Routt County trails project could set bad precedent, wildlife advocates warn

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A plan long in the works to respond to demands for more mountain-biking trails in the Steamboat Springs area is being criticized as not taking enough steps to protect one of Colorado’s largest elk herds.

The Routt National Forest released a draft environmental assessment and proposal for the Mad Rabbit trails project in October and will review the comments and feedback before issuing a  preliminary decision, possibly by April or May. People will then be able to file comments and objections before a final decision is released.

Forest Service officials said the proposal, in development for about five years, strikes a balance between providing new trails on forest land and protecting wildlife and other natural resources.

“We removed trails, moved trails out of undisturbed areas and really focused the trails into existing impacted areas,” said Brendan Kelly, the project’s manager and the Routt National Forest’s recreation specialist.

The draft plan reduced the proposed trails from approximately 79 miles to 52 miles.

However, the proposal has drawn objections from conservation and wildlife advocates who contend the environmental analysis was based on outdated science. They believe letting the project go forward as is would set a bad precedent across the region.

“All eyes are on the conversation around the balance between outdoor recreation and the impacts to wildlife,” said Gaspar Perricone, chairman of the Colorado Wildlife Conservation Project, a coalition of statewide hunting and angling groups.

The Mad Rabbit decision could be precedent-setting “for future federal land management evaluations of that balance,” said Perricone, who lives in the Steamboat area.

In written comments to the Routt National Forest, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources voiced some of the same concern. The agency said there’s potential to set a precedent for future trail building because a significant portion of segments of the new trails would overlap with sensitive elk habitat and roadless areas, forest land where road building and other activities are limited.

“The stakes are high on this outcome,” Perricone said.

The Mad Rabbit proposal spotlights the tension occurring across the state between the increasing popularity of outdoor recreation and conserving open spaces and wildlife. The economic interests are high. Wildlife-related recreation — hunting, fishing, tourism — generates $5 billion a year. Outdoor recreation contributed $11.6 billion to Colorado’s economy in 2020.

Along with more people and new development, outdoor recreation spreading farther into the backcountry is adding to pressure on wildlife. The state’s elk herd of approximately 309,000 is the world’s largest, but for the last 20 years or so it has experienced declining cow-calf ratios: the number of young per 100 female elk.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has reduced the number and type of hunting licenses available to try to maintain animal populations in certain parts of the state, including in Routt County. CPW is studying the effects of recreation on animals, including birds and elk.

Wildlife advocates and hunters said the Routt National Forest should wait for the research results and base any decision on new science showing that non-motorized trail use causes elk to avoid birthing grounds and other habitat. They also contend that federal environmental law requires the agency to do a more extensive analysis, called an environmental impact statement.

“The Forest Service analysis of the elk habitats is based on distressingly outdated science. Our iconic elk and Coloradans deserve better: a serious current assessment instead of standards from its 24-year old forest plan,” said Suzanne O’Neill, executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

But Kelly, the Mad Rabbit project manager, said the 1998 forest plan is the result of a comprehensive, holistic look across the landscape.

“As long as we are working within that bigger, holistic plan that’s been developed through an environmental impact statement then we don’t necessarily have to do an EIS for every single project we work on,” Kelly said.

The forest staff incorporated some of the latest research on the effects of hiking and mountain biking on elk, Kelly added. During the five years assessing the proposal, the staff talked to state wildlife officials, various organizations and community groups.

“There’s been a ton of interest from the community to add trails in this area,” Kelly said.

The project area covers approximately 127,120 acres of national forest land north and east of Steamboat Springs. Kelly said the last survey of visitors to the forest showed about half of the roughly 2 million people who were counted used the trails for recreation.

Revenue from a voter-approved 1% lodging tax will finance the trails. Routt County Riders, which advocates for mountain bikers, said in written comments to the Forest Service that overall, the group is satisfied with the draft plan.

The group said the trails will provide recreation for a wide range of people: hikers, e-bike and horseback riders among them.

“We thought they did a really good job of creating a diverse proposed trail network. Basically, there’s something in there for everybody,” said Craig Frithsen, president of Routt County Riders. “We also thought they did a really good job finding a good balance between protecting the resources and trail development.”

Frithsen noted there was a team of specialists, which included botanists and wildlife biologists, analyzing the project.

“In the original proposal, there were a few trails that would’ve been really epic rides that were cut,” Frithsen said. “But we understand they’re trying to find that balance between conservation and recreation.”

Frithsen said the mountain bike group supports the seasonal trail closures meant to protect elk winter habitat and calving areas.

The problem, according to the group Keep Routt Wild, is that several miles of trails in important elk habitat have no seasonal closures at all and other closures aren’t long enough. The group that includes hunters and wildlife advocates said in written comments to the Forest Service that the evaluation of the trails’ potential impact on roadless areas is inadequate.

“We’re now having a major development focused on tourism that’s going to occur in a roadless area. I believe that’s a key precedent,” said Larry Desjardin, president of Keep Routt Wild.

Roadless areas don’t have the same level of restrictions as federal wilderness areas, but are prized for their undeveloped characteristics and as wildlife habitat.

Kelly of the Forest Service said proposed trails were realigned to leave large undisturbed portions of the roadless areas alone. Unsanctioned trails carved out without regard to their impacts will be eliminated.

However, Keep Routt Wild said getting rid of illegal trails won’t mitigate the impacts of new ones.

“It creates a sort of perverse or twisted incentive. If you create illegal trails, that can serve as justification for building new trails,” said Deb Freeman, a Keep Routt Wild board member.