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—Illustration by Michael Byers

The Epic Battle Over Who Will Be Able To Use A Proposed Backcountry Trail

As Coloradans, we believe it’s our right to recreate outdoors in our magnificent natural spaces. But what happens when advocacy groups can’t agree on who gets to use parts of our world-class wilderness? Inside the fight over one of the state’s most controversial dirt paths.

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The Cochetopa Hills segment of the Colorado Trail is buried beneath two feet of snow on this sunny March afternoon, but I have little problem following the route. That’s because the trail isn’t actually a trail in this region, but rather a network of rutted dirt roads used by jeeps and logging trucks. The route cuts through pine-covered hills, and from its highest point I can see San Luis Peak to the south, the far-off Sawatch Range to the north, and the wall-like spine of the Sangre de Cristo Range to the east.

A cold wind whips through the trees, interrupted by the crunch of my snowshoes. Occasionally, the route’s twin-peak logo—as well as the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail’s emblem—juts out from the snow, reassuring me I’m on the right path.

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The Colorado Trail traces an uninterrupted 485-mile route from Denver to Durango, and for 314 of those miles, the trail and the Continental Divide trail, which stretches from Canada’s border in Montana to Mexico’s border in New Mexico, share the same path. Parts of these shared portions feature several of Colorado’s most scenic landscapes, including the Collegiate Peaks and the climb from Breckenridge to Copper Mountain.

The segment I’m walking, by contrast, is the equivalent of flyover country: The Cochetopa Hills form a dusty ridgeline between the towns of Gunnison and Saguache. Livestock here outnumber humans by a sizable margin, and the closest ski resort is more than an hour away. This region, however, is anything but forgotten: For roughly a decade, recreation advocates and U.S. Forest Service rangers have tried to build 32.1 miles of single-track—which would be a huge improvement over the access roads that currently constitute the trails—through Cochetopa Hills. The path would be free from motorized vehicles and become the new course for this portion of the Colorado and Continental Divide trails.

—Two hikers on the Colorado/Continental Divide trails through the Cochetopa Hills; Photo courtesy of Jason Bertolacci

It was a plan, it seemed, that just about everyone would be able to support—until three and a half years ago, when the proposal became entangled in the politics that frequently ensnare public trail projects. Mountain bikers, equestrians, and hikers all want to use the trail, and the advocacy groups that represent them, and the trails themselves, can’t agree on which recreational activities should have access. Put another way: Mountain bikers want to be able to pedal the trail, and hikers believe bikers disrupt the primitive nature of the path. The parties are hoping to reconvene this summer in an attempt to restart negotiations, but for now, the result of the acrimony is that years after the plan was first proposed, everyone—hikers, cyclists, and horseback riders—is still stuck with a subpar stretch of trail.

In July 2015, Salida resident Anne Marie Holen set out from Waterton Canyon in southwest Denver to hike the northern half of the Colorado Trail. After a few days, Holen was frustrated. “I wasn’t able to enjoy one of the segments,” she says of a portion of the trail that runs near Bailey. “I had to be on the watch for cyclists all the time.”

After her trek, Holen penned an op-ed for High Country News in which she described how mountain bikers impact a hiker’s interaction with nature:

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The problem is that when mountain bikes dominate the trail, hikers get startled out of our reverie and rhythm as we are forced to step off the trail again and again to make way for mountain bikes. I am not saying that the mountain bikers I encountered were rude. They almost invariably said “Thank you!” when they went by. I appreciated that. But it doesn’t alter the fundamental dynamic and the impact it has on the hiking experience.

The Summit Daily News, Albuquerque Journal, and Gunnison Country Times all reprinted the piece, and it generated dozens of online comments from angry cyclists. “This is just a longwinded way of saying, ‘Hikers are better than mountain bikers and therefore they shouldn’t be allowed to use our trails.’ Separate but equal, right?” wrote one commenter.

The notion that mountain bikers are from Mars and hikers are from Venus isn’t exclusive to the Colorado or Continental Divide trails. In fact, almost every foothills or mountain community has examples of these trail wars. In Boulder, cyclists have waged a 33-year battle for access to trails owned by the county’s parks and recreation district. In Summit County, dirt bike advocates fought to gain entrée to trails along Tenderfoot Mountain after land managers banned them elsewhere (they wound up with 20 miles of new trails). The mountain bike community in Eagle successfully booted motorcyclists off of a series of trails on Hardscrabble Mountain. And when Colorado Springs’ popular Captain Jack’s Trail was closed for environmental concerns, hikers, mountain bikers, and motorcyclists all pointed fingers at one another.

Taken in this context, it’s not surprising the Cochetopa Hills project got bogged down in politics. It all started in 2006 when Forest Service recreation staff marked sections for a proposed 80-mile trail from Windy Peak to the La Garita Wilderness. Advocates for both trails dream of one day establishing a route free from motor vehicles (the Continental Divide trail still shares 250 to 300 miles with motor vehicles, while the Colorado Trail has 104 motorized miles). Bill Manning, executive director of the Colorado Trail Foundation, was ecstatic when he heard about the proposal for the new stretch of single-track. “I was like, This solves a big piece of our motorized problem,” Manning says.

The conflict over the Cochetopa Hills trail project, however, is solely between the different nonmotorized camps: namely, hikers and mountain bikers. And things are particularly sticky because in addition to the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, a legion of advocacy nonprofits helps oversee trails on public lands. Whether they are big or small, these groups share a passion for outdoor recreation. And with increasing frequency, they’re disagreeing with each another over who should be able to recreate on the trails.

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Trails don’t get built overnight, and the Cochetopa Hills project limped along for nearly four years due to a lack of funding. At some point, the distance of the proposed trail was shortened from 80 miles to 32.1. But in 2010, according to former ranger Andrew Archuleta, two ranger districts received an allotment of  $125,000 from the federal government to work on the reroute, and it looked as though the trail might become a reality.

The following year the project landed on the desk of Jeff Burch, a coordinator with the adjacent Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests. For about a year Burch solicited input from experts on several conservation and recreation topics, and in October 2012 he published a 99-page environmental assessment draft. The report suggested that mountain bikes would cause some erosion and interfere with hikers and equestrians, which he saw as a violation of the rules of the Continental Divide trail. The draft assessment recommended blocking mountain bikes from the proposed single-track. “It’s a hiking trail; that’s its primary intention,” Burch says. “I wrote the assessment knowing it was going to generate some controversy.”

That it did. The International Mountain Bicycling Association and the Colorado Trail Foundation wrote letters urging Forest Service management to allow bicycles, and the IMBA organized a mail campaign from its users. According to James Pitts, who was a Saguache district ranger at the time, an avalanche of letters poured in from passionate cyclists who, in part, promised they would volunteer on maintenance crews if they could ride the trail. Hikers also wrote in to share their opinions. “We had like 800 letters,” Pitts says. “It took us weeks to read through them all.”

—Finding Common Ground: Mountain biking advocate Jason Bertolacci (left) wants cyclists to be able to pedal on a proposed stretch of single-track on the Colorado and Continental Divide trails. Teresa Martinez worries cyclists will adversely impact the experience of hikers and horseback riders. Photos courtesy of Jason Bertolacci (left) and Teresa Martinez

The bombardment worked. Burch’s assessment wasn’t binding, so forest supervisors revisited the Continental Divide trail rules and decided on a different direction from the one proposed in the initial draft. In May 2013, the supervisors issued a new environmental assessment and a decision on the trail plan—bikes were back in. “We examined the Continental Divide trail’s comprehensive plan, and it’s really vague,” Pitts says. “And there is nothing in our land management plan to say we couldn’t make the trail multiuse, so we did.”

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Not surprisingly, the new plan raised the ire of hiking groups. A month later, the Continental Divide Trail Society filed a formal appeal with the Forest Service. Subsequent appeals came from several other groups. The final appeal came from Teresa Martinez, executive director for the Continental Divide Trail Coalition. Martinez cited Burch’s original environmental assessment and questioned why it had been forgotten so quickly.

“You’ve done plenty of research that says [mountain biking] will interfere with the trail, and a few months later, you say it won’t,” Martinez says. “You’ve got to show me that you did some work to justify this 180-degree decision.”

Rangers hosted an unsuccessful conference call with hiking advocates who’d submitted appeals; then they reached out to the groups one by one. In September 2013, the Forest Service made a surprising move to withdraw its decision to allow mountain bikers onto the trail (in addition to hikers and horseback riders), which put the project on hold indefinitely.

On a sunny afternoon this past February, I met Teresa Martinez at the Continental Divide Trail Coalition offices, which are tucked into a corner of the American Mountaineering Center in Golden (and are just down the hall from the Colorado Trail Foundation). Six cubicles were packed into a room along with cases of Colorado Native beer destined for trail maintenance crews. Martinez co-founded the CDTC in 2012 with three other volunteers, and a year later the group earned the federal government’s recognition as the Continental Divide trail’s primary advocacy group. Today, Martinez manages a budget of approximately $250,000.

Martinez developed a passion for outdoor advocacy 25 years ago during her undergraduate years at Virginia Tech. There, she volunteered for the Outing Club of Virginia Tech, which maintained a section of the Appalachian Trail. “My perspective of the world changed,” she says, “when I realized I could just walk along the Appalachian Trail for what seemed like forever.” Since college, she’s devoted her life to outdoor recreation. She held two positions at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy over a span of 15 years and earned a master’s in human dimensions of natural resources from Virginia Tech. Martinez moved to the Front Range in 2007 to work on the Continental Divide trail.

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Like many outdoor advocates, Martinez manages a dizzying number of projects. Her guiding reference is the Continental Divide trail’s 26-page comprehensive plan, which was first published in 1985 and amended in 2009 by the Forest Service. Martinez says she believes the document delivers an answer to the Cochetopa Hills debate: The document states, simply, that the primary purpose of the Continental Divide trail is to “provide for high-quality scenic, primitive hiking and horseback riding opportunities.” The plan gives local land managers the power to allow bikes, but only if they “will not substantially interfere with the nature and purpose of the trail.” Says Martinez: “The trail isn’t supposed to be everything to everyone.”

Martinez assured me she does not have anything against mountain bikers. She participated in fat-tire races in the mid-1990s and worked at a bike shop for five years. Still, she took a leadership role in advocating for the rights of hikers and equestrians in the Cochetopa Hills, even when her sister organization, the Colorado Trail Foundation, supported the inclusion of mountain bikes. In 2014 her group launched an Indiegogo campaign that aimed to raise $20,000 to pay for part of the project (estimated to have a $200,000 price tag). The group raised $25,000, but the cash is still sitting in an account.

“Everybody is ready to build this trail,” Martinez says. “We have the contractor, the youth corps, the funding—so can we just move on?”

In Martinez’s eyes, one of her primary roles is holding the Forest Service accountable for the rules it has set. Mountain bike use is ramping up along sections of the Continental Divide trail, she says, pointing to stretches outside of Breckenridge, Leadville, and Salida. “Anyone who has hiked along the Monarch Crest knows that equestrians and hikers are already being displaced by mountain bikers,” Martinez says. “Horseback riders and hikers are the primary users under the comprehensive plan, and they are being interfered with. So now what do we do?”

The Monarch Crest section of the Continental Divide trail is the Mason-Dixon Line between those who support and oppose mountain biking. Hiking advocates such as Martinez bemoan the bike traffic on this part of the trail; however, within mountain biking’s global community, the segment is universally revered. The stretch begins at the Monarch Mountain ski area and skirts along high-alpine ridges before plunging 3,000 feet to Poncha Springs. Local entrepreneur Bob Mishata operates a bike shuttle that deposits 1,500 to 1,800 riders onto the trail each year. Trail crews from the International Mountain Bicycling Association and other mountain bike groups regularly perform maintenance along the route.

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But the trail’s popularity has had another impact: All those mountain bikers spend money in the adjacent communities. Salida now supports three bike shops, a mountain bike advocacy group, and an enormous network of riding trails. Salida’s high school even has a racing team. “This place is now a mountain bike mecca in part because of Monarch Crest,” says Mishata, who launched his shuttle in 1994.

Community leaders in the Cochetopa Hills region see that economic impact and want a piece of it. Jason Anderson, a Saguache County commissioner, said local cycling advocates have tried for years to lure mountain bikers in to explore the San Luis Valley’s single-track. In 2015 a group organized a small race at Penitente Canyon, just outside of Del Norte, to show off the region’s trails, and Anderson wrote several letters to the Forest Service in support of mountain biking. “The county’s stance is we would like to see [bicycle access] for its ability to draw more recreationists into the county,” Anderson says.

Saguache Mayor Greg Terrell says the few hikers in the area rarely venture into the town of Saguache, which is 31 miles from the Cochetopa Hills segment, but he believes that if more mountain bikers traveled to the Cochetopa Hills to ride, a portion of those cyclists would stop in his town. “The bikers are already going to Gunnison or Durango,” he says. “We’d like them to stop here.”

This is a realistic scenario, says mountain bike icon Dave Wiens, who operates Gunnison’s mountain bike advocacy group. Over the past decade Wiens helped transform Gunnison into a destination for mountain bikers by developing trail networks across town. The key, Wiens says, is to have multiple trail options in a single region that attract mountain bike tourists looking for multiday adventures.  “People could one day say, ‘Let’s go ride Monarch Crest and Penitente and then swing up and ride that new section of the Continental Divide trail,’ ” says Wiens, who lobbied for bike access along the Cochetopa Hills. “They’ll go through Saguache and stop for gas and a bite at the Oasis. Over time, that adds up.”

In Wiens’ scenario, mountain bikers from Gunnison, Crested Butte, and Salida would ride the Continental Divide trail segment and adopt portions of the trail for maintenance work. But Wiens does not believe the trail would see the same traffic as Monarch Crest, which he says is an important factor in allowing bikes. “It’s so isolated that I don’t suspect you’ll see tons of user conflicts,” Wiens says. “To sink that kind of money to build this trail for a handful of thru-hikers and horseback riders just doesn’t make sense.”

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The final leg of the Colorado Trail drops 4,700 feet in a twisting descent from Kennebec Pass into Durango. Jason Bertolacci biked down the trail in 2005 on the last day of an eight-day ride from Denver; during the entire trip, he’d felt the tug of outdoor activism. Then an information-technology specialist with a background in business development for tech companies, Bertolacci signed on with the Colorado Mountain Bike Association as a grunt volunteer.

Bertolacci soon discovered a knack for leadership through advocacy. He became the executive director of the Colorado Mountain Bike Association in 2013 and jointly became the Colorado-Wyoming regional director for the International Mountain Bicycling Association—and enlisted local mountain bike organizations to bombard Pitts with those letters in the wake of Burch’s report. He sat opposite Martinez in multiple meetings with the Forest Service in an effort to try to develop a consensus plan. “It’s an emotional argument,” Bertolacci says. “There need to be spaces where people can have outdoor experiences. For some people, that means not having bikes around.”

Informed by his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Southwestern College in Kansas, Bertolacci’s brand of activism blends pragmatism with lofty idealism. He quotes forefathers of American outdoor recreation such as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. But he also knows nothing speaks louder than hundreds of voices coming together as one: In 2010, he helped organize 400 mountain bikers to attend a town hall meeting in Jefferson County when access to the popular Apex Park trails was in jeopardy.

“There need to be spaces where people can have outdoor experiences.”

Unlike many in his profession, Bertolacci is less interested with the minutiae found in the various governing documents and more interested in the big picture. He says he believes the backcountry spaces hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians love will, at some point, be threatened by development. By his logic, the more people who have access to these open spaces, the more people who will be willing to protect them.

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Even if Bertolacci is right and the advocacy groups are able to reach a consensus, will it prevent tensions from erupting along the trail? Probably not. According to the generally accepted rules of trail etiquette, cyclists should always yield to hikers and horses. On its website, the International Mountain Bicycling Association cautions cyclists to “do your utmost to let your fellow trail users know you’re coming—a friendly greeting or bell ring are good methods.” That doesn’t always happen, of course. “Whether they know it or not, they’re dominating,” Anne Marie Holen says. “It’s by virtue of their size, weight, and speed.”

Almost every source I interviewed for this story expressed a hope that better etiquette between all parties could limit trail conflicts—that adherence to the rules of trail behavior could even prevent future political battles like the one in the Cochetopa Hills. And perhaps that should be the ultimate goal. “If we spend our future debating who gets to be on the trails, we’re not going to win the larger war, which is about preserving these spaces,” Bertolacci says. “These places only exist because of our political will.”

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