May 2008

Who yields to whom? Recreation overload creates trail conflicts in the Hermosa Creek area

By Jim Mimiaga

Is it wilderness, a National Conservation Area or a Wild and Scenic River?

All of these preservation categories are proposed for the Hermosa Creek watershed, a swath of remote subalpine forest, and a recreation hot spot, located 10 miles north of Durango.

Mountain-biking, hiking, horseback riding, hunting, fishing, kayaking, camping and motorcycle-riding are all regular uses throughout the Hermosa Creek region.

In fact, it has become so popular with nearly every conceivable mode of recreation that unofficial observers predict the “perfect storm” of trail conflict: A pile-up of epic proportions, on a blind corner, involving a horseman, two hikers with four dogs, three mountain- bikers, two motorcyclists, some crazy guy dragging a kayak on wheels and a mother bear with cubs.

Who yields to whom? And is this sensational crash scenario even realistic? Probably not, but it highlights how this unique backcountry area is being loved to death. Land managers face the ageold paradox of how to protect the land and wildlife while providing for a surge in outdoor recreation.

“Hermosa Creek is the ultimate share-the- trail area,” says Richard Speegle, recreation specialist for the Columbine Ranger District. “In the last ten to 15 years it has become very popular, especially for motorcycles and mountain-biking.”

The deep, forested basin lies hidden between Highway 550 on the east and the Colorado Trail on the west. Its headwaters begin at Purgatory Ski Area on the East Fork, and after picking up dozens of side drainages, it eventually flows into the Animas River at the town of Hermosa. In between the mountain-stream cascades for 23 miles over countless waterfalls and log jams, providing along the way ideal pools for fish habitat and the drops and chutes coveted by extreme “creek boaters.”


A rugged, single-track trail parallels the creek, sometimes traversing precipitous and narrow ledges with no room for error, lest one be thrown into the drink far below.

The Hermosa Creek Basin is considered the largest roadless area in Colorado. Due to its pristine, undeveloped condition, a wilderness designation for the western portion of the valley has recently been recommended for consideration by the San Juan National Forest.

“Looking at the entire Hermosa drainage, some of it does have roads so that’s not suitable for wilderness,” said Thurman Wilson, assistant manager for the San Juan Public Lands Center in Durango. “But the western or more core undeveloped area would qualify and so that is a potential.”

Wilderness designations are stringent land-management policies that protect public land in perpetuity from mining, logging, development, road-building, pollution, motorized vehicles, mechanized equipment and dams. They must be first recommended by federal land agencies like the Forest Service to the U.S. Congress, which then grants or denies approval.

Wild and Scenic River status is a different preservation tool recognizing rivers that should be left free-flowing and not be dammed. They require a established minimum water flow that is enough to protect the river and its habitat.

“Normally, it is the river and an area of one-quarter-mile corridor on each side, so it’s more of a narrow linear feature compared to wilderness, which could be a much larger area,” Wilson said.

Alternative designations such as a National Conservation Area could also be considered to protect the values of Hermosa Creek, Wilson said.

NCAs are less restrictive than Wild and Scenic or wilderness designation, but also provide for some protection.

Which protection measure, if any, will be actively pursued for the Hermosa Basin has not been determined, but the issue is being debated among land managers, environmentalists, the recreation community and historic and future water users.

“There is tension between people who support a Wild and Scenic designation to protect values that are at stake there, vs. concerns about how that might affect the availability of water for other uses,” Wilson said.

“That is the reason a lot of people are interested in exploring some other ways for caring for the river that maybe don’t have as much of an implication on other water uses.”

A river-protection work group has been formed to collaborate with various interests groups about the best way to protect Hermosa Creek while also providing for historic use. The meetings are open to the public and are conducted in a roundtable format.

Proponents of more protective measures say they are needed to perma nently set aside and preserve areas of wildland still untrammeled by man. But others worry that increased regulation will exclude some recreation users from accessing their own backyard.

The heavily used Hermosa Trail is not considered for closure under the Forest Service’s proposed wilderness recommendation. However, Trails 2000, a bicycle advocacy group, is concerned that a wilderness designation on the west side of Hermosa Basin would close a 45-mile portion of the Colorado Trail to mountain-bike use.

“We would like to see continued historic use of mountain-bike access on the Colorado Trail,” said Mary Monroe, executive director of Trails 2000. “But we also believe in land protection. Mountain-bikers are also conservationists.”

A wilderness proposal on the west side of Hermosa Basin would also close other mountain-bike trails, including Corral Draw, Salt Creek and Big Bend Creek, she said.

Monroe says a more creative approach to preservation should be sought, for example, establishing National Conservation Area status where popular biking trails are and wilderness where there is less trail use. NCAs allow for mountain-biking.

She said Trails 2000 is willing to consider giving up biking terrain, such as Big Bend Creek and Salt Creek, to wilderness in exchange for keeping other areas open.

However, Trails 2000 is not willing to compromise on the Colorado Trail, Monroe said, because of its popularity, excellent riding, and its contiguous length from Durango to Denver.

“The closure (under wilderness) has nothing to do with mountain-bike impact. It is not an anti-mountain-bike proposal, it is just that the laws of the Wilderness Act of 1964 were interpreted to disallow mountain bikes,” Monroe said.

Mountain-bike enthusiasts criticize the Wilderness Act of 1964 for being outdated, in particular the language that bans “mechanized use,” which includes mountain bikes.

“Back then, mountain-biking basically did not exist,” says Scott Pendleton, owner of Sol Cycles in Dolores. “And today we are using the same antiquated guidelines, but they do not take mountain-biking into consideration as a legitimate user group. We’re always lumped in with mechanized use, which includes motorbiking, and that doesn’t make sense.”

Excluding mountain-biking from the Colorado Trail is a bad idea, Pendleton said, because the trail is an ideal intermediate ride that is popular and has convenient access for local riders as well as for tourists.

The Colorado Trail is a key component of loop trails for Dolores Valley riders. Also it is a popular loop from Junction Creek in Durango to Dry Creek. And it is a classic ride from Molas Pass to Cascade Creek, among others.

“It is because of these types of trails that I moved here and opened up my shop,” Pendleton said. “I worry what these types of closures would do to my business.”

A unique fishery also exists in the Hermosa drainage. The rare Colorado River cutthroat trout has been doing well in the creek because of ideal habitat and a series of waterfalls that create isolated pools, said Dave Gerhardt, a fish biologist with the San Juan National Forest.

“That’s important because it allows us to isolate populations, and it precludes upstream movement of nonnative fish species that compete with the cutthroat,” he said.

The native fish is considered a species of special concern with the Division of Wildlife and therefore has extra management emphasis because it is relatively rare.

“The Hermosa Basin is a good opportunity to establish a meta-population of Colorado River cutthroat,” Gerhardt said. “We’re working to expand their historic natural range there and increase the diversity of the gene pool.”

Meta-population is a biology term describing several subpopulations of a species where genetic material is periodically exchanged. This genetic diversity helps to secure a healthy future for the Colorado River cutthroat, and allows the species to survive as a whole better if part of the habitat is damaged, such as with wildfire.

Biologists have been removing exotic fish from the stream and replacing them with the native cutthroat to establish self-sustaining populations. Because of Hermosa Creek’s ideal conditions, recovery of the fish is happening on a larger scale there than anywhere else in the state.

One concern regarding the Colorado River cutthroat is a proposed new trail development at Purgatory Resort, Gerhardt said. New runs planned for the backside near Lift 8 and an expanded snowmaking program could impact nearby East Fork, a headwater tributary of Hermosa Creek.

Water yields increase into the creek because of the ski runs already there, Gerhardt said, so new ones could add to the problem and put the native fish population at risk.

“We’re working with the ski area to mitigate effects there,” Gerhardt said, noting that it is important to understand that there are trade-offs with new development and the surrounding natural environment.

“Cleared areas for ski trails create greater snow accumulation and that in turn increases spring runnoff. For a small stream like Hermosa, increased flows cause widening, and changes the channel, and that can be a problem for fish.”

He explained more snowmaking also can alter normal seasonal flows for fish habitat “because water for snowmaking is new water that does not originate in the basin.”

Increased sediment as a result of clearing timber for new trails can also be an issue for fisheries. And wells drawn on for snowmaking and other uses could deplete groundwater that Hermosa Creek and its fish depend on during drier months. Whether the rate of use exceeds the recharge rate is being studied by public-lands hydrologists.

Purgatory, also called Durango Mountain Resort, is in the process of updating its 40-year special-use permit with the Forest Service.

Improved lifts, a new lodge, more snowmaking, increased parking and additional ski runs on the “back side” are being proposed within the current permit boundaries. Negotiations between the Forest Service and DMR are ongoing, said Loryn Kasten, a spokeswoman for DMR.

“Everything we do, we work handin- hand with the U.S. Forest Service and they want to help us run our business smoothly while also protecting the forest land we utilize,” she said. “The project was looked at very closely so it can be done in the way that helps us both.”

The new trails and lifts are part of Purgatory’s new master development plan, which prompted a new permit process and an environmental impact statement, said Richard Speegle, a recreation planner for the San Juan National Forest. A draft has been completed and was sent out for public comment.

Speegle said there was an exhaustive analysis on the Hermosa watershed in order to understand how the new ski-area development could affect sensitive fish species there.

“We had to do quite a bit of moving some trails out of stream courses and eliminating some trails to try and minimize that impact,” he said. “Also, Durango Mountain Resort, as part of an EIS mitigating measure, is going to construct new fences to keep cattle out of the Hermosa Creek drainage.”

More snowmaking is also in the works for Purgatory. But due to increased runoff into Hermosa Creek from snowmaking, Speegle said the new permit cuts the amount of snow that can be made in areas affecting the creek from 18 inches a year to 12.

Whatever happens in Hermosa Creek, community leaders are pushing for a collaborative decision-making process involving all interested groups.

“We need to get there together, whether it be congressional action or a joint-recommendation on land-use issues,” said Jeff Widen of the Colorado Environmental Coalition.

Hermosa Creek is like entering a primeval wilderness, home to wild animals, not humans. Visitors get the distinct feeling something is watching (tracking?) you just beyond the thick timber. Pedal on!

And by the way, regarding who yields to whom, Speegle explained that everyone yields to horses, motorbikes yield to bicycles and hikers, bicycles yield to hikers and of course everyone yields to a mother bear and her cubs.