DOW snuffs Colorado Trail extension
La Plata County could press lawsuit over right of way on "wagon road"

Perin’s Peak State Wildlife Area, seen here Tuesday, has become the center of a local debate over extending the Colorado Trail into Durango. The Division of Wildlife, which manages the area, rejected a letter from La Plata County proposing a land swap that would put the trail extension along the wildlife area’s edge.

Efforts to extend the Colorado Trail into downtown Durango have suffered a major defeat. Last week, the Colorado Division of Wildlife soundly rejected attempts to orchestrate a land swap and bring the trail along the edge of the Perins Peak State Wildlife Area and into town.

Fully linked-up in the mid-’80s, the Colorado Trail traverses nearly 500 miles on its winding route from Denver to Durango. Remarkably, the trail stays within national forest the entire way, crosses six wilderness areas and rarely even emerges onto jeep road. However, the trail ends 3.5 miles from Durango along Junction Creek Road. Safety concerns and aesthetics have pushed several local agencies, including Trails 2000, a trails advocacy group, and La Plata County, to advocate a solution to the Colorado Trail dilemma.

A little recent history

While unsure of the best answer, Trails 2000 has looked into several options and favored rerouting the trail along the edge of the Perins Peak State Wildlife Area and down into the Durango Mountain Park, where a larger trailhead and parking lot would be created atop the former county dumpsite. An additional spur to bring the trail down to the Ninth Street bridge also would have been created. La Plata County also has backed this solution, and negotiations to extend the trail courtesy of a land ex-change were undertaken by the county, Colorado Division of Wildlife, Forest Ser-vice and Bureau of Land Management.

The land swap would have transferred the eastern fringe of the wildlife area to Forest Service hands and opened the way for the trail. The impetus for this exchange came from La Plata County’s claim of ownership over the “old wagon road,” also known as Dry Gulch Road. Extending from the Rock Ridge development, the road cuts a straight line through the wildlife area. The county forwarded a letter to the Division of Wildlife emphasizing its ownership of the road and suggesting trading this right-of-way through for a trail on the wildlife area’s edge.

A no-frills rejection

However, the land exchange went up in smoke last week, when Russell George, director of the Division of Wildlife, penned a letter to La Plata County commissioners rejecting a land swap. George wrote, “After extensive consideration and discussions, neither moving the current trailhead nor extending the trail through the wildlife area will solve the many difficulties and problems posed by the current trail and trailhead.”

George cited numerous reasons for his decision including: the need to maintain wildlife habitat as Durango grows; significant public opposition to the exchange; and continuing safety issues on Junction Creek Road and at the terminus of the Colorado Trail regardless of a trail extension.

Tony Gurzick, DOW area wildlife manager, elaborated on George’s decision.

“Rerouting the trailhead doesn’t appear like it’ll help safety issues on Junction Creek Road, and the current county study is showing that as well,” he said.

A study commissioned by La Plata County and conducted by Sugnet Environmental was recently released and found that the best solution to problems on Junction Creek Road would be an expansion of the road.

Naming other reasons for George’s decision, Gurzick added, “The importance of that wildlife area continues to increase as Durango continues to grow. And there’s not overwhelming support for a land trade,” he said.

In the name of habitat

In 1971, the 10,000-acre Perins Peak State Wildlife Area was bought and set aside for species including peregrine falcons, deer, elk, bears, bobcats and songbirds. Although it is open to hunters, the area is closed to all human travel November through July to facilitate pristine wintering grounds. Despite its proximity to Durango, the area is considered prime low-elevation habitat. The most vocal opponents of extending the Colorado Trail into Durango maintained that it would fragment this habitat, and they forwarded a stance of “no compromise.”

Mike Zgainer, of the Coalition to Save Perins Peak, said his group applauds George’s decision. “The Division of Wildlife’s mission is to preserve, protect and manage wildlife,” he said. “They’ve done what they have to do, and we’re pleased with the decision, and we’re pleased with the community support. I don’t think the division realized that there’s this much support for habitat.”

Zgainer was actually the area wildlife manager prior to Gurzick, and he also emphasized that the area was bought as wildlife habitat, a goal that a trail might impact. The coalition has stated that the trail would bring as many as 30,000 people a year through the area and would cut through habitat and displace wildlife even along its edge “It’s close to town, and Perins is very important habitat,” Zgainer said. “It’s what it was purchased for, and it should remain that way.”

A community solution

Trails 2000 Executive Director Bill Manning said he was disappointed in George’s decision but has hopes that the community could continue to work toward solving problems associated with the current location of the Colorado Trail.

“I’m still hopeful that we can find some good community solution for the Colorado Trail, both for people who want it extended into town and for the safety issues related to where the trail currently ends,” Manning said.

Relative to safety on Junction Creek Road, Manning said he was excited about the county study and the prospects for widening to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists. “I’m upbeat about the county’s study and the possibility that we may someday soon see a safety enhancement along that portion of the roadway,” he said.

As for a potential other route for getting the Colorado Trail into Durango, Manning replied: “I don’t know yet. Several alternatives have been studied over the years and this DOW finding probably affects one or more of the possible extensions of the trail into town.”

However, he added that the ball is in the community’s hands.

“Hopefully, the community will continue to come together to solve these issues,” he said. “Trails 2000 will continue to look at options, and we’re hopeful that we might find an acceptable route someday.”

Retrench and figure it out

A final solution may not have to wait for “someday” if La Plata County presses its claim over ownership over Dry Gulch Road with a lawsuit. Although no decisions have been made to move in that direction, Commissioner Bob Lieb said it is a distinct possibility. “One can assume that it’s always a possibility,” he said.

Lieb added that DOW bought the land for the Perins Peak State Wildlife Area and, in doing so, bought property split by a public right-of-way. “They bought a piece of property with a county road going through it, and they refuse to address the fact that they made a mistake,” Lieb said.

Gurzick responded that while it was not raised in George’s decision, the division maintains ownership of the Perins Peak State Wildlife Area.

“That was not a component of the decision,” said George. “According to the attorney general’s office, the DOW continues to work on the assumption that the county has no valid right of way there.”

Zgainer said he thinks it would be unfortunate to push a lawsuit. “They may press for access, and it will have to go to litigation,” he said. “That’s a decision that the county’s got to make. If they want to spend a half million taxpayer dollars, that’s their decision.”

However, Lieb said that he was disappointed that the Division of Wildlife had pulled the rug out from under a joint effort to negotiate a settlement.

“I’m a little sad they indicated that they were going to try to resolve this issue with a land exchange, and now they’ve changed their minds,” he said.

Lieb concluded that the county will have to do some serious thinking on the future of the Colorado Trail and Dry Gulch Road as well.

“I guess we’ll have to retrench and figure out what our next tactic is going to be,” Lieb said.





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