Updated: March 21, 2014 at 10:14 am
A 4-mile stretch of Bear Creek Basin, a shallow mountain brook west of Colorado Springs, is the last known habitat of Colorado's native greenback cutthroat trout. Protecting it would mean deep sacrifices for hikers, cyclists and dirt bikers under a U.S. Forest Service proposal to close and reroute some of their best-loved trails, including those leading to a popular spot known as Jones Park.
Among the trails on the endangered list are sweeping portions of Trail No. 667 - or what dirt bikers call Cap'n Jacks, a rolling descent over rocky terrain that's drawn motorized users for decades.
The areas tapped for closure offer access to idyllic aspen groves popular with day hikers, the less-visited peaks of Mt. Arthur and Mt. Garfield, and crumbling ruins of cabins and a hotel built along the original road to the top of Pikes Peak.
"We're asking folks to live with something a little less than what they had before for the long-term vision and protection of this little piece of what we've got in Colorado Springs," said Doug Krieger, a senior aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the leader of a regional task force that has advised federal land managers on threats to the trout habitat.
But as a March 27 deadline approaches for public feedback on the Forest Service proposal, some recreationists are pushing back, suggesting more study is needed and accusing federal officials of bowing to fears of legal action over the health of the fish habitat.
At a time when fires and floods have roiled access to other recreational areas - both Waldo and Williams canyons remain closed - it's little wonder that folks are butting heads over Bear Creek.
Issue picks up steam
In an oft-cited irony, the trout at the center of the controversy isn't believed to be native to Bear Creek.
Biologists who researched the fish's history believe it was stocked in an area pond 140 years ago by homesteader Joseph Jones, for whom Jones Park is named, and that it somehow slipped its bounds.
Jones established himself in the area in the early 1870s, after road builders completed the first road up Pikes Peak. Although his plan to build a hotel for weary travelers fizzled, his trout apparently thrived - surviving disease, shrinking habitats and competition from imported trout that decimated the fish in its native South Platte River Basin.
In 2012, genetic testing by two University of Colorado scientists confirmed that the 750 greenback cutthroat trout remaining in Bear Creek are the last-known genetically pure examples of the species - jump-starting a watershed analysis that ultimately resulted in the proposed closures.
Although the Forest Service initially proposed the trail reroutes last summer, the issue began generating steam this year, and a public meeting hosted by the Forest Service in late February drew an estimated 350 people.
Under the Forest Service proposal - known as Alternative B - 4.1 miles of trail would be closed along Bear Creek and rerouted from what the agency calls the "Water Influence Zone," or the area immediately surrounding the creek and creek bed. As part of the plan, portions of trails 666, 667, 668, 701, 720, 720.A, 622 and 622.A also will be closed.
The Forest Service is proposing to replace those trails with 3.7 miles of single track outside the watershed - a plan that has drawn plenty of criticism.
Conflict on trail feared
One flashpoint is the proposal to reroute Trail No. 667 - which would remain open to motor bikes - along a route that will merge with the Seven Bridges Trail along a scree field on Mt. Kineo.
Laminated signs posted along the Seven Bridges Trail by an anonymous opponent of the plan warn of motor bikes that will come "roaring down the trail," along with crowding and "aesthetic issues." Trail diversity also will take a hit because users largely will be funneled onto a shared trail, forcing them to come back the way they came in, the sign warns.
"There's going to be an awful lot of conflict between various users," longtime hiker Carol Lyndell said.
Lyndell is among those who worry that trails will be decommissioned long before reroutes are completed, encouraging illicit use while doing little to help the trout. She also questioned whether the Forest Service has the funding to do any of the work it describes.
Others ask why it is necessary to halt all use in the creek when the fish have withstood impacts from visitors for more than a century.
"Where's the study that says recreational users are causing a problem? They don't have that study," said Michael Chaussee, who has hiked the region for 30 years and bemoans the loss of access to areas of historic significance.
Susan Davies, a spokeswoman for the Trails and Open Space Coalition, said she supports Alternative B but thinks some degree of access should be preserved in the Bear Creek Basin, even if it involves nonmotorized trails.
"There are still some really special places, historic places that people are not going to have access to anymore, and we just don't think that's a solution," she said.
Proposals to allow some users in the Bear Creek Basin while barring motor bikes are a nonstarter for many motorized users, including those in the Trails Preservation Alliance (TPA), which has threatened to sue over access issues.
"If you have a small area and everybody wants to use it, you're going to have to learn to get along," said Don Riggle, the group's director of operations. He noted that it was dirt bikers who donated countless hours and sought more than $100,000 in grants to care for Bear Creek Basin trails and to build bridges over the creek crossings.
"The fish is the focus"
Forest Service officials say the bickering among trail users is unnecessary. The true danger to the fish, they say, is the trails themselves - the decaying granite slopes that dump sediment into the creek, slowly choking the trout's habitat.
Remediation efforts under Alternative B call for destroying the targeted trails and re-vegetating them to help slow sediment-bearing runoff, according to Allan D. Hahn, a ranger with the Pikes Peak Ranger District.
"A large part of the trail system is right next to the creek. Decomposed granite erodes like crazy, and the only place that we don't get tremendous amounts of erosion is where you have large amounts of vegetation," Hahn said. "We're going to try to stabilize that condition and stop that bleeding of sediment into the creek, thereby improving the habitat."
Although Krieger, the aquatic biologist, previously downplayed the effect of trail usage on the trout habitat, he said during an interview that he didn't intend his comments to suggest that use in the area was good for the long-term management of the fish.
"We really don't have the right to say, 'Hey, I want to do my thing. Katie bar the door, to hell with everything else and I want to do what I want to do,'" Krieger said. "The fish is the focus."
Krieger said that a suggestion by some trail users to move the fish from the drainage is unrealistic, at least for now. For starters, Bear Creek is the one place where wildlife biologists know the fish can survive, he said. Bear Creek trout that were transplanted to fisheries have shown mixed progress, particularly one group that "came down with about every disease we thought they could possibly get."
Bear Creek trout introduced into the Leadville National Fish Hatchery, on the other hand, have "done very well" in what Krieger called "pristine-type conditions."
The Phoenix-based Center for Biological Diversity, which sued in 2012 to ban motorized users from the Bear Creek drainage, arguing they were imperiling the fish, said it supports the Forest Service plan to widen the closure to all users.
"Since this state fish of Colorado exists in only one place, along a 4-mile stretch of this creek, we have to support what the Forest Service thinks is absolutely critical to protect it," said Tim Ream, a San Francisco-based attorney for the group.
Some continue to fight
In an interview with The Gazette, Hahn downplayed concerns that the greenback cutthroat trout, listed as a threatened species, could be added to the endangered list. If that were to happen, however, it likely would mean closing the entire watershed to visitors.
If the Forest Service plan is approved, Hahn estimated that the trail reroutes could be completed this year, assuming the agency gets help from trail users.
"I would like to think that it's possible," he said. "Everybody and their brother loves this area. Finding a workforce and the ability and funds to make it happen I don't think is going to be the problem."
Getting there, however, will require the approval of the Forest Service proposal by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, which has jurisdiction over threatened species, as well as a review by a state historic preservation group. How the trail work would proceed - whether trails will be decommissioned before, during or after work on new trails - largely depends on their feedback, Hahn said.
Medicine Wheel, a mountain biking advocacy group, is among the user groups asking its members to support the Forest Service's proposal.
If the planned reroutes are not completed, cyclists in the area will lose key connector trails, and Medicine Wheel will be unable to pursue plans for a trail network that would enable riders to traverse legally from Barr Camp to Moraine Lake and down onto the proposed Trail No. 667 - what group spokesman Cory Sutela described as a potential tourism draw.
"We think the train has pretty much left the station," Sutela said.
But not everyone is inclined to get on board.
Chaussee, the veteran hiker, has collected 250 signatures from hikers who say they want the Forest Service to keep the creek basin open while addressing erosion.
Jim Bensberg, a longtime dirt bike enthusiast and former El Paso County commissioner, is likewise inclined to fight. He has asked Rep. Doug Lamborn's office to schedule a field hearing about what he called the Forest Service's "arbitrary decision" to close the area.
"Tourism is a huge driver in this economy. When you shut off one of the prized areas to all user groups, it's not good for business," he said.
The Forest Service will continue to collect public comments on the plan through March 27. Only those who send their signed feedback will have standing to lodge objections when the Forest Service reaches a decision, expected by the end of the summer.
Comments should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.