Agency accepting comment on ‘preferred alternative’

After receiving an earful last spring on a plan for singletrack trail development in the vicinity of Signal Peak northeast of Gunnison, the Bureau of Land Management released Tuesday a long-awaited “preferred alternative” for the area.

The proposal includes numerous concessions to wildlife and other concerns. BLM is accepting comment on the document until Feb. 16. Additionally, the agency will host a public meeting at the University Center ballroom at Western State Colorado University on Tuesday, Jan. 30 from 7-9 p.m.

As compared to the 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. In line with the proposed action released last year, mountain biking would be barred throughout the system from Jan. 1-April 30, coinciding with a recently enacted seasonal closure on shed antler collection (see related story).

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.

Largely, explained BLM recreation planner Jim Lovelace, the proposed changes adhere to the concept of a “community trails system” — as opposed to destination trails that attract recreationists from afar.

“We tried to take some steps to tip the needle toward a community trail system while recognizing that regionally there are going to be people who are excited about checking out a trail system like Signal Peak,” he said.

The proposal for a new, non-motorized singletrack trail system on the 13,000-acre swath of land in the vicinity of Signal Peak sparked controversy last year when BLM accepted comments on its proposed action.

For decades, various recreationists have used the Signal Peak-area trails — many of them old wildlife and cattle routes or rudimentary roads first used for mineral exploration.

In 2006, the Signal Peak system was one of three pitched by singletrack advocacy group Gunnison Trails. The system was given the go-ahead in the 2010 Gunnison Basin Travel Management Plan. However, exact location of the routes was not determined.

Subsequently, the BLM’s Candidate Conservation Agreement (CCA) 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 singled out recreation among those threats and identified the Signal Peak area and Hartman Rocks as so-called Urban Interface Recreation Areas “that would be managed for recreation use” — the thought being that keeping recreation close to Gunnison would protect outlying populations of the bird from future harm.

While the bird ultimately was listed as “threatened” as opposed to the more restrictive “endangered” designation, the contents of the CCA were rolled into the BLM’s Rangewide Management Plan amendment for grouse.

In 2014, Gunnison Trails received $45,000 through the Colorado State Recreation Trails Grant Program to produce a plan for the Signal Peak trails. In the years that followed, the group produced a master plan for the area — containing 45 miles of trails. BLM’s preferred alternative contains less than half that number of miles.

“It’s a compromise alternative essentially,” Lovelace said. “In a situation like this, we wanted to try to satisfy those initial marching orders in the CCA to strike a compromise between recreational needs and wildlife habitat.”

A group called Gunnison Wildlife Association (GWA) was most vocal last year in opposing the plan. They cited concerns over wintering mule deer, loss of year-round habitat and impacts to grouse among their reasons. GWA collected more than 500 signatures from people opposing the Signal Peak system.

GWA board member Navid Navidi also serves on the newly formed Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee and believes the BLM proposal to be premature in light of that group’s work.

“I wish the BLM would have waited to see what the sustainable tourism (committee) is going to propose,” Navidi said.  

BLM anticipates a final environmental assessment for the trail system to be released this coming spring.

However, assuming approval of the system, Gunnison Trails Executive Director Tim Kugler noted that specific trail alignment would still need to be approved by BLM — a potentially lengthy process in itself. And initial trail construction would likely focus on reroutes and sustainability of existing trails.

“We’re certainly pleased to see the amount of our original plan that has made it into the preferred alternative,” he said.  

 

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

 

PUBLIC COMMENT
To view the BLM’s preferred alternative for trails in the Signal Peak area, as well as a map, and for instructions on submitting comments, click here. Comments will be accepted until Feb. 16. The agency will host a public meeting on the plan at the University Center ballroom at Western State Colorado University on Tuesday, Jan. 30 from 7-9 p.m.