John Armstrong. Courtesy photo

Game wardens and a few locals gathered at the old railroad siding at Placita. Word was out that the Division of Wildlife was going to release elk into the upper Crystal Valley. John Darien remembered that day in the early ‘40s as he recounted the scene to me in the barnyard at Prospect Mountain Ranch one afternoon.

Darien spent most of his adult years maintaining the dirt road to Marble and the rocky road to Crystal City from approximately 1960 to 1985. Elk were not common at this time and he didn’t want to miss this sight. These animals were brought to Colorado to propagate the herd that had been rendered extinct by hunters supplying meat to the mining camps. At Placita Siding several open slatted, wooden railroad stock cars sat waiting. Inside the cars were a number of Roosevelt Elk that had been relocated from the Yellowstone area herds. The doors slid open and it was like a “jack-in-the-box!” The elk flew out of the cars and in no time disappeared into the Placita mountains.

Placita is the abandoned hamlet of several yellow cabins along Highway 133 above Redstone. It was a coal mining station along the Crystal River and San Juan Railroad route to Marble. Placita was also the proposed site of a 301-foot-tall dam in the canyon narrows. The dam would have held half the volume of Ruedi Reservoir. In the ‘70s, the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA) successfully opposed this dam (and another dam at Redstone). It wasn’t until 2013 that Redstonian Bill Jochems and Pitkin County succeeded in getting the West Divide Water Conservancy District to relinquish their conditional water rights from 1958.

Placita is located along the old wagon road, which was the original route up the Crystal Valley. It also sits at the foot of the old McClure Pass Road. These historic routes are at the heart of the Redstone to McClure Pass Trail, proposed by Pitkin County to the US Forest Service. The Draft Environmental Assessment (EA) is now being considered. The route has cultural and historical significance to the public. One trail is over one hundred years old and both trails are solid and serviceable. The trail proposal would offer a safe trail experience away from the risk and noise of the highway. Moderate grade walking trails such as this are the exception in the Elk Mountains.

The value of these routes and public lands were the subject of a lengthy, in-depth debate at the February CVEPA meeting. The draft EA offered two options: trail development or do nothing. Sadly, rolling the clock back to that day at Placita Siding was not an option. Neither is satisfying every person’s vision for the land.

The crux of CVEPA’s discussion was inviting use of the quiet wagon road area to the public. “If you build it they will come.” We are all stunned at the pace of growth in our beloved valley. Enhanced infrastructure of parking lots and signage will bring more users. The “do nothing” option may postpone increased visitation.  CVEPA supports staying ahead of the curve, a proactive management approach, believing that an increase in public use is inevitable.

Then there is the progeny of the Roosevelt elk from Placita Siding. I walked the trail last week and the evidence of elk winter frequency is clear. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) wants winter closures, and possibly elk calving closures, if the trail is developed. No protective restrictions are currently in place. 

CVEPA supports strict enforcement of wildlife protection regulations. Everyone is a wildlife advocate, until it comes to making concessions. Pitkin County has offered to pay for Forest Service Forest Protection Officers (FPOs) to patrol the area. (Reference the Feb. 24 Aspen Times Weekly article on FPOs on local public lands). FPOs have the capability and responsibility to enforce winter closures and other regulations on Forest Service lands. 

The CVEPA Board voted 4-1 to support the draft EA. To avoid any perception of a conflict of interest due to their employment, two board members recused themselves from voting at the February 10 meeting.  

CVEPA opposes commercial use on the trail; especially bike shuttles to the top of the pass. That does not preclude local bike rentals. CVEPA encourages Pitkin County to work with CDOT to develop bike lanes on Route 133 to give riders seasonal options and to accommodate road bikes, which are not suited for the trail.

Trail proponents and opponents are aligned in many ways but reaching a balanced decision that all can support is the challenge. CVEPA believes that everyone deserves a safe route through the valley without a motor vehicle. The proposed trail was the principal route through our valley during much of our recorded history. That does not diminish our responsibility for respectful stewardship of the land.

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