March 2005

Remote hiking path center of controversy

Geyser Trail dispute exemplifies conflicts when public, private lands meet

By Gail Binkly

Disagreement is bubbling hot over the future of a remote Southwest Colorado trail that leads to the only natural geyser in the state.

The 1 1/2-mile Geyser Hot Springs Trail, located near Dunton off the West Dolores Road, is a primitive pathway. Sometimes hard to discern, the trail crosses private land and requires hikers at one point to ford the West Fork of the Dolores River, which can be 2 feet deep there.

To solve those problems, San Juan National Forest officials have proposed re-routing the first part of the trail, building a bridge over the river, and creating a 10-vehicle parking lot at the new trailhead.

The proposal has garnered support from the landowner whose property the trail crosses, as well as from the Mesa Verde Backcountry Horsemen and a number of citizens.

“It’s a simple solution to a simple problem,” said Erin Johnson, an attorney representing the landowner in question. However, some neighbors near the trail have weighed in against the plan, and a few other persons have voiced concerns that the improvements might be a prelude to charging fees at the site.

‘Like a Jacuzzi’

The dispute shows the problems that can arise at sites where public and private lands adjoin.

The landowner in question, Tom Griffith of Cottonwood, Ariz., says he doesn’t want to see major changes at the site, but that something must be done because visitors frequently trespass — sometimes accidentally, often knowingly — on his land.

In the process, he said, some tramp through a marshy area, scare nesting birds, leave trash, and cause him concerns about liability when they detour off the trail to use a bridge he built across the river to reach his house.

“There are people that have no respect at all for the fact that it’s private and they’re going to use it whether you like it or not and cuss you out for asking them not to,” he said.

The trail leads to the Geyser Hot Springs, which is touted in some brochures and on web sites as the state’s only natural geyser. However, the “geyser” isn’t akin to something at Yellowstone: Every half hour or so, the water bubbles modestly.

“It’s like a good Jacuzzi,” Griffith said.

The hot springs aren’t terribly hot, either, with the temperature in the 80s. Parking is limited to a small space off the road.

Nevertheless, the site sees occasional visitors. Some are well-behaved; some aren’t, Griffith said.

“Locals especially and the environmentally aware people respect the property rights and go where they think the trail is, which has been a problem because the Forest Service has not marked the trail well and they have bounced it around in different locations.”

Griffith said he built his bridge using an old railroad flat car placed on engineered footings, per Army Corps of Engineers recommendations. He said it’s extremely solid, but the Forest Service has declined his offers to allow them to make the bridge part of the trail if they would also assume the liability.

“I’ve heard the Forest Service rejects using railroad flat cars for bridges,” he said.

Many people faithfully avoid the bridge and wade the river, although, Griffith said, “it’s not a real good place on the river to wade, especially in the spring when the water’s up.”

But then there are others, he said, including “the local schoolteachers that come up and plead that they need to take their third-grade class across the water. Well, they knew that water was there when they came up.

“My problem isn’t with them using that bridge,” Griffith added. “I’ve offered it to the Forest Service since even before it was built, and they’ve refused to accept it.

“My problem is liability, plus the fact that people don’t stay on the trail and don’t respect the fact that this is private property. They throw trash and cans, they have picnics, they let their kids throw rocks in the river where there are fish.”

He said the worst offenders tend to be from out of state or even out of the country.

Filing suit

Griffith bought the 10-acre tract about eight years ago. Five or six acres of that lies well within the floodplain and can’t be built on, he said.

“We live in Cottonwood, which you may have seen on the news recently (because of flooding),” he said. “We are in that floodplain, so I’m very familiar with floodplains on rivers. The West Fork hasn’t flooded in who knows how long, and so there’s a lot of people that are ignoring what is really the floodplain on that.”

Another four acres is extremely steep, which meant that his options for home-building were limited to a site on the far side of the river close to the national-forest boundary.

Griffith built his house, a summer home, about five years ago. He said that triggered conflicts with the Forest Service when his contractor sometimes parked construction vehicles on national-forest land.

“I wasn’t up there very much then so I didn’t know about it till too late, unfortunately,” he said.

Relations further soured when contractors ran a water line across a short section of national forest so Griffith could get water from the Geyser Creek, he said. The pipeline has since been cut at both ends and vacated.

Eventually, because of the problems with people trespassing, he filed a civil suit against the agency demanding that the trail be closed altogether. “We didn’t want to eliminate the trail, but it was a way to get them to the table,” Griffith said.

A settlement agreement was reached under which the Forest Service is required to put up signs clearly marking the path and to conduct an analysis and seek comments for re-routing part of the trail.

“I’m confident Penny (Wu)’s going to put up the signs to properly mark the trail,” Griffith said. “She’s always been good to deal with.”

Wu, an outdoor recreation planner with the Dolores Public Lands Center, could not be reached for comment for this story.

“An unsightly springboard"

Yucca House access is open

Access to Yucca House National Monument, a small and modest ruins site south of Cortez, remains open despite gates across the private road leading to the spot, according to the landowner there.

Joe Keesee, who owns the Box Bar Ranch surrounding the 34-acre national monument, said the gates are necessary because of his cattle. The fact that signs on the gates state “No Trespassing” is a warning that people should not trespass on his land, he said.

“The road goes through our farm and ranch,” he said. “It’s always been that way.”

Yucca House is a 34-acre site managed by Mesa Verde National Park. It lies off County Road B and can presently be reached only by a muddy private road that leads to the Box Bar Ranch, land formerly owned by Hallie Ismay. It is another example of a place where access to public lands requires crossing private property.

Yucca House, a culturally valuable Ancestral Puebloan site, contains the remains of a large Pueblo III or Great Pueblo Period community and may have been a major trade center of the pre-Columbian Indians, according to the monument’s management plan.

But few people visit the site. Its ruins are unspectacular, lying in mounds of rubble, and the acreage is covered with proliferating weeds. In the spring it’s muddy and in summer it’s intensely hot. However, an occasional curious person wanders in to look at the area.

Recently, an unidentified man called the Free Press asking why access to the monument was barred by gates and no-trespassing signs. Keesee said access remains open and he has no problem with visitors so long as they stay on the road until they reach the monument, don’t litter, and close the gates behind them so the cattle don’t get out.

Tessy Shirakawa, a spokesperson for Mesa Verde, said access issues need to be worked out. Keesee agreed, saying that the park has an old easement to the site from the south and that it eventually needs to build its own road.

The center published a notice last winter seeking comments on the project, which includes building a new bridge for hikers, plus a 10- vehicle parking lot on public land in a meadow area.

A number of comments came in, some before the January 11 deadline, some after and apparently prompted by an e-mail from Johnson. Most were positive.

“Constructing a parking lot capable of holding up to 10 vehicles would be a valuable step toward making this interesting trail more safely accessible to the public,” wrote Michael Cochran of Dolores.

“The current parking is too limited and dangerous, and the trail across the river is slippery and dangerous as well. . . . I’m happy to hear this improvement is finally under consideration,” emailed Theresa Titone of Dolores.

But the law firm representing the nearby Dunton Hot Springs Resort sent a five-page letter vigorously opposing the plan.

“(I)t appears that the Forest Service is attempting to settle a dispute with a disgruntled, absentee landowner whose property is crossed by the existing Geyser Trail in a manner that is going to substantially displace and create new impacts to Forest lands and adjoining private property,” states the letter from Stephen Johnson of the Bendelow Law Firm, representing the Specie Ridge Holding Company, Inc. The corporation is owned by Christoph Henkel, who is an owner of Dunton as well as the neighboring Paradise Hot Springs property.

In the letter, the attorneys contend, “Issues involving unauthorized use of the private bridge, and proximity of the trail users to the new landowner’s residence, are a matter of easement administration, signage, education and enforcement. Such issues do not rise to the level of creating a need for the Forest Service to spend limited recreational funds to relocate the trail, build a new parking lot, and install a new bridge.”

The letter also argues that visitation to the Geyser trail is “minimal” and that William Moffat, who lives at Paradise Hot Springs, has seen just two to three vehicles maximum at the trailhead, except during hunting season. “There is no demonstrated need for construction of a ten vehicle parking area,” the letter states.

Griffith said he agrees about the small number of cars and believes the Forest Service wants a larger

parking lot to accommodate horse trailers for the outfitters who use the area during hunting season.

Moffat, who recently sold Paradise Hot Springs to the Specie Holding Company but retains a lifetime

lease as a resident, sent his own letter of opposition to the project.

“As a 25-year permanent resident of the adjacent Paradise Hot Springs property located to the south of the proposed parking lot, I find it totally inconceivable that the Forest Service would negotiate with a part-time land owner to settle a court issue. . . in a manner that greatly intrudes on the neighboring property where I live. . .,” he wrote.

“You apparently want to construct a parking lot in the middle of a pristine open pasture, which will serve as nothing more that [sic] an unsightly spring board for all the abuses and intrusions (including overnight camping) that will inevitably follow,” he said.

The Bendelow attorneys raised similar concerns about the environmental impact of the plan, writing that there is a saltlick across the river from the proposed parking lot and “locating a parking area in the middle of this meadow, in full view of the saltlick and winter habitat area, will invite abuse by hunters...”

Spending priorities

“They want to control everything around there,” Erin Johnson responded. “They just don’t want people up there. If this was across either of their front yards, they would be in the same spot that Tom is.”

But the Bendelow Law Firm insists that no increase in parking is justified, and if any additional parking is provided, the Forest Service should consider building a small lot for three to four vehicles along County Road 38, the West Fork Road.

Building a large parking lot would just draw more visitors to a fragile area that can’t really handle them, foes of the proposal contend. They point out that deer and elk winter and calve in the vicinity and it is prime habitat for the threatened Canada lynx.

“Given the pristine nature of the meadow area where the parking area trailhead is proposed to be located, the sensitivity of wildlife in this region, and the unique geothermal features nearby. . . exportation of these impacts from the existing landowner’s property to the adjoining Forest Service strip and the Paradise Hot Springs property, seems unwarranted,” the letter states.

Another letter of opposition to the project came from a citizen in Monticello, Utah, who questioned the need to spend money in such a remote locale.

“If you have money to spend in the recreation budget, why not maintain some of the many existing trails,” wrote Michael Wolf, adding, “If the Forest Service is going to spend money on projects that are not needed they better not come back later and claim that they need to charge the users of the public lands to pay for such projects.”

Griffith responds that, according to recorded easements and various accounts, the original Geyser Trail included a bridge (apparently since washed away), so the Forest Service is not doing anything more than restoring what was originally there.

According to Griffith, the Forest Service has until July 2006 to complete its analysis, balance the pluses with the concerns, and decide whether to proceed with the project.

“If people would obey the rules, I’d just as soon see (the site) stay without a new bridge and parking lot,” Griffith said, “because you’ll get a lot of people up there. But I don’t see any alternative.”