The long-anticipated preliminary environmental assessment of the proposed Phil's World trail expansion has been released by the Tres Rios office of the Bureau of Land Management.
The 107-page document considers environmental, recreational and cultural impacts of four alternatives, including a no-action option. Public comment will be taken through Sept. 15.
The Phil's World area is three miles east of Cortez off U.S. Highway 160, and is composed of about 2,400 acres of BLM land and 730 acres of state land. Primarily used by mountain bikers, its 27 miles of single-track trails saw 17,754 visitors between October 2014 and September 2015, according to trail counter data.
The original trail expansion proposal to double the trail mileage dates to 2004, but planning did not kick into high gear until 2013, said Jeff Christenson, BLM outdoor recreation planner.
“A lot of adjustments were made to protect cultural resources and avoid wildlife impacts,” he said. “It is a good mix of trails for different biking ability levels, and there are good opportunities for hikers.”
Trails expand to the north and east, and two new parking lots and trailheads are proposed off County Roads L and M.
Key differences in the alternatives is the size and arrangement of a trail-free buffer zone to protect a golden eagle nest in Cash Canyon. The bird is a federally protected species.
“All the alternatives give a reasonable buffer to the eagle nest, and we utilized the terrain to help screen impacts,” Christenson said.
The larger the eagle buffer zone, the fewer miles of trails are proposed.
Alternative B includes 26.5 miles of new single-track trail with a golden eagle nest buffer zone of 263 acres. Alternative C has 21.5 miles of new trail and an eagle nest buffer of 355 acres. And Alternative D proposes 18 miles of new trail with an eagle nest buffer of 398 acres.
The Cash Canyon nest has not been active since 2014, however, golden eagles are known to alternate between different nests within their territory.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife defines an active nest as “any nest that is frequented by a raptor during the breeding season, or which has been active in any of the five previous breeding seasons.”
The trail expansion proposal was originally made by the Southwest Colorado Cycling Association.
Member Sean Gregory said years of work, trail adjustments and cooperation with the BLM went into the final proposals.
“We spent a lot of time walking, hiking, even crawling around canyons trying to figure out the best routes,” he said. “The area with the new trails is very scenic, and the trails were placed to take advantage of great views.”
The Simon Draw area north of County Road M is proposed for five new trails totaling nine miles in a “stacked loop” arrangement. The loops are designed for additional challenge the farther they are from the trailhead. The trails would be primarily accessed from the County Road M parking lot and trailhead. Two small access trails would allow access to the trail system from County Road N, and possibly from County Road 30.2.
The easier Carly trail loop (1.4 miles) is generally flat and designed for riders of all abilities. “The short loop would wind through widely spaced piñon, juniper and sagebrush, ideal for a kid's loop,” the proposal states.
The more difficult Garfunkel Trail loop would cross into and out of a side canyon of Simon Draw with an average grade of 8 percent.
The Highline Area between the existing Ledges Trail and County Road L would include two new trails. The 3-mile highline features rolling arroyos to overlooks of Sleeping Ute Mountain. The adjacent Canal Trail adds an additional 2.3 miles.
The Stinking Springs area on the southern portion of Phil's World would have three new single-track trails totaling 3.6 miles under all action alternatives: the Poquito Burrito, Tiny Dancer, and Short and Sweet.
The Cash Canyon area is most impacted by the various buffer zones proposed for the eagle's nest.
Under Alternative B, there would be four loop trails: Cash-Money, Talon, Aquila and Eyrie. Cash-Money will involve small hike-a-bike sections to keep the trail as far from the eagle's nest as possible.
The Talon Loop would be accessed from the County Road L trailhead and is similar to the rolling terrain of the existing Rib Cage trail section to the south. Aquila would extend the Talon loop by 2.5 miles in Cash Canyon. And Eyrie Trail is a beginner trail offering Cash Canyon views from the rim.
Alternative C reduced Cash Canyon trails to Talon and Cash Money, and Alternative D has no proposed trail in the canyon.
Besides avoiding eagles, the environmental analysis also examines impacts of expanded recreation at Phil's World on the struggling mule deer population.
The trail system occurs within the Mesa Verde Deer Herd Management Area, which has seen large population declines in the last 20 years: from 11,000 animals in 1998 to 5,100 in 2012. Colorado Parks and Wildlife attribute recent reductions in mule deer to reductions in habitat as a result of increasing human population and development.
To accommodate big-game habitat, trails were adjusted to avoid traveling up and down canyon bottoms, Christenson said, and trail building would be scheduled to avoid disturbing big-game habitat in winter.
He said that comments have been mixed. Neighbors have been resistant to the idea, while mountain bikers have been very supportive.
“We're looking forward to hearing what the public has to say to see if we missed any issues and if any adjustments are needed,” he said.
A link to the Phil's World Trail Project environmental assessment is at bit.ly/EAtrails.
Comments should be substantive in nature and related to issues, technological advances, analysis data, and the accuracy of scientific information.
Direct comments can be mailed to Jeff Christenson, 29211 Colorado Highway 184, Dolores, CO 81323 or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Comments are due by close of business Sept. 15.