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8162X: No such thing as a secret place anymore
The perpetual motion machine of recreation development

Idrove by the Northstar “Nature Preserve” on a recent sunny Saturday. The crowded and festive scene was reminiscent of a fraternity beach party, complete with inflatable unicorns and inner tube beer cooler barges. Had I been of a more fraternity mindset and age, I would have gladly pulled my vehicle off on the shoulder – at least partially removed from the highway’s traffic lanes – and partaken in the canned beverages and water fights. Any actual nature in the vicinity of Northstar, meanwhile, would be wise to find a quiet backchannel to hole up in until after Labor Day.

Aspen’s riverine recreation amenity is now under the public policy microscope, and along with its well-loved cousin at Penny Hot Springs, will likely next encounter a fork in the management plan road. At that fork lies a dichotomy: allow either more or less. 

The famously over-loved amenities at Conundrum and Hanging Lake, as with the Maroon Bells before them, faced a similar decision, and on their behalf were assigned the path less traveled, in the form of officially-mandated restricted access, i.e. reservations and permits, and buses and fees. These are perfectly rational responses to the parabolic draw of famous and unreplicable attractions; because unless officials put up some form of gate, the masses will keep massing.

In the age of competitive travel blogs, mission-driven commerce chambers and geo-tagging internet maps, there is no such thing as a secret place any more. Every swimmable water hole, every bandit bike trail, lunker trout hideout, or authentic bar owned by an authentic bar owner has its own web presence and fan club. Voluntarily or otherwise.

On the road to fame and misfortune for popular amenities lies the Iron Law of Recreation Development: more trails beget more trails, and more people beget more pavement. What starts as a wispy trailhead near a fat part of a dirt road morphs into a gravel parking lot with a fee station, and eventually blossoms into a sprawling asphalt parking lot and interpretive center.

What’s often lost in this gravitational pull of upgrades is a dialogue about purpose and beneficiaries, which in the most simplified sense pits advocates for broad access and quality of recreation experience against advocates for wildlife and more natural nature experiences. Throw in the lobbying of a few impacted local residents along with interested would-be entrepreneurs, and you have the recipe for some public meeting fireworks. Add a wealthy landowner with a skin in the game into the mix, and you have the makings for a local civil war.

In these debates, the rationalizations and justifications morph and the sophistry of debate imitates our broken national discourse. The warring parties never quite bother to establish first principles or shared premises, and so argue past each other incessantly, never really solving anything, both simply hoping to win the political tug of war through the virtues of loudness and persistence.

And what a feud it can be. Every proposed new trail development or upgraded public land use brings forth a passionate chorus of attackers and defenders, each zealously expounding their own virtues while cataloging their opponent’s sins. Each new development is endorsed by the true believers of progress and lovers of access, all the while decried by the dedicated keepers of Something We Hold Dear, to whom the new plan constitutes an existential threat.

Unlike natural hot springs, highly-photographed geology, and scenic flatwater floats – of which you can’t simply make more – there are still plenty of places to build and improve trails. And so we do. Trails are a great amenity, enjoyable, fundable, and good fodder for bragging about in the travel press.

Trails certainly adhere to the Iron Law of Progressive Improvements – wherein each upgrade of infrastructure and amenities begets a future layer of further enhancements – and trail building is where the rubber hits the road for that phenomena. Having long passed the tipping point between a Valley that is mostly open, to one that is mostly developed, we are now confronting the turf wars and value conflicts over the question of if, where, and how to build trails. And who gets to use them. So, while public policy processes have developed an approach to throttle use for fixed attractions, we are now in the midst of navigating these questions with respect to trail building.

There is a sense of unquenchable demand in this, particularly when it comes to mountain biking, which has a legacy of never being satisfied for long with the current offerings, and thus embarking on repeat cycles of building bandit trails on public land. These eventually become well-used trails, which then gain the status of established amenities, which are then ultimately blessed and made official by the public land agencies. The strategy here is to not wait for public process; “’tis better to act first and seek forgiveness later” seems to be the guiding ethos.

This flavor of mountain biker has long had their faces pressed to the candy store window of designated wilderness areas; wondering aloud and increasingly loudly why are only hikers and horse-riders allowed to use those exquisite trails. Recently, this group has made common cause with advocacies that are mainly interested in eliminating public lands altogether; a troubling liaison to say the least.

Meanwhile, over on our paved trails, riders of e-bikes, which are in fact motorcycles and not bicycles in any conventional if not literal interpretation of the term, have advocated successfully for access to the pathways also previously reserved for strictly human-powered mobilizations. Might golf carts be next? Why not? (Perhaps, if they are solar powered.)

Locally, the flash point over paved and large-scale trail-building has moved from the Rock Bottom Ranch section of the Rio Grande trail, to the Wexner/Red Hill land swap, and now to the proposed Carbondale to Crested Butte trail. 

Residents along these byways, accustomed to their private rail corridors and un-trespassed river access, cite the impact on wildlife as their chief concern. These vested interests, however, make imperfect and unsympathetic conduits for this otherwise relevant concern. Yet their point is well-taken, it is undeniable that we have shuffled wildlife off to the side in our quest for more and better trails. Claims about the comparative virtues of trail use versus house-building ring hollow to my ears though; they both impose significant impacts on the local flora and fauna.

The debate over the Red Hill/Wexner land swap in particular brought forth a heated and sometimes unpleasant clashing of preferences that pitted neighbor against neighbor and friend against friend. The scope of principle issues involved and scale of land in question multiplied the stakes and escalated the passion on both sides, and the resulting argument revealed a chasm of cherished values.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy these trails – from the bandit Prince Creek system back in its early years – to the expansive Red Hill/Mushroom Rock area, to the marvelous Crystal River and Rio Grande paved trail systems, I have ridden them countless times, and now enjoy sharing them with my children – and I may one day as a more elderly resident find great pleasure and extended range from a motor-assisted bike. I suspect that I will not have the opportunity, however, due to the extensive development time required, to be around (or at least in any shape) to exploit an eventual Carbondale to Crested Butte trail network. Nevertheless, the concept is highly intriguing.

I will confess that I am of two minds about new and upgraded trails, like the one proposed for Crested Butte; I certainly enjoy them, and understand they attract visitors, but cannot deny that we are creating yet more disruptions for wildlife, and adding new vectors for human use and abuse. In this pursuit, we risk losing any moral claims to being nature-centric, as the evidence on the ground reveals our true priority to be human recreation-centric.

We are making decisions now that will establish the opportunities and limits well into the future. There will be winners and losers. 

I hope that in our future debates about trails and wildlife, we can affirm our shared values and hold an informed and healthy dialogue. I am not sure we can stem the tide of demand for amenities, or can satisfy all interests in these debates, but I do hope we can come up with solutions that build on a strong foundation of a common vision and reflect a longer view.

Malcolm McMichael lives in Carbondale with his family, family hamster and an extended family of outdoor gear. Recently, he has been shopping for a fat-tired downhill solar golf cart.