glenwood Springs is asking the BLM for a massive expansion, spurring fierce opposition and lawsuits. A gravel pit proposed on private land on a mesa above the Colorado River near Gypsum was rejected by local officials in 2016 after residents blasted the plan. (Gypsum officials did embrace a new gravel pit, near the Eagle County airport, in 2019 after local businesses lamented there was only one company selling aggregate materials in the county.)

Ary himself spent more than two years in litigation with Pueblo County commissioners and homeowners adjacent to a gravel pit he wanted to build on private land east of Pueblo. (Ary eventually secured a special-use permit for his Fremont Paving and Redi-Mix operation in 2019.)

But aggregate is a critical component for the infrastructure that supports the Western Slope’s growth. Ary said people who want to stop gravel pits from growing need to think of the impacts, pointing to a gravel miner in Fairplay who sends 40 trucks a day to downtown Denver for a single project. 

“Look, we live in these communities and we understand exactly what these communities are going through. We all want the growth and we all want the positive change and the recreation and the tourists, but with that comes growth and the need for wider roads,” Ary said. “At some point, somewhere, somehow you have got to have the materials to continue to develop. The irony is that nobody really wants to know where it’s coming from.”

Smith understands the need for concrete in the growing communities of the Western Slope. But he wonders about potentially removing trails to accommodate that need. 

“We know that recreation is a major economic driver and our trails have great support from businesses and our community here,” Smith said. “It’s a different world now in Salida than it was when they built the original gravel pit, with all the housing and recreation that is going on. It’s become a critical part of our economy.”

Copping said there was “general agreement” between the trail builders and the Hard Rock mine operator at past meetings. 

“Alternatives will be developed and analyzed during the EA process that consider the placement of existing trails, as well as other relevant issues brought forward during public scoping,” she said. 

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy.