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RBC I Dozens of people attended the public meetings in Rangely and Meeker last week to discuss a master trails plan for Rio Blanco County. The plan, once carried out, would give residents and visitors access to approximately 1,000 miles of trails for motorized and non-motorized use county-wide.
Fort Collins-based Great Outdoors Consultants (GOC), which was hired in November to design the plan, presented information along with county, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and United States Forest Service (USFS) representatives Jan. 8 in Meeker and Jan. 9 in Rangely.
During the meetings, representatives affirmed their intention to further collaborate on current and future trails projects.
Kent Walter, field manager for the BLM White River Field Office, said the BLM is moving toward Phase II of its travel management process, which involves developing a comprehensive plan to designate roads and trails and assess potential uses. Walter said the inventory process, which begins this summer, can be informed by residents providing input about routes or areas they would like prioritized or given specific designations.
Ken Coffin, the district ranger for the Blanco Ranger District of the White River National Forest, said that in addition to developing the master plan, agencies will focus on marketing the existing Wagon Wheel Trail System, a 250-mile network of trails established in the White River National Forest in 2011.
He also encouraged flexibility as planners look to extend trails across the county.
“(County commissioner) Jeff (Eskelson) mentioned there are currently lots of other existing uses on our public lands, whether it’s livestock grazing, oil and gas, or outfitters and guides … lot of people currently depend on it for their incomes,” Coffin said. “I can’t help but imagine that when we get (a system established), there may be some adjustments that we need to make and I encourage people to be flexible and adaptable when those things come along.”
The county has also hired Colorado State University recreation economist John Loomis to determine the current and potential impact of off-highway vehicle (OHV) and other recreation uses on jobs, income and spending within the county, Rio Blanco County Economic Development Director Katelin Cook said.
GOC Executive Director Drew Stoll said that while the master trails plan will connect to and extend from the Wagon Wheel Trail System, which was primarily designed for OHV use, a trails model that incorporates a range of motorized and non-motorized options makes sense for Rio Blanco County.
“It’s a challenging thing but definitely doable,” Stoll said. “It’s not for everyone. If you want to go out and ride a mountain bike and not hear a motorcycle, that’s not for you… (however,) we decided not to call this an OHV trails master plan because it doesn’t just have to be that. I think the focus is to try to find as many opportunities for multi-purpose trails as possible.”
The types of users attracted to Rio Blanco County and what they take from their experience here, he said, depends largely on how the county views its assets and markets them. Allowing people to feel like they’re a part of something larger than themselves as they travel new landscapes and experience key destination points is a central purpose of a trail system, he added.
Stoll also said that helping visitors learn about and appreciate various uses for the land is another component of the project.
“How are the landscapes used, how have they been used traditionally?” He said. “People from the Front Range who don’t know much about ranching or even about sheep ranching or who don’t know about oil and gas, they’re fascinated by seeing that. Believe it or not, it really is interesting to folks to learn about these things.”
Stoll said that GOC would analyze natural and created constraints which, in Rio Blanco County, include steep topography, state highways, protected environmental areas and private lands. The consultants will also factor in considerations like variations in trail difficulty and size along with each trail’s intended use and potential restrictions.
GOC consultant Jim Keeler discussed the successes and challenges other established trails – among them West Virginia’s Hatfield-McCoy trails and south-central Utah’s Paiute system – have experienced since they were implemented. Projects with easy-to-use graphics and communication, sustainable funding sources, and links between destinations and communities have flourished, he said.
Following the presentation, Stoll opened the floor to attendees, who brainstormed potential trail users, destination points, amenities and advanced- or specialized-use options for routes.
One resident requested that Rangely’s rock crawling park remain exclusive to specialized four-wheel-drive vehicles. Others pointed out that trail maintenance could require extensive trash cleanup and volunteer help, while another attendee said she wanted safe, established trails for non-motorized activities like cross-country skiing and hiking in addition to or alongside OHV-friendly routes.
Sheep rancher Sam Robinson said that the planners’ desire not to affect landowners’ and land-users’ livelihoods needs concrete, intentional planning behind it, like educating trail system users about prior use of the land and enforcing reasonable limitations to protect it.
“In one sense, this land is tough, but if you hit it from the wrong direction, it just shatters and you can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” Robinson said. “So along with education, you need to come up with a few ideas about seasons of use depending on the type of use you’re planning on doing.”
Commissioner Eskelson said a primary aim of the master trails plan is to move toward providing a reliable source of income for the county as boom and bust cycles affect industry.
“Really what we’re thinking, the long-term goal, is trying to fill some of those valleys for the cyclical industry,” he said.
At the meeting’s end, Stoll handed out county maps and asked participants to identify trails they have used and find connections between them. Alternatively, he said, people could pick out destinations trail users might enjoy and link them using existing or future trails.
GOC will then incorporate the information into one of two plan options to be presented in March, followed by an April meeting to present one revised plan.
The plan calls for GOC to hone and finalize the document into the master trails plan by May.