It would be easy to lambaste the Montezuma County Planning and Zoning Commission for its apparent opposition to a 17-mile bicycle and pedestrian trail proposed between Cortez and Mancos.
The group of four (one member was absent) had little good to say at a Feb. 11 about the “Paths to Mesa Verde” route, which was recently named to a high-priority list called Colorado the Beautiful’s “16 in 2016” by Gov. John Hickenlooper. The county commissioners had eagerly sought the designation, but P&Z – in its newly expanded role of offering advice on economic development – had many concerns.
Raymond Boyd said he saw “a lot of initial investment, a lot of maintenance, and a lot of red tape” involved. He also opined that all (public) land within state borders belongs to Colorado and if the county starts working with the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service to cross their property, this would be an admission that those agencies actually have jurisdiction.
Bob Clayton, while less concerned about such issues – he said a precedent has already been set in other negotiations and agreements with federallands agencies – called the trail a nice idea but economically infeasible.
Michael Gaddy and Kelly Belt also worried about federal involvement in the project and voiced concerns about easements across private property.
Then, as the group discussed whether the trail would provide economic benefits, Clayton said it would largely attract users such as cyclists who don’t contribute much, and Belt made his now-infamous joke about them eating berries.
That comment raised the hackles of a lot of people in our area, and with some justification, as it appeared to dismiss a whole class of recreationists in favor of others such as motorcyclists, whom P&Z seems to value a great deal more.
But before we grow too indignant, let’s keep a few things in mind.
First, the folks on P&Z are unpaid. They spend a lot of hours reviewing the tedious minutiae of zoning and permit applications, and recently they have been meeting twice a month instead of once to fulfill the new duties the county commissioners have asked of them. They take their job very seriously and are working hard.
Second, they did raise legitimate concerns, particularly around the cost of maintenance. Upkeep for the trail will be labor-intensive and pricey, and that needs to be taken into account.
And third, P&Z has expressed a willingness to take public comments about the trail and to reconsider its position, for which they deserve a great deal of credit.
But P&Z needs to keep in mind several key things as well.
Little if any of the trail’s estimated $25 million cost will be paid by the county. Most will come through grants, and the trail will be built in stages, over time. We understand that some on P&Z have concerns about federal debt and the very idea of grant monies, but even the commissioners have come to see that it’s impossible to run a rural, sparsely populated county without relying on outside funds.
Furthermore, the idea that the trail needs to “pay for itself ” by attracting tourists who spend a lot of money here is off-kilter. The primary purpose of the trail, as we see it, is not to attract visitors. How many people are really going to travel from around the country to walk or bike from Cortez to Mesa Verde? Maybe a few, and of course some visitors who are coming here anyway will stay an extra day to use the route. But the trail alone will never draw hordes.
The real reason to build the path is to improve the quality of life for people who already live here. Note what Hickenlooper said in announcing the top-priority trails: “We need the kind of outdoor access that more easily brings all of us – especially our young people – into the fresh air and away from indoor distractions. Getting more Coloradans outdoors more often is good for our health. . . .”
By making this a great place to live – through amenities such as Cortez’s rec center and extensive parks, the expanded high-speed Internet the county is pursuing, good schools, a modern hospital, now maybe the trail – you invite more people to live here, both retirees and young families. You encourage health and fitness. Moreover, you make this an attractive place for companies such as Osprey that provide stable jobs with benefits rather than seasonal gift-shop and motel jobs.
P&Z is taking comments about the trail at its meeting Thursday, March 10, at 6 p.m.; or you can email them to email@example.com. (Please, people, keep them civil. One Donald Trump in the world is plenty.) This is the time to step up for the trail if you want it.