Trails groups ensure trail access

West Elk trailhead 1-10-16

West Elk trailhead — January 9, 2016

The recent closure of the Beaver Creek Road illustrates perfectly the function of and the need for organizations like West Elk Multi-Use Club (WEMUC).

Road closure south of Rifle causes confusion

RIFLE — Rather than hit the slopes at upvalley resorts, some residents prefer to grab their skis or snowshoes and head south from town to the White River National Forest — an area referred to as a “hidden gem.”

Those same backcountry recreationists received a surprise in early December when they discovered a locked gate blocking access to U.S. Forest Service Road 824. The road, which starts at the end of County Road 317 in unincorporated Garfield County south of Rifle, leads to the Beaver Creek Trailhead and it is commonly referred to as Beaver Creek Road …

WEMUC logo2 -jpgSince 2002, the West Elk Multi-Use Club has fostered a cooperative partnership with the White River National Forest, Rifle Ranger District through a special use permit to mark, maintain, and promote the West Elk Multi-Use Trails, located in the Flat Tops mountain range, west of Glenwood Springs. Multi-use is a key management principle for the US Forest Service. The special use permit designates the West Elk trails for hiking, biking, horseback riding, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and dog sledding, but the trails are closed to motorized vehicles from December through May. The 3-loop winter recreation trail system covers approximately 12 miles. The trailhead is located on Forest Road 819, on the Buford Road north of New Castle (click here for driving directions). The West Elk trails are a no-fee area. However voluntary donations are encouraged to help cover the costs of trail maintenance and winter grooming operations.

Because of WEMUC’s special use permit the West Elk trails were included in the 2011 White River National Forest Travel Management Plan (referred to in the PI article), and that ensures year-round access for trail users. The forest service lacks the resources and manpower to maintain and promote trails and therefore they are eager to work with trails groups like WEMUC.

The general misconception on the part of the public is that there are government programs in place that provide maintenance and funding for trails. Nothing could be further from the truth. The state of Colorado does not fund trail maintenance or winter grooming operations, and funding from local governments is extremely limited. For those reasons it’s up to volunteer trails organizations like WEMUC to not only maintain the trails but also fund them in order to prevent closures such as occurred on the Beaver Creek Road this winter. The West Elk Multi-Use Club is the result of more than a decade of hard work and determination by a few dedicated volunteers and the financial support of trail users.

In order to continue to develop and maintain trail systems in Garfield County there needs to be cooperative efforts on the part of trail users and local governments. Currently the only way trail users can ensure access to non-motorized trails is to financially support trails organizations like West Elk Multi-Use Club that act as stewards to preserve public access to designated trails now and well into the future.

Tod and I have been managing the West Elk Multi-Use Club and the West Elk trails since 2009. At least 200 individuals use the trails. If each trail user contributed just $30 each season, WEMUC would have an annual budget of $6,000. Imagine what we could do with that! We could pay a part-time groomer, build a sledding hill, and expand the trail system. WEMUC receives an average of $1,500 in donations from trail users each season, which means some expenses are paid out-of-pocket by WEMUC volunteers to maintain and groom the trails.

While trails organizations struggle to find financial resources and attract volunteers, user numbers continue to grow at a rapid pace. In December, the Denver Post reported that Colorado’s population reached 5,456,574 as of July 1, 2015, up from 5,355,588 the same day a year earlier – a population gain of 101,000. A population boom of this magnitude means the number of trail users will continue to increase exponentially. Well-managed and maintained trail systems serve two purposes. They reserve public access and protect the environment. Looking toward the immediate future the need for those well-managed and maintained trails will be greater than ever.

For more information about the West Elk trails and the West Elk Multi-Use Club visit the WEMUC blog.

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