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Are Red Hill users loving it to death?

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Hikers, bikers not stepping up

By John Colson

Sopris Sun Staff Writer

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The volunteer managers of the Red Hill Special Recreation Management Area (SMRA), otherwise known as the Red Hill trails system north of Carbondale, would like to remind users of the area that the trails do not police themselves for trash, little bags of dog do-do, and other refuse that crops up on the trails.

In fact, according to a posting on the Facebook page Friends of Red Hill, it was reported “We are currently paying $120 per month for bi-weekly removal (of plastic doggy-poop bags), plus costs of the bags, all of which adds up to $2,000 per year.”

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The Red Hill Council, which manages the trail system, welcomes the growing numbers of users, but would like to see more of them involved in the upkeep of the trails, a council official said this week.

“To my way of thinking, every hour you use the system, you ought to give something back,” said Davis Farrar, a local planning consultant who is the director of the council.

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And the best way of giving back, Farrar said, is by showing up to help with trail maintenance, trail reconstruction, or simple trash pickup, at one of the various trail-work events that the council puts together every year.

He said that several entities, including Backbone Media, Colorado Rocky Mountain School and the Carbondale Community School, have sent employees or students to help with the trail work in recent years, but more is needed.

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“I’d love to the bike shops get involved,” Farrar said hopefully. “They’re direct beneficiaries” of the increasing use of the trails system.

Farrar and Chris Brandt, another of the seven members of the council, met with the Carbondale Board of Trustees on Sept. 24 to bring the trustees up to date on the condition of the trails, and to discuss the status of plans to build an underpass beneath Highway 82 that would more safely and directly link the trail system to the town.

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The area is owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which in the 1990s designated the area as an SRMA and agreed it could be managed by the Red Hill Council, formed in 1996, according to a time line created by the council.

And every year since, according to the council, increasing use by hikers and bikers has led to ever-greater challenges that range from keeping the trails in good shape to cleaning up the messes left behind by the users.

Starting at a parking area just off Highway 82/133, a growing number of hikers and bikers head up County Road 107 about a half-mile to the trail head of the Red Hill network.

At the meeting on Sept. 24, Farrar reminded the trustees that Red Hill “really is the front door to your town” and that it represents “the ultimate photo-opp” for tourists and locals alike who want an aerial shot of Carbondale, Mt. Sopris and the surrounding lands.

According to the time-line submitted by Farrar, in 1989 the town signed a cooperative management agreement with the BLM, but that agreement has long-since expired.

Farrar described Red Hill as a refuge from the urban environment, a “super dog park” and “an environmental classroom” for students of all ages, a training ground for athletes, and “a Mecca for area visitors” eager to get a taste of hiking or biking in the mountains.

Farrar noted that, for years, the town has contributed $1,000 annually to support the council’s work.

And, starting in 2003, various government entities, including the town of Carbondale, Garfield County and the BLM, have been looking into ways to provide a safer, more direct connection from the town to the trails. The idea was to connect the town’s internal trails to the Red Hill trails in a manner considered safer than the existing crosswalk across Highway 82 at the intersection with Highway 133.

The work included a 2013 study by the Otak planning firm, which concluded that either an underpass or an overpass for Highway 82 connected to the Highway 133 bridge over the Roaring Fork River, could be built for about $1.2 million. The trail linkage would carry trail users from the area of North 8th Street to the parking area at the base of County Road 107. One estimate indicated that, for another $2 million or so, a trail could be built alongside the county road to take users to the Red Hill trailhead.

But Garfield County, when given a look at the cost estimates from the Otak study, concluded the estimates were too low. The county got a second opinion from another engineering firm, and decided that the real costs would be too great for the county to get involved, Farrar said.

So the idea of an underpass is “all on hold” for now, Farrar explained.

More use

Use of the trails has been rising annually, and last year was up to more than 58,000 at the trailhead along County Road 107, or as many as 159 people per day, Farrar reported.

So far in 2015, he added, the numbers showed more than 56,700 users.

“So we’re dealing with big numbers, and those numbers are not going down,” Farrar told the trustees.

“It’s increased use that has a significant impact,” he added later, in a telephone interview with The Sopris Sun. “People use it without a second thought about how the trails got there, or who maintains them, or who cleans them up.”

Farrar said the rising number of dogs on the trails are the council’s most challenging issue these days, representing the biggest part of the council’s annual budget, which was $3,400 last year.

And while the council does maintain a donations box at the trailhead, Farrar said, only about $30-$40 is deposited in the box every couple of months.

“It’s a challenge,” he remarked. “Everybody loves it to death; I just hope we don’t kill it. ( ”

Dogs often are not kept on leash by their owners, causing friction with mountain bikers and hikers (Farrar later told The Sopris Sun that the BLM “encourages” but does not “require” dogs to be kept on a leash at Red Hill).

Bikers and hikers both create “shortcuts” from one trail to another, which quickly become “bandit” trails that an unwanted number of users feel free to use, which in turn creates problems with erosion.

And an unknown number of mountain bikers, eager to test their skills at downhill racing, often charge down the trails and frighten hikers, dogs and just about anything that gets in the way.

There are no statistics available for such behavior, Brandt told the trustees, but he added, “somebody’s been terrorizing the trails,” if hiker body language is any indicator of the atmosphere.

Farrar agreed that increased usage of the area is leading to ever-greater conflicts, commenting, “Once you get enough rats in a maze, they start eating each other.”

He said those interested in lending a hand to help build, maintain or clean the trails system, or become a member of the council, can contact him at 963-7172, e-mail or comment on the Facebook page.

Published in The Sopris Sun on October 1, 2015.

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