Hop on your bike, saddle up your horse, or step into your hiking shoes and journey along a recreational trail from Cortez all the way to Mesa Verde and even on to Mancos.
That’s a vision that many local leaders – particularly with the city of Cortez and the town of Mancos – have had for years. Now, it may be a bit closer to becoming reality.
On Jan. 20, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper named the proposed 17-mile “Paths to Mesa Verde” as one of the highest-priority trail projects in the state, part of Colorado the Beautiful’s “16 in 2016” initiative.
The announcement was greeted with exuberance from many locals.
But the trail is far from a done deal. Numerous issues have to be resolved – not the least of which are what exact route it might follow and how it will be funded.
“There are definitely some big questions,” said James Dietrich, communityservices coordinator for Montezuma County.
Worried about plummeting revenues from Kinder Morgan carbon-dioxide extraction, the Montezuma County commissioners have been considering alternatives to keep the county’s economy chugging along. Recreation is one answer, and the trail would be a boon to that effort.
According to information on the Colorado the Beautiful web site, the “Paths to Mesa Verde project” would provide “multi-modal linkages between the Town of Mancos, Mesa Verde National Park, Cortez High School, Southwest Colorado Community College, the Phil’s World Mountain Bike Trails System, and the Montezuma County Fairgrounds.”
However, envisioning a grand path connecting local sites of interest is a far cry from implementing it.
Despite the fanfare of Hickenlooper’s announcement, the state’s “top-priority” designation doesn’t bring with it any specific funding. But Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) is set to spend $10 million in 2016 and $30 million on trails over the next four years as part of an initiative to improve walkable and bikeable routes across the state. Being named one of the priority projects puts “Paths to Mesa Verde” in a good position to nab some portion of the $30 million.
Even so, more money will need to be found. At a work session of the county Planning and Zoning Commission on Jan. 28, Dietrich told the board that a very rough estimate of the cost to construct the full trail is $25 million – and that doesn’t include the planning.
Competitive grants are available, of course, from sources such as Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Department of Local Affairs and the Colorado Department of Transportation, but they can’t be counted on.
The members of P&Z were supportive of the trail concept, but seemed somewhat daunted by the cost.
“What do we expect to get back from this?” asked Chairman Kelly Belt, and another member, Bob Clayton, noted, “It will be some time before we get $25 million back.”
Mike Gaddy asked whether there was any assurance that, once the trail is started, there would be funding to complete it. “We don’t need a trail to nowhere,” he said.
Dietrich said there is no such guarantee, but that although the trail has to be planned in its entirety, it will be built in phases.
“You have to look at it as one complete trail project, not in segments,” he said. “You have to plan the whole thing, but then you can phase it.”
Dietrich said there are examples of locations that have benefited mightily from recreation, such as Moab, Utah, a mountain-biking mecca, and Mesa County, Colo., but there is one big difference between them and Montezuma County: They have a sales tax.
Montezuma County does not. Its municipalities do – Cortez, for instance, has a 4.05-cent tax and the state’s rate is 2.9 percent. But the county itself gets nothing in the form of direct sales-tax revenues.
The P&Z members said, for the county to reap the benefits of increased tourism and recreation, it would need to adopt a sales tax, even a modest one – an idea they intended to suggest to the county commissioners. Such a tax, of course, would have to be approved by voters.
There is a lodgers’ tax on hotel and motel rooms, but it doesn’t produce huge revenues.
Dietrich said the question of maintaining the trail also needs to be decided. Snow removal, trash collection, weed management and upkeep all will be expensive. He said he hopes Mesa Verde will agree to maintain the portion that crosses the national park’s boundaries, but much of the burden will fall to the county and possibly the municipalities.
Gaddy mused, “Where is the profit margin? How many motel rooms do you have to rent to pay for this?”
Dietrich said the county will be working with consultants on maintenance strategies and discussing ways to pool with the park and the towns.
The trail project has already received $400,000 from the federal Transportation Alternatives Program, and Cortez, Mancos, and the county provided another $100,000 as a match. Public meetings were held to gather feedback about the trail. Dietrich said two points upon which there was widespread agreement were that the trail should not run right along the highway – cyclists can already ride the highway if they wish, people said – and that it should have a soft surface.
The latter, however, may not be possible, Dietrich said. In all likelihood, the 8-to-10-foot-wide trail will have to be paved in concrete to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.
“It’s essentially like building a one-lane highway,” Dietrich said.
P&Z suggested having a paved trail alongside a soft-surface path, but Dietrich told the Free Press that could raise other issues.
“It’s a bigger easement that is required and depending on what kind of a soft surface you have beside it, there could be maintenance issues,” he said. “We could be setting ourselves up for some kind of erosion problems.”
But, he said, it might be possible. “We need to develop design specifications for that. It’s not unheard-of.”
P&Z asked whether the right-of-way might be fenced, and Dietrich said it may have to be, to keep travelers from interacting with cattle on any private lands.
Keeping the route away from the highway should be relatively easy, he said. “I’ve been studying that landscape. You could almost route that trail so you hardly see the highway if you go through low spots, floodplains, and so on.”
Possible starting points in Cortez include Denny Lake or the Conquistador golf course.
Dietrich said the next step toward building the project will be to put out an RFQ (request for qualifications) and to select the most qualified planning firm. “Then our intention is to have them provide four alternative routes that look viable, and we will further explore the viability of those routes” with an eye toward which ones would be most expedient and cost-effective, he told the Free Press.
The cost of the planning is unknown. Dietrich said he isn’t sure if the $500,000 will be sufficient, but certainly it would pay for a big chunk of it.
The Colorado Department of Transportation will be involved in deciding the design specifications and in the process of deciding and obtaining a right-of- way along the route.
Because federal lands and federal funding are involved, federal rules and regulations will have to be followed, and there will be a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process that will involve reviewing possible impacts to endangered species, archaeological sites, and other concerns.
Private landowners along the corridor are understandably interested and even worried about how the trail might affect them. Dietrich said some have wondered why they haven’t been contacted yet by the trail planners, but until one or more desired routes are selected, planners don’t know which landowners they will need to work with.
Dietrich said there will be plenty of time for the public to weigh in on the project before final decisions are made. “This will include a robust public engagement process,” Dietrich told the
Free Press. That is a requirement of the federal process, he said, but also “we want to do what the community wants as much as we can.”
A recreation master plan
The push for the trail is part of a broader, renewed interest in tourism and recreation on the part of the county.
At the Jan. 28 meeting, P&Z brainstormed a host of other ideas for increasing visitation in the area, including advertising “motorcycle routes” on scenic county roads, creating more trails for other users such as ATVs and equestrians, and aggressively marketing McPhee Reservoir to surrounding areas as far away as Phoenix, Ariz., and Grand Junction, Colo.
The Montezuma County commissioners have long expressed an interest in taking over management of two recreation sites at McPhee – House Creek and Sage Hen – from the Forest Service. A transfer of ownership would require federal legislation
Dietrich said questions remain about how the county will operate and maintain those sites.
“There’s a lot of potential there and McPhee is probably an under-utilized resource, but how do we get a strategic plan in place. . . and make that economically viable for the county to maintain and run?” he asked.
He noted that it costs the Forest Service a considerable amount to keep recreational sites open and maintained at McPhee marina.
The county commissioners believe they can do it more efficiently.
Clayton suggested hauling in sand to create beaches at the Sage Hen area to make it more attractive for swimming and picnicking.
Dietrich said Colorado Parks and Wildlife is opening for recreation some ponds on the Dolores River that were formerly gravel pits, and has asked if the county is interested in taking over management of those.
At some point, the county might need to create a parks and recreation department, Dietrich said.
He and planning director LeeAnn Milligan said they would like to see the county develop a recreation master plan and a feasibility study on how the county could approach recreation management. Milligan said the county’s comprehensive plan could also stand a revision.
Members of P&Z seemed eager to help in tackling such challenges, and Dietrich promised that they would be involved whenever possible in the trail planning and other processes.