Work on popular Colorado Springs trail earns scathing reviews from mountain bikers

October 14, 2016 Updated: October 15, 2016 at 7:14 am
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While mountain bikers and hikers are free to use both the old and new versions of Jones Downhill for now, the ban on motorbikes will last at least until next season, as the Forest Service hunts for funding to extend the work over Mount Kineo. (The Gazette)

With a sour look on his face, Brian Doss of Fort Collins steered his bike to a halt high in a mountain clearing called Jones Park.

Instead of the rough-and-tumble singletrack he'd traveled 90 minutes to experience, what he and two companions found was a freshly cut scar in the woods wide enough for a car - 8-10 feet across in some places. Trees were cut down, and rocks and roots were scraped clean by a bulldozer and pushed down the hillside.

"It's sickening," Doss said. "This isn't a bike trail. It's a road."

The trail that inspired such a response is a nearly 3-mile segment of the vaunted Jones Downhill - as reconfigured by the U.S. Forest Service's oft-delayed reshaping of the Bear Creek watershed trails.

The $320,000 project lurched to an incomplete stop last month when trail builders from Trails Unlimited found they couldn't continue through the scree on the route planned across Mount Kineo, which critics had long pegged as impractical.

Their departure left a challenging segment unfinished - a particular blow for dirt bikers, who are banned from Trail 667 pending the reroute, the result of a settlement between the Forest Service and an Arizona-based environmental group that sued the agency over what it said were threats by dirt bike traffic to the greenback cutthroat trout living in Bear Creek. The only self-sustaining population of Colorado's state fish remaining in the wild are ultimately what spurred the reroutes.

While mountain bikers and hikers are free to use both the old and new versions of Jones Downhill for now, the ban on motorbikes will last at least until next season, as the Forest Service hunts for funding to extend the work over Kineo.

'Far off the rails'

The new portion of Trail 667 that was finished has the feel of something "designed to the lowest common denominator," Doss said.

People familiar with how the project unfolded say the trail wasn't designed at all - at least not by the standards of many trail builders.

Troy Scott Parker, owner of Boulder-based trail builder Naturescape, complained that Trails Unlimited appeared to run its bulldozer along a rough contour line he had sketched out as a possible trail corridor.

Parker said he suggested the corridor free of cost to the Forest Service two or three years ago, after being hired for two "very small" consulting contracts for planning in Bear Creek. If the Forest Service had elected to put a trail there, he expected that he or another designer would have been called upon to refine it - making multiple canvassing trips and ultimately crafting a 3-foot-wide ribbon of singletrack through the trees that would incorporate natural features and overlooks for the benefit of all user groups.

What happened instead, he said, has no precedent in his trail-building career.

"I've never seen something go this far off the rails," Parker said. "Everybody involved in this is going to come out looking bad."

Tony Boone, a Salida-based trail builder who's been involved in numerous projects in Colorado Springs, including the Palmer Trail reroute leading into Section 16, said he was taken aback when he learned the project couldn't be completed within budget.

In the past 30 years, Boone said he's constructed 600 miles of trail at an average cost of $15,000 to $20,000 per mile. He said of the Jones Park reroute: "We could have built it for half that ($320,000 budget) and made it look so much more sexy."

The trail builders faulted Trails Unlimited for using blades on its bulldozer that were too wide.

In a written statement, Forest Service spokeswoman Barb Timock said the multi-use trail is "intended to be wider than before" to accommodate other user types.

"The new trail needs to be wide enough for user groups to safely encounter each other," she said.

Boone and Parker said they would have submitted a project proposal, but the Forest Service instead opted for a no-bid contract with Trails Unlimited, an enterprise wing of the agency. The Gazette reached out to Trails Unlimited for comment and received no response.

Time will help

Cory Sutela, president of Medicine Wheel Trail Advocates, called the outcome a disappointing result after more than three years of working with the Forest Service to provide input.

Sutela said Medicine Wheel, which has taken the lead on several well-received trail projects in the Springs, was rebuffed in its requests to discuss trail work in advance and its offer to lay out the trail free of charge.

Frustrated by the process, Sutela and Friends of the Peak president Paul Mead met this month with Erin Connelly, the top ranger in Pike National Forest, in hopes of steering the project toward a better outcome.

Parker and Boone said time will help narrow the trail, as hikers and riders settle into preferred sections and vegetation slowly takes hold.

Parker estimated it would take at least three years to see improvements. Boone, citing the decomposed granite soils, was less optimistic: "Stuff like that can take a decade or two to heal. Easy."

It was precisely the issue debated by Doss and his friends after their ride.

"Is this ever going to turn into singletrack?" fellow Fort Collins rider Sadia Lone asked. "If not, they ruined it."

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