About 30 miles of new trails in Silverton geared at mountain biking were approved Monday, along with a controversial route for dirt bikes through the San Juan Mountains.
Since June 2019, the Bureau of Land Management has been re-evaluating its system of trails in the mountains around Silverton, in what is called a “travel management plan.”
For years, advocacy groups for mountain bikes have called for the implementation of a trails plan that would add about 30 new miles of trail in an area just north of town to be called “Baker’s Park.”
Of about 30 miles of trail, the plan proposes about 24 miles for shared use between mountain bikers and hikers. About 6 miles would be one-way trails specifically for mountain biking.
The trails would be located in an area just north of town, known locally as Storm Mountain and Boulder Mountain.
Silverton Singletrack Society President Klemens Branner said the plan would provide much-needed mountain biking terrain around Silverton, which currently has only 10 miles of official single-track routes open.
As an added benefit, Branner said more mountain biking options are likely to bring in more tourists, which should help boost Silverton’s tourist-dependent economy.
“More people doing stuff outside, that’s a good thing,” he said. “That’s one of Silverton’s greatest assets, all of the land around us. We just need to use it responsibly.”
The plan was not without opposition, however, from some members of the public who raised concern that the new trails would lead to damage on alpine tundra and slice through prime, undisturbed wildlife habitat, primarily for elk and deer.
The BLM on Monday approved the Baker’s Park project, taking it a step further by adding on the allowed use of e-bikes – an aspect the original plan developed by mountain bike groups did not call for.
BLM spokesman Brant Porter said the effects to wildlife are being addressed through a timing restriction on trail use to minimize disturbance to lynx habitat.
“These trails would not be groomed in winter and the trail system will close for the season when sufficient snow accumulates to prevent mechanized travel,” he said. “The trails would reopen for the season once they dry after snowmelt.”
Branner said other than one trail located above tree line that was removed for supposed impacts to wildlife, the trails plan aligns with what user groups asked for.
“We’re super excited about it,” he said.
Baker’s Park will mostly be built by fundraising and volunteer efforts, Branner said. He said construction could start as early as next summer. At full build-out, the new park could cost $1.4 million.
Porter said the BLM will have a role in oversight of trail construction and adherence to the environmental compliance documents.
“BLM also regularly works with partners and granting organizations to secure funds in order to build new trails, trailheads and restroom facilities,” he said.
The BLM’s announcement on Monday also included the approval of a controversial new 1.6-mile dirt bike route over alpine tundra at the top of Minnie Gulch, essentially connecting County Road 24 and Forest Service Road 917.
As it currently stands, County Road 24 dead-ends up Minnie Gulch. In the 1.75 miles or so between the county road and Forest Service Road 917, there is little trace of a trail, which is open to non-motorized use.
The proposal to build a new route for dirt bike travel has raised concerns that it will compromise the fragile high country and degrade prime elk habitat by creating more traffic.
San Juan County commissioners unanimously opposed the proposed route in a February letter to the BLM.
“San Juan County has clearly demonstrated our support of motorized trails throughout the county,” they wrote. “The upper portion of Minnie Gulch is a very tranquil location. This is one of the few locations where you do not hear any traffic noises.”
Several Native American tribes, including the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute, also raised concern the new road would negatively affect culturally important sites, such as an old Ute trail used for traveling the high mountain passes.
“The cumulative effects of the change in authorized use from single-track mechanized to single-track motorized on (Minnie Gulch Trail) would cause irreversible adverse effects to the cultural landscape and therefore result in an adverse effect to tribal concerns,” a BLM report said. “The overall impacts to Ute tribal concerns in and on Minnie Gulch Trail cannot be mitigated, according to current information provided by the tribe.”
Dirt bike advocacy groups, however, argued that motorized use was allowed in the area in question until it was closed off in 1997. The groups say connecting the two roads would create a loop to allow for more dirt bike travel.
“We’re not asking for something we didn’t already have, we were just asking for it to be reinstated,” said Gary Wilkinson with San Juan Trailriders. “It’s obviously good news for us.”
The BLM in a statement said “the rerouted trail will avoid sensitive landscapes and ecological areas to balance recreational opportunity and protection of resources.”
Porter said BLM will implement a season of use – no earlier than July 1 each year until snow closes the route – to avoid impacts to the elk calving season and reduce trail and resource damage.
Lastly, the BLM formally designated about 12 miles of existing routes for public use as part of the decision.