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A former wildlife officer’s perspective on the Crystal Trail

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By John Seidel 
Retired DOW biologist and former Roaring Fork Valley Journal columnist

I see through the local papers that the proposed Crystal Valley trail is still being considered for placement on the east side of the Crystal River.  This controversial placement has been discussed and rejected by the public, local governments, local environmental organizations and the state Colorado Parks and Wildlife Division (CPW). I am surprised that Pitkin County, who has led both the state and national efforts to protect natural habitats and placed wildlife as a significant value for its citizens, is even considering placing this trail in undisturbed wildlife habitat.

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I was assigned to the Carbondale District for the Colorado Division of Wildlife  (DOW) in 1972 and served in that capacity until 1978. I worked with Aspen DOW officer Allen Whitaker in identifying and mapping significant wildlife habitat for Pitkin County in 1974.  We also helped write land use regulations that would protect these habitats. This was groundbreaking and one of the first counties in the state to incorporate wildlife habitat in its planning and zoning regulations.

This decision, to locate the trail on the east side of the Crystal River ,would be contrary to this long standing valuation of wildlife habitat in the county.  Since the ’70s there has been a tremendous amount of development in this narrow valley that has reduced the usable habitat by the historic populations of the many wildlife species that use this valley as the last habitats available to them. Elk were originally a plains animal that occupied the plains and river bottoms of the state. Continuous  development of these areas drove these and other species into the mountains and less accessible areas. These habitats are the last ones available; there is nowhere else left for them to use.

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I am surprised that this issue is still being debated. The State Division of Wildlife has for over 30 years as a respected professional agency continuously advised against locating the trail on the east side of the river. The push to locate it on the east side is the life-long dream of Dale Will and has been passed on to Gary Tennenbaum of Open Space and Trails.

A bike trail up the Crystal River valley would be a very nice addition to the extensive trail system of Pitkin County and western Colorado. It could be placed along the west side of the river and the Highway 133 right-of-way would provide a wonderful experience to the biking public. The scenic wonders of this beautiful valley will be enjoyable from the west side of the river. The bike trail along the Colorado River has become very popular. Its location next to the Interstate in not even noticed by its users. The river and the canyon are the focus of the users. The same could be said of the Crystal Valley Trail. The natural grandeur of this beautiful valley will thrill visitors no matter what side the trail is placed on.

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Providing access to the east side to the river in Avalanche Creek and Filoha Meadows will provide access to significant habitat that will be degraded by bandit trails and off track intrusions. Mountain bikers appear to be a pioneering species. They seek out new trails and ways of traveling in previously untracked forests and meadows. I have no doubt that these users will gain access from the east side of the Crystal up old mine roads in Filoha meadows and reach elk trails that follow the ridge line from Hawk Peak down to Elephant Mountain. Enforcement of closures of either seasonal or new trails has proven to be very difficult, and non-compliance has demonstrated that some of these users do not respect regulations and restrictions.

Kevin Wright, a retired wildlife officer for both the Carbondale and Aspen districts, has in his letter of March 23, 2017 spelled out the science and studies that support his professional opinion that the placement of this trail on the east side will have negative effects on resident wildlife populations. Rick Thompson, a long time private wildlife consultant with a history of peer reviewed studies and respected positions on numerous developments on the western slope, agreed with Kevin’s assessments and warnings. What is the motivation to put this trail on the east side? Why would your county which has supported and protected wildlife habitats for almost 50 years disregard the science and experience of experts to placate the ideological desire by a few individuals, with a narrow and single track focus.

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Kelly Grange, historic owner of Filoha Meadows, offered to sell me this property in 1976.  Ron Shore, a pioneer in solar energy use in the valley, went with me and together we evaluated the hot springs on the property for use in heating single family homes. We calculated that we could heat 10-12 homes with the hot springs on the property. We stood in the meadow looked up at Chair Mt and decided that neither of us wanted to develop this beautiful spot. Would Pitkin County have allowed this development on this parcel?  I think not. Why allow this impact?

Your existing land use codes would prohibit this development if being done by a private individual or corporation. Why let a public agency do it? Stick to your principles; support knowledge and science over emotion and ideology. This is obvious to anyone, not just biologists, that this trail on the undisturbed east side of the river would degrade the habitats.  Do the right thing. Locate this needed trail along the transportation corridor of Hwy 133. As one who rode his bike on Hwy 133 during the era of coal trucks; a trail is needed. Just build it along the existing road.  It will be safe and very enjoyable for its users.

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