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Crystal River Caucus brings panel together to discuss trail options

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Two things were clear after the Crystal River Caucus’ meeting last week at the Redstone fire station: there was consensus among the three invited panel experts that the proposed highway alignment would be preferable for the Carbondale to Crested Butte trail, and many of the meeting attendees still have serious reservations about the impacts said trail will have on the Crystal Valley.

“If you want to just make this happen, you follow the highway. You get it done quickly; you get it done cheaply; you get it done with minimal impact,” said Mark Beardsley, a stream ecologist from Buena Vista, before adding “I’m coming from the outside, so I don’t know the politics of it.”

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“That’s a good thing!” shouted someone from the audience.

Beardsly joined Gene Byrne, a retired Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist, and Tom Newland, a planning engineer and consultant who has worked with both Pitkin County and the Colorado Department of Transportation, on a panel at the June 14 meeting.

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Each panelist presented their respective points of view regarding potential impacts on the Crystal Valley of two proposed corridors for the trail as outlined in the draft plan released by the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails (OST) in May. One option essentially follows the existing Hwy 133, and the other follows an old railway corridor east of the river.

“The highway alignment has little or no impact on wildlife. It keeps humans away from natural forest lands,” Newland, who authored a 2004 feasibility study for the proposed trail, said flatly. “Bighorn sheep use the railway. Social trails will develop off of the railroad alignment into areas currently used for refuge by animals.”

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Newland also countered some of the criticisms he’s often heard about the highway alignment.

One of those concerns is user safety, he noted, saying the critics contend that the highway alignment would be unsafe because of its proximity to the road and vehicular traffic. So, he scoured the internet to find studies backing that assertion. He failed to find anything that did so.

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“That’s really a perception and not a reality,” he said, though he added that the railroad corridor would actually create possible vehicle conflicts, citing hidden driveways and the more-than 50 properties that exist along the proposed railroad alignment.

He also addressed what he called “geological safety” issues.

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“But the highway alignment would be more easily reopened” if something such as a mudslide occurred, Newland maintained. He recalled a time that a rockslide closed the section of the Rio Grande Trail near Catherine Store. “[It] took three weeks to get the rockslide cleaned and… the trail was basically destroyed” because it “wasn’t along the road,” he said.

Additionally, he concluded, the highway alignment offers “pretty obvious” access for emergency services.

Byrne, coming from his wildlife-focused perspective, agreed.

“You already have a measurable impact where the road is,” he said. “When you move to a whole different corridor — then you start adding your buffer zone to that — it’s a lot bigger impact. It’s better for wildlife to concentrate all of those things.”

But for resident Kate Hudson, both alignment options seem to have drawbacks, she said after hearing the panel’s presentations.

“One of the concerns that I have is that the county is saying, ‘Here are your choices: A and B.’ What about C? What about ‘no trail?’” she asked before calling the current options a “devil’s choice” of “pick your impact.”

Other questions from residents expressed concerns about increased trespassing on private property, access for emergency services and their desire for the county to slow down the decision-making process regarding the trail’s route.

As for that timeline, Newland stressed the July 27 deadline for public comment (tinyurl.com/CrystalValleyTrail) and said commissioners will decide on a final plan sometime in September. Additionally, there’s a public listening session at 5 p.m. on June 26 at the Third Street Center, 520 S. Third St.

And while that is a faster pace than what many residents wish to see, the actual construction process will take decades. “We’re talking 2030 before the last phase starts its planning process,” Newland said.

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