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Highway aligned Crystal Trail would be best for wildlife, biologist says

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By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff 

A 114-page report on possible wildlife impacts from construction of a pedestrian and biking trail up the Crystal River was not intended to identify one particular trail route or another, said the study’s author, Boulder-based wildlife biologist Rick Thompson on Monday.

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Nonetheless Thompson’s report, which was outlined at a meeting on July 10 in Redstone (with a second meeting scheduled for Carbondale the following day), seemed to lean toward keeping the proposed trail along the Highway 133 right-of-way for most of its 20-mile length.

The study was commissioned earlier this year by the Wilderness Workshop (WW), said WW’s conservation director, Will Roush.

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A biking trail up the Crystal River has been eagerly considered since about 1991, when the Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway Commission established the West Elk Loop Scenic and Historic Byway between Carbondale and Crested Butte.

But there is more urgency now, Roush said at the Redstone meeting, since Pitkin County recently embarked on the early planning stages for actual construction of a trail along the byway route, which is envisioned to link the towns with about 83 miles of trail.

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This proposed trail is one of 16 identified recently by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper as the most important trails projects in the state at this time.

“As we do on a number of issues, we wanted to provide some independent analysis” of the underlying wildlife-related issues that could affect which route a trail might take, before the county’s planning got too far underway, Roush said.

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The Thompson survey also was seen as a way to introduce the public to the wildlife questions, which mainly involve local populations of bighorn sheep, elk and deer that call the Crystal Valley home, along with numerous other species included in Thompson’s analysis. Those interested in checking out the study itself can find it on the WW’s website (, Roush said.

Roush predicted that, as planned, the trail would be “similar to the Rio Grande Trail” that runs along the Roaring Fork Valley from Aspen to Glenwood Springs — paved and relatively wide — at least through Redstone and possibly to the top of McClure Pass, the point at which the proposed trail route leaves Pitkin County and enters Gunnison County.

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From there, he added, the trail likely would be single-track or double-track on dirt, winding through the canyons and peaks to Crested Butte.

Thompson, surveyed the results of several studies, including a Crystal River Bicycle Trail Study for Pitkin County in 1994; a Roaring Fork Watershed Biological Inventory, also for Pitkin County (1996-99); a West Elk Loop Byway study of trail feasibility by Newland Project Resources (2004); A Wildlife and Habitat Report for the Crystal River Caucus (2007); Pitkin County management plans for Red Wind Point and Filoha Meadows (2005 and 2008, respectively); and recommendations from the Colorado Department of Wildlife (later renamed to Colorado Parks and Wildlife) ranging from 2002 to 2008 and concerning several portions of the valley’s wildlife habitat; as well as other correspondence from various experts.

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Generally, from a wildlife-safety standpoint, Thompson reported that the studies found the best alignment would follow the Highway 133 right of way from just south of Carbondale to the top of McClure Pass. The only possibly justifiable exception to the highway-hugging route would be a 1.5-mile “bypass” around the Hayes Creek Canyon stretch just south of Redstone, and Redstone Boulevard itself, Thompson concluded.

This “bypass,” first identified by local consultant Tom Newland in 2004, follows along the abandoned Bear Creek railroad grade that detours from the highway just north of the Hayes Creek Canyon to top out on the rocks above the falls, then returns to the highway just south of where the canyon ends.

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Most importantly, according to Thompson’s survey, the proposed trail should not be built on seven-mile stretch of the historic Crystal River Railroad grade comprising the Red Wind Point, Janeway and Filoha Meadow and another nearby open space parcel.

Those portions of the railroad bed, built roughly a century ago to transport marble from the Yule Quarry in the Town of Marble down to Carbondale, are in important wildlife habitat, said Thompson, summarizing from studies going back to the 1990s in come cases.

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Another questionable but oft-cited proposed route for the trail, Thompson said, is a series of unpaved switchbacks that once was the only route over McClure Pass (before the highway was realigned in the 1970s), which for decades has been the province of occasional hikers and bikers but has remained largely unused.

In his survey, Thompson referred to previous studies that reported how wildlife can be disturbed by humans in the vicinity. According to the studies, wildlife can be disturbed by people along, say, a trail through the woods, in distances that range from a couple of hundred yards to as much as nearly two miles away.

In general, Thompson said, his estimate is that wildlife need at least a 100-foot “buffer” on either side between the trail and adjacent wildlife habitat, which Thompson and other studies referred to as the “zone of influence” within which human activity imperils wildlife.

He told his audience that the existing Highway 133 alignment presents just such a zone already, noting that wildlife tends to stay away from highway corridors except for established migration crossings and other attributes particular to the different species.

As a result, he said, the highway presents the prospect of the least disturbance to wildlife, as does Redstone Boulevard, a two-lane street in the middle of residential and commercial buildings in the village that is no longer viable wildlife habitat.’

Some in the audience in Redstone questioned Thompson about his conclusion, based on the studies surveyed, that seasonal closures of trails over wildlife safety concerns are not much use because too many people ignore the closures and regularly violate them.

Redstone resident Mark Hilberman argued that hunting, highway-related animal deaths, residential development in the backcountry and cattle ranching in the high country could be as much to blame as recreational activities, though it is recreation that largely gets the blame from state wildlife officials and others.

“I think it’s incredibly complicated,” Hilberman said, criticizing Thompson for oversimplifying the issue.

Thompson, however, noted that while he found no studies on the matter, he received plenty of anecdotal and observed stories about violations from various officials.

“They’re the ones that have more than 60 collective years observing this stuff, and I believe them,” he said.

He was backed up by former Pitkin County Commissioner Jack Hatfield, who traveled from Snowmass Village to attend the Redstone meeting and declared, “For those of us who are wildlife advocates, there are no compromises.”

Hatfield said he supported the idea that the trail should be kept on the highway side of the river and that the Red Wind Point, Janeway and Filoha parcels “should be off limits.”