Gary Tennenbaum remembers the first time he first spoke with the new owners of a long-dormant coal mine up the Crystal River Valley, near Redstone. It was a few years ago, and the owners, grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton, offered a plan unlike any other the longtime director of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails had seen before.
They wanted to continue restoration work at the 221-acre mine site they purchased in 2015. They had a plan to build mountain bike trails, and they wanted access to the trails to be free, and they wanted the county to have an easement assuring public access. That was it.
“We were like, huh? OK then,” Tennenbaum said. “Definitely a first for us. It’s a new twist, for sure.”
Most Pitkin County landowners – really, most landowners everywhere – who offer public access on their property want something in return. In Pitkin County that usually means “transferable development rights” that allow a larger home than county regulations allow or approval for other development plans. This was the first time a Pitkin County landowner presented open space officials with a free-for-all access plan that had no quid pro quo requests.
“You know, I never really asked them why they were doing this. From what I understand, this is something they like to do. They like to ride bikes and they like to create these bike areas,” Tennenbaum said of the landowners, who include funders of the Catena Foundation, which has in the past supported bike trails reporting by The Colorado Sun.
“They have an interest in the Crystal River Valley, and they wanted to offer community benefits and wildlife benefits and river benefits,” he said. “Really, everything benefits because they are restoring this area, which is a very, very hammered piece of ground.”
The why is simple: “Create a community asset,” said Trina Ortega, the manager of Coal Basin, where trails traverse the former coal mine. Ortega described local kids pedaling over from nearby Redstone, new partnerships with youth cycling nonprofits and local schools providing classes, races and programs.
“There’s a new vibe here,” she said.
The park opened last weekend, with about 5 miles of singletrack rolling through ponds, forests and grassy slopes where countless trucks hauled millions of tons of freshly mined coal starting in the late 1800s.
And as promised, the trails are free and open to the public. In many ways, Coal Basin is a miniature version of the type of trails the younger generation of Waltons has built in northwest Arkansas, near their grandfather’s hometown of Bentonville. The hundreds of miles of Walton-woven singletrack there – known as Oz Trails — have transformed the town into a world-renowned mountain biking destination.
That isn’t going to happen at Coal Basin, but the concept is the same. And it’s one land managers, mountain bikers and open space advocates hope to see replicated.
Ortega spent Saturday hosting a curious horde of pedalers exploring the network of trails, the first for the Crystal River Valley. Ortega spent more time answering questions than pedaling. She pointed to a section of trail on the map where builders with Progressive Trail Design used just the right angle to climb a massive tailings pile to prevent erosion. She showed where vegetation re-seeded along trails near tailings ponds helps stabilize slopes.
“There was a huge desire to show how mountain bike trails can be used as another tool for restoration,” Ortega said. “In that regard, it also is meant to serve as a model.”
The word “model” comes up in almost all discussions of Coal Basin, used by the landowners, trail designers, mountain bikers, land managers and locals alike. The single-track trails are a model for restoring environmental danger zones. A model for Forest Service managers seeking partnerships with private entities to help build and maintain trails. A model for open space protectors offering landowners a way to marry recreational access with an easement that prevents any other type of development.
“In terms of outdoor exploration in Colorado – hiking and mountain biking and stand-up paddling and car camping – I keep waiting for the plateau to hit,” Ortega said. “But trail use in Colorado still seems to be growing. Trails on our public lands are getting hammered and the land management agencies can’t always keep up with the increased traffic. Perhaps the ranch can be a model to show other private landowners what’s possible.”
Pitkin County’s celebration of Coal Basin does not mean the process for approving the project and negotiating an easement was quick and simple. Pitkin County’s land-use code prohibits all development on slopes greater than 30 degrees – even mountain bike trails. So the county had to work with Coal Basin’s trail builders to make sure single track would not cause erosion or impact water quality flowing off the property.
Tennenbaum had to have an easement as a way to ensure the public would be allowed to use those trails. The agreement to build the trails, even on private property, could not have occurred without the easement, Tennenbaum said. Another benefit of the easement is help with liability. Colorado’s recreational use statute provides landowners with immunity from lawsuits if they allow free public recreation on their land.
Landowners can change their minds or sell, so the easement also assures public access “for many years,” Tennenbaum said.
If the property changes hands and a new owner wants to cut public access to the property, the trails will have to be removed as part of the agreement. “It really does take a special landowner to want to do this because they are not really seeing any return,” Tennenbaum said.
The yearslong process of approving and building trails, as well as creating a purely recreational easement with Pitkin County could be a model for not just landowners, but other municipalities that may want a recreation-focused conservation easement.
The traditional route of a conservation easement involves landowners securing tax breaks for promising to never develop their property, which provides benefits to water, wildlife and the environment but typically closes the property to public access. But what if a landowner wants a conservation easement that includes building trails that the public can use to access neighboring Forest Service trails?
“The benefits are there for a conservation easement but it could be better if there was a way to put trails on conserved land on some occasions,” said Mike Pritchard, head of the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association, who helped design the trail plan for Coal Basin.
Pritchard hopes interest at Coal Basin will persuade the White River National Forest to pursue more trail work on public lands that spin deeper into the Thompson Divide from the mine property. Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association trail crews are already using federal Great American Outdoors Act money dedicated to resolving deferred maintenance of public lands to rebuild and restore more than 20 miles of trails in the area.
Ideally, his crews could expand their work onto old Coal Basin access roads, which have been remediated since the days of lumbering coal trucks and are not open to mountain biking.
“We are just hoping that with increased visitation the Forest Service realizes they have willing partners from the mountain biking community and from this landowner, and they should really be revisiting the question of why these old mining roads are closed to bikes,” Pritchard said. “We think there is a future where some of these former roads could open back up to bikes to provide 10- to 12-mile new routes and loops here.”
The White River National Forest is not planning any changes to the road and trails around Coal Basin. The old mining roads are not designated routes in the forest’s travel management plan. And any changes to that plan would be “a long and involved process,” White River spokesman Dave Boyd said.
“It would also be a very controversial process given concerns from advocates for wildlife, grazing permittees, hunting outfitters and guides, equestrians and other recreationists,” Boyd said.
Already the Coal Basin plan has inspired another property owner. Pritchard’s association is working with an owner near New Castle who wants to allow public trails as part of an easement that protects the property from development of homes.
“Building a whole trail system is a unique situation and I’d love to see this repeated,” Pritchard said. “The project in New Castle could do that.”
The Coal Basin mine near the headwaters of Coal Creek above the Crystal River was created in the late 1800s by John Osgood, a coal baron who built the town of Redstone for his miners. Osgood’s Coal Basin mine operated until about 1908 and then went dark.
In 1956, Mid-Continent Resources’ coal and coke company began developing five underground mines that operated until 1991. The five mines produced 23 million tons of coal for U.S. steel mills in that period.
Mid Continent Resources in 1982 opened a now controversial limestone quarry above Glenwood Springs to service its Coal Basin mines. The company went broke in 1992 and forfeited its $2.5 million reclamation bond, forcing the state and Forest Service to begin a decadeslong reclamation effort around the Coal Basin mines in the mid-1990s.
Will Rousch, director of Carbondale’s Wilderness Workshop, will be offering field trips to the property to showcase restoration work, which will be increasingly important as coal mines close across the West.
While Coal Basin is a great example of a well-heeled landowner stepping up to deal with a big environmental problem, Rousch said, the problem should have been taken care of by Mid Continent Resources.
“I’d love to see better laws so these issues are not ditched onto the public sector and private landowner 20 years down the road,” he said. “We really should not let problems like that happen in the first place.”