The old wagon road on McClure Pass. Photo by Amy Hadden Marsh

White River National Forest (WRNF) officials are taking public comment on the Redstone to McClure Pass Trail, a seven-mile segment of the proposed 83-mile Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail (CCBT). 

Pitkin County Commissioners approved the CCBT plan in 2018. Five miles of the seven-mile segment would be built through federal land, which means the USFS — in this case, the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District — must complete an environmental review per the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA. In January, WRNF released the Draft Environmental Assessment (DEA), which opened the door to the second round of public comment.

The purpose of the second round of comments is to inform the Forest Service of what the agency might not have considered in the analysis. 

The project website shows that 112 comments were received concerning the DEA as of Feb. 13, with at least 81 in favor of the trail and around 21 opposed. But, for some, the trail debate is more complex than a thumbs up or thumbs down.  

“The Forest Service should scrap the DEA and do an EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] for the whole trail,” said Juli Slivka, policy director for Wilderness Workshop. An EIS takes a closer look at impacts of any project on federal lands.

At a public open house in Carbondale on Feb. 7, David Boyd, WRNF Public Affairs Officer, said the EIS process is a result of comments on the DEA. “If there is something as we’re going through the public comments that showed we needed to do more analysis, and showed significant impacts, that would bump it up to an EIS level”, he explained.

But, the basis for Slivka’s argument rests on page five of the DEA, which states that “…the Forest Service considers the regional CCBT plan to be a reasonably foreseeable action that is analyzed for potential cumulative effects.” 

The operative words are “reasonably foreseeable action”, which means the USFS sees the whole CCB trail as a future possibility. That acknowledgement, said Slivka, indicates that this segment is connected to the rest of the trail. “That full trail has a full plan associated with it. It’s no secret that’s the long-term goal,” she said. “Breaking it into these smaller segments that require only small DEAs we think is not sufficient and may not be legally supportable under NEPA.”   

In other words, by not considering the CCB trail as a whole, the DEA could potentially violate NEPA. 

Slivka added that NEPA requires an analysis of what are called “connected actions” to be included in a single environmental review. “NEPA prevents an agency from dividing a project into multiple actions, each of which individually has insignificant environmental impacts but collectively have a substantial impact,” she explained.  

Shelly Grail, Aspen-Sopris Ranger District’s recreation manager, said the five-mile stretch is the only project her office is looking at right now. She added that she’s received a variety of comments online, in emails, and at the meeting. 

“The things I’ve heard the most are peoples’ concerns with impacts to wildlife and the ability to effectively manage seasonal closures,” she said. “I’ve also heard from folks who are really interested in seeing the trail constructed, because of that connectivity piece and that safety piece of keeping people a little bit separated from highway traffic.”

The Crystal Valley Caucus supports a trail that sticks to the Highway 133 right-of-way, but is opposed to building one through sensitive wildlife habitat, which John Emerick, the caucus chair, said, exists throughout the proposed CCB trail area. He told The Sopris Sun that analyzing just one segment is insufficient. “The idea that the Forest Service will look at the trail impacts on a segment-by-segment basis decreases the likelihood that they’re going to have a clear analysis of the cumulative impacts,” he said. “Clearly the Redstone to McClure Pass segment is interdependent on the rest of the trail system.”

The Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA) has not yet officially weighed in about the trail, said Director John Armstrong. But, CVEPA shares the same concerns about approving one part of the trail without looking at the whole thing plus the increase of human and dog traffic in the Bear Creek Basin. 

The trail would be closed during elk calving season, which the group supports. But, dogs would be allowed off-leash with a caveat for restrictions if necessary. “It’s a great place to walk your dog,” said Armstrong. “And if you own a dog you have a tremendous responsibility to control that dog.” He said it’s a matter of balance. “We’re weighing the privilege of owning a dog against peoples’ perceived freedoms and the protection of wildlife.”   

Some have questioned why ERO Resources Corporation, the consultant firm hired by Pitkin County to write an environmental review for the CCBT in 2017, is drafting the USFS DEA. Boyd said that if a non-USFS entity plans a project through USFS land, that entity must pay for an environmental assessment and can hire whomever they want to do that work. But, he said the final decision rests with the USFS. “We’re working with those contractors on writing the document,” he said.

The Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association is in full support of the DEA. In comments published on the project’s website, Executive Director Mike Pritchard cites public safety, family recreation, regional trail connections, and user experience as reasons for the trail. He points out that the trail would follow the existing Old Wagon Road, which could offset costs and limit new construction impacts. 

But, Delia Malone, the wildlife chair for the Colorado Sierra Club, said that disturbance extends for 50 meters on both sides of any trail. “A trail that’s just a few feet wide negatively impacts wildlife for a 100-meter swath,” she explained. 

She added that humans are continually encroaching upon what’s left of unfragmented wildlife habitat. “The habitat that they propose to put this trail through is some of our best habitat that remains in the Crystal River Valley,” she said. “It’s one of those few valleys that hasn’t been overrun with human development. “ 

You can find documents and submit comments on the Redstone to McClure PassTrail at until Feb. 22.