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Loss of a beloved trail in Jones Park is leading to interesting proposals 

Trail to nowhere

click to enlarge Jones Park is a favorite spot for mountain bikers, but its best-loved trail is being relocated. - JESSE PARKER
  • Jesse Parker
  • Jones Park is a favorite spot for mountain bikers, but its best-loved trail is being relocated.

In the Bear Creek watershed, there's a beautiful patch of wilderness called Jones Park. There, tucked into the thick trees, a famous trail screams downhill, through boulder fields, over stones and roots, past patches of aspen, and in and out of a little stream. Within that stream, there lives an even more famous fish.

The greenback cutthroat trout, Colorado's state fish, was once thought to be extinct, and then, for a while, its identity was confused, leading biologists, who were seeking to boost its population, to breed the wrong trout. But in 2012, genetic tests proved that the shimmery fish in Bear Creek was the last of its kind. It wasn't native to this patch of Colorado — it had been stocked here in the 1800s — but this is where the greenback had made its last stand.

Now, having eked out its existence in obscurity, the trout was suddenly the talk of the town. Colorado Springs Utilities and the U.S. Forest Service (which both owned land in Jones Park) met with groups representing recreationalists to try to decide what should be done ("Fifty Shades of Green," cover story, Oct. 3, 2012). Then an environmental group, the Center for Biological Diversity, threatened the Forest Service with a lawsuit. The group aimed to protect the greenback by having off-road motorcycles — which had enjoyed the area for years and helped maintain it — banned from the trail that crosses the creek.

The Forest Service folded immediately. Since then, only mountain bikers and hikers have hit Trail 667, also known as Upper Captain Jack's. In January 2015, Utilities, seeking to avoid any lawsuits or financial obligations, gave its share of Jones Park to El Paso County. Originally, the property was slated to be given to the National Forest Foundation, but the county stepped in, hoping local ownership would protect recreational access. Still, the county deal included a legal obligation to follow the recommendations of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) study that the Forest Service was already conducting.

That NEPA process was concerned with conserving Jones' Park's famous fish. Unfortunately, it concluded, doing so meant abolishing Jones' famous trail.

The county and Forest Service — mindful of the fact that recreationalists love Jones Park and have spent money and time maintaining it for years — agreed to reroute Trail 667.

It was a show of good will that hasn't panned out quite the way most would have hoped. The majority of the initial grading has been done for the replacement trail, though a section that goes through trickier terrain will still need to be laid out next summer. Unfortunately, recreationalists appear to be less than enthusiastic about the trail, which is not as steep and technical as its predecessor.

Cory Sutela, president of the board of the mountain biking advocacy group Medicine Wheel, says that the old 667 was beloved by mountain bikers and motorcyclists because it was "a challenge that you have to grow into."

"There's no question the new trail isn't like that," he says.

click to enlarge Trail 667 in Jones Park is being relocated by Trails Unlimited, which has already done a rough grade on four of the five miles of trail. - EL PASO COUNTY/U.S. FOREST SERVICE
  • El Paso County/U.S. Forest Service
  • Trail 667 in Jones Park is being relocated by Trails Unlimited, which has already done a rough grade on four of the five miles of trail.

But Tim Wolken, the county's director of community services, says that the trail — which aimed to be safe and sustainable for multiple users — isn't done yet, and it will be more challenging than it appears.

"What I would think that we should do is give the trail a chance," he says.

Enter Neal Schuerer. A former staffer for U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, Schuerer says he began researching Trail 667 years ago when he first heard from constituents upset about a possible closure of the entire Jones area, which Lamborn opposed. Schuerer discovered, he says, that the trail is actually an old county toll road that dates to the 1800s. At one point, people thought a train would run up the mountain and they built homesteads there. Colorado Springs Utilities ended up buying those homesteads and protecting the land since it was a watershed.

The upshot of all this: Schuerer says an old law essentially grandfathers that road in, and that the county shouldn't be obligated to close it. At this point, he says, the county would need to change its deed restrictions with the city, and perhaps make some changes to the trail in order to better accommodate the provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

But it's possible, he says.

"This is a county right-of-way that is in place and cannot be taken away," he say, "and if the county wants to maintain it they should be able to."

That proposal may sound appealing to recreationalists who have been loath to see trails in Jones closed. But it doesn't seem likely that the county is going to engage in a legal two-step to preserve Trail 667.

County Attorney Amy Folsom says the Endangered Species Act is largely driving the relocation of the trail, and should the county fail to protect the greenback, it could face both civil and criminal penalties. The NEPA decision to close the trail, she notes, was decided before the county owned the land or had any input, but it must be followed barring new scientific evidence that shows the process isn't necessary. That's not likely to happen.

Other players concurred. County Commissioner Dennis Hisey expressed sadness that the trail would need to close, but agreed little could be done. Merv Bennett, president of Colorado Springs City Council, says that the city will not change its deed restrictions because they offer legal protection.

Even Sutela says he's not trying to save 667; he's focused on improving the new trail. He was told, he says, that mountain bike advocates would get a say in the trail's design, but by the time they got a voice, the trail was already restricted to a 50-foot corridor — meaning there weren't options on the route. But, he says, "I think we've got a really great opportunity because the county has said, 'Hey we're willing to consider putting in another trail.'"

And maybe that trail, he says, will feel a little more like the one that's being lost.

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