As the towering mountains and vast backcountry around Silverton become a mecca for hikers, mountain bikers and all-terrain vehicles, how to manage overcrowding and overuse on public lands is becoming a pressing question.
Nearly every Colorado mountain town is confronting the issue. As more people move to the state seeking outdoor adventure, greater stress is placed on natural resources and wildlife throughout the region’s nearly 24 million acres of public land.
In Silverton, visitation and its impacts have been surging in recent years, prompting the small mountain hamlet of about 600 people to get proactive.
“Silverton has been behind the times,” said Lisa Branner, spokeswoman for the town.
After the town caught wind that the Bureau of Land Management was planning to catalogue trails located on the agency’s managed land, Silverton started to embark on a yearlong process to envision the future of its trails.
The result is the “Silverton Area Trails Plan” that proposes nearly 15 new trails in and around Silverton to be built over the next 30 years. It’s a “wish list,” Branner said, with lofty and long-term goals.
“I like to say it’s a painting with very broad brush strokes right now,” she said. “As we prioritize and move forward, then we’ll dig into the nitty-gritty details.”
The plan has received unanimous approval from Silverton town trustees and San Juan County commissioners, as well as support from most residents, who say the improved trail network will boost the local economy and provide more outdoor opportunities.
The hope is the BLM, as well as the U.S. Forest Service, will take the town’s list into account when planning future trails.
But, the plan has raised concern from some residents who say there are potential adverse impacts, such as exposing fragile high country terrain to overuse. And, some say the plan opens up far too much terrain to mountain biking.
“We have to balance the economy with our quality of life,” said San Juan County Commissioner Scott Fetchenheir. “We have to ask why we live here and how do we make a living, but that’s a tough balance.”
Silverton is excited about a number of proposed projects in the trails plan.
A perimeter trail around town could connect to other trails in the area to make Silverton a sort of base camp for outdoor adventure, similar to the perimeter trail in Ouray. It would be open to hikers, horses and bikes, and could even be groomed in winter.
A river walk around the Animas River is also high on the priority list. It would create a loop around the Animas, be open to all users and could also be groomed in winter.
Silverton is known for its steep, expert terrain. Many aspects of the proposed trails plan, Branner said, fill in the gap for beginner to intermediate outdoor opportunities.
“There’s definitely a high level of excitement,” she said.
Some proposed trails have raised concerns that fragile high country terrain could be at greater risk of damage, Fetchenheir said.
One plan, for instance, would build a mountain bike-specific trail to Columbine Lake. Fetchenheir said proposed trails like this could double visitation at the pristine alpine lake, and he worries what the impact could be.
“My concerns are environmental,” Fetchenheir said. “But at the same time, environmental damage is already happening.”
In lieu of a distinct and clear network of trails, Fetchenheir said hikers, mountain bikers and outdoor users alike tend to forge their own trails, sometimes through alpine tundra.
Mountain bikers, for instance, have been seen illegally riding down Boulder Gulch, the town’s water supply, and over the alpine tundra near Columbine Lake, Fetchenheir said.
But by clearly marking routes and creating new trails, thereby spreading out use, it is possible a trails plan would have a positive effect. And that may be the only option going forward as population and trail use inevitably increase.
“The cat is out of the bag,” Branner said of Silverton’s beloved spots. “But we’re in a fortunate position where we can manage use of our backcountry in a smart way, and perhaps, not fall into the trap of loving our backcountry to death.”
Julie Coleman, a Silverton resident, said she has some serious concerns about certain proposed routes in the trails plan. And she says she’s not alone.
“There are people concerned. But the way Silverton is, they are afraid to speak out,” Coleman said. “And other people want to speak up, but they felt like it was already decided.”
Coleman said she is most concerned the plan doesn’t take into account impacts to the environment, wildlife, private property and user conflicts. Citing specific proposed trails, Coleman said the plan would promote Boulder Gulch and Bear Creek – Silverton’s two main sources of water – to mountain bikers, which pose a risk to the watershed.
She also expressed concern about user conflicts that might arise should mountain bikes be allowed to the extent proposed in the plan.
“It’s a whole change of use in the high country,” she said.
Branner maintained Silverton’s part in the trail planning was to make a broad wish list. As to concerns about the environment, she said that would be taken into account by the BLM or U.S. Forest Service before any trails are built, through the federal environmental analyses.
“We’re not in a position to say whether these trails are a good or bad idea from those perspectives,” Branner said. “That’s where we count on land managers and their process to vet these ideas.”
Elijah Waters, BLM’s Gunnison field manager, declined a phone interview. He wrote in an email that BLM is reviewing Silverton’s trails plan. The BLM will officially begin its trails planning process in the coming weeks, he said.
Mark Lambert with the Forest Service said a travel management plan for the Silverton area will be worked on within the next two or three years. The Forest Service has never had a trails management plan for Silverton, he said.
Lambert said new trails are put through intense scrutiny before any approval or construction.
“The whole purpose is to make an informed decision,” he said.
The two core goals of Silverton’s efforts to improve its trails network is to boost its at times struggling economy and provide better outdoor opportunities, both for locals and visitors, Branner said.
Increasingly, the town of Silverton is looking for ways to diversify its tourist-dependent economy. In the past couple years, the town opened itself up to all-terrain vehicles, bringing an unprecedented number of visitors to the remote mountain town.
The recent trails plan focuses solely on non-motorized use. Some residents hope it might change the demographic in Silverton, thereby eliminating the need for noisy ATVs. Others fear the town and its backcountry will be overrun.
Fetchenheir has lived in Silverton for more than 40 years, but it’s only in the past 10 or so years he said the mountain’s beauty has been discovered by the outside world. As similar western towns, such as Moab, Utah, and Crested Butte, become bombarded with outdoor recreationists, he fears for his town.
“We need to ask ourselves how big of a town we want to be,” Fetchenheir said. “Some people say bring everything you can. But I kind of like Silverton the way it is.”
This story has been updated to clarify access to Boulder Gulch, Bear Creek and Columbine Lake.