Summit County recently moved a step closer on plans to complete an important recreational path expansion years in the making.
The Fremont Pass Recreation Pathway Project, a 3-mile path from Copper Mountain toward Fremont Pass, would connect to the Ten Mile Canyon path at Copper’s Far East parking lot and end just south of Graveline Gulch at State Highway 91. Summit County government has been in discussions for a paved section along this area of road since 2009, and the Dillon Ranger District announced the opening of its 30-day public comment and review period on Thursday, March 31.
“On Fremont Pass, there’s a very narrow piece of highway,” said Thad Noll, assistant county manager, “and we’d like to create a safe, separate pathway for people to ride and enjoy, rather than just paying attention to traffic. There’s an old railroad grade there that works beautifully, and, once we get to where the path can dump us out onto highway, there are really good, 8-foot highway shoulders from there all the way to Leadville.”
The county submitted its formal special-use proposal to the White River National Forest this past August, and it was accepted in October after additional conversation and joint visit to the site. That pushed the project forward to the official National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, assessment to disclose all of the potential impacts to the targeted area.
With its partner municipalities, the county currently oversees a recpath network of 52 miles, and views this 3-mile segment as the most pressing, immediate need. The long-term vision is to have it be the start of ambitions to connect the recpaths of Summit and Lake counties, first by linking Copper Mountain to Leadville.
“Ultimately, we’d like to see a big, long mountain loop that goes from Breckenridge to Frisco to Copper Mountain to Leadville, over to Aspen, Glenwood Springs and Eagle,” said Noll. “We see it as a fabulous thing for visitors, a fabulous route for locals and as a great way to show off the spectacular mountain passes that we have here in a safe way. Cyclists can be off the road, see the forest and ride alongside of the highway.”
This first phase was also named in January as one of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s highest priority trail projects with his “Colorado the Beautiful: 16 in 2016” initiative. The idea of the action is to identify and emphasize the 16 most important trail gaps in the state, and the added visibility should help remove any additional roadblocks between various local and state agencies from working together to get these projects completed.
The higher-profile designation does not provide guaranteed funding or necessarily any extra priority for this recpath proposal. If approved, the county will utilize portions of its dedicated annual Open Space & Trails budget, on top of any grants it is able to leverage, to pay for the project.
Before that can happen, however, the U.S. Forest Service will examine both internal and external issues raised during this month-long scoping stage in anticipation of its formal Environmental Assessment process.
“The biggest issues with this proposal are wetlands concerns and wildlife concerns,” said Bill Jackson, district ranger for the Dillon Ranger District. “That’s the nature of where the proposed alignment is. The NEPA process is designed to determine if those issues of concern can drive alternatives to the original proposal and disclose to the decision-maker what those ramifications are — benefits as well as costs.”
Specifically, there is a unique fen — or wetland with a distinctive type of soil — in the area of the proposed trail. The current plans for the recpath have it running through this fen with a light boardwalk — a management measure to impact the area as little as possible that is, according to Jackson, typical of many trails throughout Summit County — but that automatically triggers the involvement of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Furthermore, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has documented this area as abundant animal habitat, in part because of those wetlands and for access to the nearby creek. The recpath proposal as it is presently written would bisect the creek from the forest.
The county remains hopeful there will be few hang-ups in this first step toward future aims of the overall recpath plan. The belief is its goals align with those of the public’s to have safe bicycle trails with accesses over several of these difficult passes.
“Many mountain communities have these pathway systems that they’ve built already: Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Lake,” said Noll. “But because of the topography, there are a number of passes that are between these jurisdictions that block the progress. The idea is to have a statewide map of pathways in the future, where here’s these beautiful, pleasant pathways to connect various systems that makes it even more desirable and attractive for all of us to go out and use it.”