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Mountain bikes at heart of Silverton trails debate

Extensive network proposed north of town
Stuart Saslow stops while grooming trails in February to speak with Ashley Carruth, center, and Jess Reed, board members for the Silverton Whiteout 10-Hour Fat Bike Race. Increasing the amount of terrain and recreational opportunities for mountain bikers is a central component of a long-range trails plan for the Silverton area.

The town of Silverton is trying to lure more mountain bikers to its backcountry, but some residents wonder, at what cost?

For the past year, Silverton residents have drafted a long-range trails plan that aims to construct or improve nearly 15 new trails over a 30-year period. Town spokeswoman Lisa Branner said the plan is a “wish list” submitted to federal land management agencies to take into account for future planning.

The trails plan, Branner said, aims to boost Silverton’s tourist-dependent economy and provide more opportunities for locals and visitors.

While the plan incorporates all non-motorized uses, such as hiking and horseback riding, a main component is to increase the amount of terrain and recreational opportunity for mountain biking.

One reason there’s so much emphasis on mountain biking, Branner said, is because the last trails planning effort for Silverton in 2004 failed to address the sport. And since that time, the popularity of mountain biking has exploded.

“We’ve heard a little criticism the plan is mountain-bike heavy, but we’re trying to catch up,” Branner said. “Mountain bikes are certainly not appropriate on every single trail in San Juan County. But we want to be more mountain bike-friendly and embrace that part of our community and tourism base.”

The trails plan proposes building as well as opening up a number of new trails to mountain bikers.

But a few of the proposed routes draw particular concern, said San Juan County Commissioner Scott Fetchenheir, for potentially bringing more traffic to the fragile alpine tundra and impacts to the environment and wildlife.

“We’re loving our public lands to death,” Fetchenheir said. “Can the mountains handle having a lot more people?”

By far, the biggest proposal is for an extensive network of mountain bike trails on Storm Peak Massif, just north of Silverton.

Klemens Branner, with Silverton Singletrack Society (and husband of Lisa Branner), said the International Mountain Bicycling Association has been drafting a proposed network of trails the advocacy group hopes to complete by this spring or summer.

“We’re definitely trying to push on this as fast as we can,” he said.

Silverton has some mountain biking terrain, Klemens Branner said, but most of it is steep and for advanced bicyclists. The goal is to open up more beginner and intermediate routes throughout the mountains to fill in the gap and bring more people in town.

“We want to make Silverton a destination for whole families to come,” he said.

But some residents are apprehensive about the impacts of opening up such vast amounts of mountain terrain to mountain bikes in this part of the San Juan Mountains.

The proposed biking network on Storm Peak Massif, for instance, would cut through the heart of prime elk habitat, Fetchenheir said. And a proposed mountain bike-specific trail to Columbine Lakes would further stress an already popular hiking destination. Fetchenheir said he’s already seen groups of mountain bikers cut illegal paths through the fragile tundra around the alpine lake.

But therein lies a possible positive outcome of the trails plan, he said. By clearly marking trails and creating new ones, outdoor users are more likely to stay on the beaten path.

“Once you build a trail, it keeps them on the trail instead of going cross-country,” he said. “But where do you find the happy medium?”

Julie Coleman, a Silverton resident, said her main concerns center on user conflicts with mountain bikers, as well as the potential damage of promoting biking in Boulder Gulch and Bear Creek, the town of Silverton’s two water supplies.

Boulder Gulch is closed to mountain biking, per Bureau of Land Management rules. Bear Creek is within the National Forest System, but the area is technically open to mountain bikes.

“People are really reluctant to recognize mountain bikes do cause environmental damage,” she said. “They are pushing this as economic development, which I get, but it’s a whole change of use in the high country.”

Klemens Branner said concerns over mountain biking’s impact are largely overblown, and comparable to the impact of hikers and horseback riders. The best solution to reduce damage, he said, is to design well-built trails for mountain biking.

“Well-built trails take care of themselves and don’t have much impact,” he said. “And that’s where people will want to go.”

Mark Lambert with the U.S. Forest Service said there’s no blanket rule for allowing mountain bikes. Instead, each trail is judged on a case-by-case basis for what use is appropriate.

Before any trail is approved, Lambert said it must go through an extensive analysis process, which includes taking into account impacts on the landscape, wildlife and users.

“The whole purpose is to make an informed decision,” he said.

Bureau of Land Management Gunnison field manager Elijah Waters did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Klemens Branner said by creating more mountain biking opportunities in Silverton, there’s the potential to tap into a new source of revenue for the town, which relies on tourism.

“We are a small town that’s struggling in a lot of ways, and we can certainly handle some growth,” he said. “There are people who want to keep everything the way it is because it’s their private getaway, but that’s not healthy for Silverton in the long run.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

This story has been updated to clarify access to Boulder Gulch, Bear Creek and Columbine Lake.

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