By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
Pitkin County officials have embarked on a $300,000 trails planning project ($100,000 from Great Outdoors Colorado or GoCo, and $200,000 from Pitkin County) seeking help from citizens in connecting the towns of Carbondale and Crested Butte by trail, according to officials of the county’s Open Space & Trails department.
Over the next year or so, trails planners hope to come up with a “preferred route” that follows the Crystal River canyon up to McClure Pass and from there through the back country to “CB,” as the historic mining and ski town is known.
At some point in the process, this preferred route is to provide a basis for a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) study, which could result in changes to the route as proposed following the public input meetings.
According to Lindsey Utter, manager of Planning and Outreach for the OS&T department, the entire planning project is expected to take two years, if not more, and the budget may be reviewed and modified at some point, particularly if more funding is needed.
According to a statement from OS&T, the opening round of public discussions will take place at an open house on Jan. 12 at the Church at Redstone (an unincorporated village in Pitkin County about 18 miles south of Carbondale), from 5-7 p.m.
The second open house, according to the county, will be on Jan. 18 from 5-7 p.m. in the Community Room at Carbondale’s Town Hall, 511 Colorado Ave.
“The kickoff meetings in the Crystal Valley will focus on gathering public feedback on the process and date the public would like collected in order to guide an informed discussion on preferred trail alignments later in 2017,” the statement explained.
The overall trail route, according to the county, is roughly 83 miles long, and was included in Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s “Colorado The Beautiful — 16 in 2016” initiative. Issued in January 2016, it outlined 16 of what the governor deemed “highest priority trail projects” around the state.
Already in place, the county reported, are about 14.5 miles of new trail at either end, at Carbondale and Crested Butte, as well as about 19.5 miles of trails and routes through national forest lands adjacent to McClure Pass.
“The planning effort is focused on about 49 miles of missing links,” the county noted.
The trail between Carbondale and Redstone is envisioned as a “multi-use connection” — meaning it is to be used by bicyclists, hikers, equestrians and others — whereas the trail from Redstone, over McClure Pass and on to Crested Butte “would be a single-track route, except when utilizing short distances of existing two-track routes,” the county stated in its release.
In the OS&T statement, Utter noted that besides the public input, the department will be using natural resource and engineering studies to help identify the preferred route for the trail.
One potentially controversial concept that currently is not part of the planning effort, Utter told The Sopris Sun, is the idea of using the old Crystal River railroad bed, built in the early 1900s to carry coal from the mines at Redstone to a loading facility in Carbondale. It stretches from Carbondale to the old townsite of Placita, located upriver from Redstone.
“We’re not working with anything that is not on public land,” Utter said, because much of the old rail bed is held by private landowners.
Still, she added, the county is not opposed to the idea of using the old rail bed strung alongside the Crystal River if enough landowners show interest in the possibility.
“Everything’s up for public discussion,” she said, including any concerns among those who own parts of the rail bed and worry the county might try to condemn the old rail route.
“We want to hear all those concerns, and work through those issues with the public,” Utter stated.
She pointed out that planning for a trail up the Crystal River has been under discussion for a dozen years, and that at this point the most likely route would be alongside Highway 133, although she conceded, “Obviously, building in a highway right of way (owned by the Colorado Department of Transportation) is way more expensive than building on the old right-of-way.”
While there are no cost estimates for the project at this point, Utter said it definitely would cost millions of dollars and possibly tens of millions of dollars once all is said and done.
For example, she said, paving two miles of the Rio Grande Trail cost more than $1 million, and the five-mile portion of trail from Carbondale to the KOA Crystal River Campground (formerly BRB Campground) cost about $5 million before it was finished in 2010.
Once the current planning process is well underway, later this year, there are to be “many more open houses and meetings” as the process moves toward an environmental impact study, Utter said. The county already is working to issue Requests For Proposals from contractors interested in doing the NEPA and other studies.
Published in The Sopris Sun on January 5, 2017.