Some recreationists, wildlife advocates lukewarm
BLM Gunnison Field Office Manager Elijah Waters discusses the agency’s “preferred alternative” for Signal Peak-area trails with wildlife advocate Navid Navidi.
BLM Gunnison Field Office Manager Elijah Waters discusses the agency’s “preferred alternative” for Signal Peak-area trails with wildlife advocate Navid Navidi.

Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials hope that a revised plan for singletrack trails in the vicinity of Signal Peak northeast of Gunnison strikes a balance between recreation opportunity and protection of wildlife. Indications that neither recreationists nor wildlife advocates are fully satisfied with the plan’s latest draft may suggest the agency has accomplished its goal.

BLM leaders made their case Tuesday on the campus of Western State Colorado University for a “preferred alternative” that would set the stage for development of the long-envisioned non-motorized trail system. The meeting was attended by about 50 people — mostly advocates for wildlife and supporters of singletrack recreation, groups that have been in opposition over the Signal Peak concept since it was unveiled by the BLM last spring.  

Singletrack advocacy group Gunnison Trails submitted a master plan for the 13,000-acre area about a year ago after receiving a $45,000 planning grant three years prior to design the network. The grant followed a document drafted by the BLM — and later approved — called a Candidate Conservation Agreement (CCA), which sought to identify threats and enact protective measures to avoid the need to “list” the Gunnison Sage-grouse under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The CCA identified recreation as a threat but designated Signal Peak as a so-called Urban Interface Recreation Area — establishing the swath of public land as a place suitable for recreation development close to Gunnison in order to protect outlying populations of the bird from future harm.

Gunnison Trails’ master plan included 45 miles of trails. BLM whittled that down to 28 miles in the plan unveiled last year, while the recently released preferred alternative would reduce trail mileage to 21.6 — 7.8 miles of which already exist.

Gunnison Field Office Manager Elijah Waters said based on comments received in response to last year’s plan, BLM identified three main resource concerns — wintering wildlife, particularly mule deer; Gunnison sage-grouse; and community values.

“We heard a lot from people who live in the Tomichi Heights area and other places that ‘We don’t really want a Hartman Rocks out our back door,’” Waters said. “We took those three issues and we responded to those issues.”

The plan contains an “area closure” for all uses near the west end of the system from March 15-May 15 to protect a sage grouse lek. The closure area contains three trails currently — the Ridge trail, Chicken Scratch and Rasta Gulch. The latter two are not officially open to mountain bikes but still receive frequent use.

BLM recreation planner Jim Lovelace said a “high bar” exists for the agency when considering closing an area to all uses.

“In this case the high bar that’s in that area is Gunnison Sage-grouse,” he said. “Trails that area are directly impacting the sage grouse lek.”

Still, enforcement has been a concern expressed by stakeholders. For instance, some trails in the planning area are quite popular despite their currently closed status.  

“BLM has not taken an aggressive approach with enforcing that,” Waters admitted. “But as part of this process we will be enforcing (closures). … We will encourage people to comply first, but if that doesn’t work we will be writing tickets up there.”

Following the meeting, both wildlife advocates and recreationists interviewed by the Times were lukewarm to the latest plan for Signal Peak.

Avid mountain biker Bryan Dillon likes the new riding opportunity he sees, but those trails could only be used seasonally.

“I think it’s a good thing as a mountain biker and someone who recreates back there,” he said. “Traditionally there hasn’t been these seasonal closures. … It would be a bit of a give and take.”

Fellow mountain biker Jefe Branham suggested that Gunnison Trails may have proposed additional routes closer to town had they known the seasonal area closure was under consideration.

“You’re basically taking away three of the closest trails to town,” he said.

Similarly, while wildlife advocates welcome closures intended to protect wintering game, they’re not sold on other aspects of the plan — including parallel singletrack and doubletrack routes in close proximity, some of which already exist, running east-west along the ridge that contains Signal Peak, and the so-called North Woods trail through the only patch of dark timber in the area.

A group called Gunnison Wildlife Association (GWA) was most vocal last in opposing the plan, citing concerns over wintering mule deer, loss of year-round habitat and impacts to grouse.

“We’re still working with the BLM to hash out a few concerns over routes,” said GWA board member Navid Navidi.

Waters said BLM likely will modify minor aspects of the preferred alternative. For example, a single trail — called “Lost Sheep” — connecting doubletrack northeast of Signal Peak is included in BLM’s preferred alternative. However, Waters said it likely will be removed because “nobody likes it.”

BLM anticipates an environmental assessment — the next step in potential approval of the system, followed by a comment period — to be released in coming months.

 

(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or editor@gunnisontimes.com.)

 

COMMENTS SOUGHT

BLM is accepting comments on its draft alternatives for Signal Peak-area trails through Feb. 16. To view the agency’s summary of draft alternatives and for information about providing comments, visit https://go.usa.gov/xXsha.

 

WHAT IS THE ‘PREFERRED ALTERNATIVE’?

As compared to a plan unveiled last spring, trail miles have been reduced from 28 to 21.6 — 7.8 miles of which already exist. Trailheads along Lost Canyon Road, as well as trails in that area, have been removed in the latest draft.

Also, closures would be expanded to protect wildlife — including a proposed “area closure” for all users at the west end of the system from March 15-May 15 to protect Gunnison Sage-grouse. Similar to last year's proposed action, mountain biking would be barred throughout the system from Jan. 1-April 30, coinciding with a recently enacted seasonal closure on shed antler collection.

The plan would prohibit competitive events within the system — except for those affiliated with Western or Gunnison schools’ cross country or mountain bike teams. The area also would be managed for “day use” (as opposed to camping), and BLM would seek to limit impacts to nearby neighborhoods by encouraging access via an improved trailhead on Western property.