Pitkin County commissioners approved what they called a living document Wednesday that will begin the development process of one segment of a long-debated trail through the Crystal River Valley, while leaving decisions on more contentious sections up to future elected officials.

The resolution authorizes Pitkin County to proceed with an application for a trail project from Redstone to the top of McClure Pass, one segment of a wider effort to connect Carbondale and Crested Butte. The county will have to secure U.S. Forest Service approval and a National Environmental Policy Act review of the Redstone-to-McClure section and that review will sort out whether the trail alignment should follow the highway or cut a soft-surface path up to the pass away from the road.

“That is where every player in this room gets to play again,” said Commissioner Rachel Richards, referring to the Forest Service review process. She added that she believes the trail concept as a whole has merit by providing enhanced recreation opportunities to the people of Pitkin County and beyond.

The resolution approved by commissioners in their last meeting of 2018 does not recommend any alignments for the rest of the Crystal Valley, beyond the Redstone-to-McClure section. The proposal to build a trail between Redstone and a campground 5 miles south of Carbondale, where an existing trail ends, has emerged as a hot-button issue, with many valley residents, as well as Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists, warning that such a trail could harm wildlife. There are two general concepts for the valley-bottom alignment: one that follows the highway, thus sticking to the west bank of the Crystal River, or another that follows an old railroad grade on the east side. The western alignment would likely have less impact on wildlife, but would be more expensive to build. Some mix of the two alignments is likely to emerge as proposals develop.

Those difficult decisions will be put off for another day, perhaps decades down the road, however. The document commissioners approved on Wednesday lays out a framework for making those decisions, requiring them to be based on a collaborative effort and scientific studies.

The Redstone-to-McClure segment had wider support, with residents living in subdivisions south of Redstone advocating for the trail as a safe way for them to get into town without driving on the highway.

Commissioner Patti Clapper said she is not worried that Wednesday’s approval creates momentum toward trail development between Redstone and Carbondale that cannot be stopped.

“Changes can be made in the future and the words ‘no trail’ or ‘stop’ can be said,” Clapper said.

Commissioners Greg Poschman and Steve Child voted against the resolution. Child said he could not abide by the document listing east-side alignments through sensitive wildlife areas as an option, where some wildlife experts have recommended that only the highway alignment be considered.

“I have trouble with the segments north of Redstone to the KOA,” Child said. “The concerns of private landowners have been run roughshod over. Wildlife has been run roughshod over by many aspects of the trail plan.”

Poschman said that the level of contention generated by the trail leads him to question whether it is a worthy expenditure of political will and dollars. He questioned how many will use it, while also noting that building the trail will lead more people into areas that see little use today.

While Poschman said he supports moving to a more detailed analysis of the south-of-Redstone segments, he does not want to “rubber stamp” the rest.

Richards countered that she does “not see a lot of rubber stamps in Pitkin County.”

Commissioners heard more than a dozen public comments Wednesday afternoon.

One man compared the trail planning effort to a trail project following the Truckee River from Lake Tahoe, through Reno and to its terminus in the Nevada desert. A larger multi-jurisdictional effort than this, the trail along the 114-mile corridor is now 80 percent complete. The man said the project was controversial when it was first proposed two decades ago but is now seen as a regional amenity.

One woman sounded the alarm for the impact the trail would have on the Crystal River, if completed along the valley bottom. The supposedly less impactful highway alignment would in fact be more damaging to riparian areas along the riverbank, she said.

Other commenters thanked the open space and trails board and staff for their year of work on the process and noted that many have taken their lumps from Crystal Valley residents who do not favor the trail.

Curtis Wackerle is the editor of Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at curtis@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @CurtisWackerle.

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