To Our Routt County Commissioners:
It is with great disappointment that we respond to the Routt County Board of County Commissioners’ September 12, 2023 letter of objection to the U.S. Forest Service’s Environmental Assessment (EA) and finding of no significant impact on the Mad Rabbit trails project. The letter raises concerns including increased pressure on county roads and EMS services, and then calls for a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) analysis of the project. These concerns have already been considered by the USFS and calls for an EIS are overblown.
The current phase of the Mad Rabbit proposal was designed to alleviate concerns about increased recreational use on our forest. It includes new trails that will be accessed by US Highway 40 only, and eliminates several existing trails in the Elk Park area. By spreading out trail users, traffic and maintenance concerns would likely be reduced on both CR 36 and 38 (Hot Springs and Buffalo Pass). The new proposed trails largely follow the alignment of US40 in close proximity. Additionally, the highlighting of EMS concerns for this area in summer shows a misunderstanding of the resources already regularly deployed on Rabbit Ears Pass. Winter use extends far into the backcountry, well beyond any of these proposed trails. The USFS and CDOT have collaborated on this project and worked through many contingencies to allow for safe access to these trailheads. This project will mostly use existing parking areas (some being expanded) while accommodating future CDOT plans at the West Summit. These concerns, even if valid, would not justify a full-blown EIS.
USFS specialists have meticulously scrutinized every acre of forest these trails are proposed for. They have partnered and collaborated with CPW, DNR, CDOT, the City of Steamboat, and many local stakeholders. The trail system would have diversity for varied users and connectivity both within and to adjoining trails. The current proposal has eliminated over 60% of the trails originally proposed by the Trails Alliance, and will close almost as much existing trail mileage (36) as it proposes to create new (42). New trails will be in an easy-to-access area along a highway corridor; user trails will be closed in a more remote and less disturbed area. We applaud the USFS for putting forth a very thoroughly researched proposal that strikes a balance between conservation and recreation interests. The call for an EIS shows a lack of understanding of the exhaustive and comprehensive review process already undertaken.
The Commissioners’ letter also indicates active participation in the Routt Recreation and Conservation Roundtable (RRCR), and touts the value of this group in finding a balance between conservation and recreation interests. We at Routt County Riders (RCR) have been involved with this group since its inception and have noted Commissioner Corrigan’s (and occasionally also Commissioner Macy’s) presence at these meetings. We are disappointed at the circumvention of this forum to write this letter without presenting or discussing concerns at the RRCR first.
We also take issue with the Commissioners’ attempts to depict the Mad Rabbit project as a polarizing topic in the community. It remains very popular with the community, the claims of vocal minorities and well-funded special-interest groups notwithstanding. Keep Routt Wild, in particular, has focused the vast majority of their efforts on preventing this project from moving forward. They have lobbied the media and politicians at all levels of government without much success. Unfortunately, it seems they have convinced the Routt County Commissioners to jump onto their platform in demanding an EIS. An EIS would push the project to the level of scrutiny required for major projects with significant environmental impacts (like new coal mines or oilfields) and would result in a massive increase in cost and study time. KRW knows that an EIS might result in the abandonment of the project for financial reasons. They also push the highway safety angle, knowing that if improvements are required on US40, it would consume time and resources. Frankly, the Commissioners’ letter reads like the KRW talking points we’ve been hearing for years. It’s never a good look when politicians appear to be heavily influenced by a special interest group, but unfortunately, this is what we see.
We at RCR are proud to support the Mad Rabbit trail project and the EA it has passed through. We have embraced the compromise required to come up with a project that balances the interests of recreation and environmental concerns and understand that this is part of the process for any project involving public lands. We have chosen to trust the USFS and other collaborating agencies to fully evaluate the impacts of this project.
In closing we are disappointed at the Commissioners’ choice to jump into the Mad Rabbit conversation with overblown concerns on an issue that has significant community support. In so doing, the Commissioners have turned their backs on the overwhelming majority of Routt County residents who are in favor of this trail project. Please remember that over 70% of voters in Steamboat Springs approved 2A funding for these necessary recreational amenities. The Forest Service has already performed an extensive EA process to approve this project. An EIS would accomplish nothing more than to delay the project, drive up the cost, and waste taxpayer dollars. We call for the Commissioners to rethink their position and retract the objection letter publicly.