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Buying a mountain to realign a trail

Group utilizes unique plan to aid cash-strapped Forest Service
Lloyd Athearn, executive director of the Colorado Fourteener Initiative, points out old mining craters on the trail to the summit of Mount Shavano. His group ranks the quality of the trail as one of the worst in Colorado and CFI is about to buy three critical mining claims on the peak to realign the trail.

MOUNT SHAVANO – The trail to the peak widens as it reaches the alpine tundra. Soon, it’s a slanting scar, 20 feet across and 3 feet deep. Chunks of tundra are sliding into the trough of rubble.

“So much is moving. It crumbles from the uphill side and smothers the downhill side. It’s a real double whammy,” said Lloyd Athearn, his trekking poles probing the shifting snarl of trail leading straight up to the summit of Mount Shavano.

Athearn’s Colorado Fourteeners Initiative considers the trail to the top one of the very worst in Colorado, needing about $2 million in repairs that the U.S. Forest Service can neither afford nor staff. But Colorado Fourteeners Initiative has a plan: it’s buying three mining claims that include the 14,229-foot summit, and planning a more sustainable trail that it will build and deed it to the Forest Service.

“We have a lot more running room and creativity on the nonprofit-partnership side. We just have fewer constraints,” said Athearn, who helped raise more than $50,000 to buy the claims.

Blasted in by hasty gem miners more than a century ago and trampled into braids of rolling rock by Colorado’s increasing numbers of peak-bagging hikers, the switchback-free trail to the top of Mount Shavano is in dire health, according to the initiative’s inventory of 39 of Colorado’s 54 14,000-foot peaks.

Over its 22-year history, the nonprofit Colorado Fourteeners Initiative typically has helped the federal government navigate environmental reviews of trail projects, supported Youth Corps crews laboring on trail restoration and helped raise money to fund the work.

But the group decided to take a different tack on Mount Shavano.

Athearn and his board of directors last year decided to pursue the purchase of private land on the peak west of Salida. That would better enable the group to chase after trail-building grants, which often wither when projects involve crossing private land. The initiative paid to map the claims and earlier this summer, Athearn discovered a weathered wooden post marking a corner of a 1902 mineral survey. Using today’s mapping technology, he found that the true location of one of the claims actually included the summit.

So what started out as a mission to build a better trail also delivers legal access to the summit.

Athearn and his team tracked down the owners of the mining claims in Arkansas, Colorado and Florida. Athearn studied the asking and sale prices of Colorado’s many alpine mining claims that are surrounded by federal land and lacking any road access.

Then they went and raised the cash, marking the first time the group – whose mission is “protect, restore and educate” – will purchase fourteener dirt.

“I was so impressed that they were able to get the contracts and negotiations done pretty darn quickly. That’s a testament to the organization and their leadership,” said Adelaide Leavens, a Texas philanthropist with a home in Salida, who heard a presentation by Athearn two years ago at a Dallas REI store that briefly touched on the condition of the trail up Mount Shavano.

That talk touched a nerve. Several years before, her husband dislodged a rock on the Mount Shavano trail and it crushed his ankle. He had to be evacuated from the mountain.

Leavens is one of two main donors supporting the effort to buy the 30 acres of land atop Mount Shavano.

“When Lloyd was talking about how bad that trail was, I completely remembered that time,” she said, “and I knew I wanted to help.”

The unique situation on Mount Shavano marks a growing interest in partnerships at the Forest Service. The agency, with its staffing gutted and its budget ravaged by wildfire costs, can’t keep up with trail building and maintenance costs, especially on Colorado’s well-traveled fourteeners.

As the agency needs help as it elevates recreation as a viable economic engine for rural communities surrounded by public land and as a way to foster the next generation of public-land advocates. Partners such as the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative and the National Forest Foundation have helped with volunteer crews and private donations, but those groups are falling behind as well.

The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative last year concluded that 26 of the trails built on the state’s fourteeners trails in the past 20 years need $6 million worth of work, and 16 so-called “social trails” – those simply beat in by hikers over decades, like on Mount Shavano — need $18 million of new trail development.

About a dozen of those trail-conservation groups are uniting under a new campaign that hopes to put a big dent in the $24 million tab. The “Find Your Fourteener” mission launches next year with a five-year plan to assist the Forest Service with more trail-trained volunteers and project leaders working more days on the state’s highest peaks.

“We are setting a model now for collaborative stewardship, which doesn’t happen in many places,” said Marcus Selig, the Salida-based head of field programs for the National Forest Foundation. “Hopefully, instead of doing random acts of conservation, which are great, we can start attacking it more strategically.”

At the Forest Service’s Salida Ranger District, every project in the past five years has involved a partner.

“That is very much a sign of the future,” said Ben Lara, the recreation program manager for the district, noting that in the past five years, the district’s summer hiring efforts have focused on the ability to manage a 20-person volunteer crew. “There’s a lot of ownership in these projects. There are a lot of unintended benefits from having constrained budgets.”

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