Dodging bullets: Cyclists seek lease on state lands

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Mountain-biking or trail-running a few hundred yards from a firing range can be unnerving at first.

But enthusiasts hitting the trails at “Phil’s World,” a winding network of smooth single-track east of Cortez, have gotten used to rapid gunfire nearby.

After all, the Four Corners Rifle and Pistol Club is a few hundred vertical feet below where bikers, hikers, equestrians, motorbikers and four-wheelers pass briefly by on the mesa top.

While the booming noise is startling to first-timers, locals have grown immune, perhaps more attuned to the distinctive echo a round makes when it hits its proper target.

Still, it is awfully close, too much so for gun-club officials and land-managers responsible for monitoring the 700-acre state-owned forest, home to both the range and the multiple-use trail system.

“Twice we had to cancel an event because people — hikers or Jeepers -—were up on the cliffs observing,” said Roger Lawrence, the gun club’s president. “It’s an obvious safety issue that we had to address.”

The danger was also clear to Kit Page, the district director for state lands in southern Colorado. Such lands are quasi-public, requiring a recreation lease with the state in addition to private liability insurance for those who use them.

Otherwise, being on state trust lands is technically trespassing, but that law is rarely enforced due to its popularity.

The system opens the land to recreationists who show they can properly manage it, and prevents the state from getting sued, Page said.

In October, for safety purposes, the state land board negotiated a lease with the gun club, expanding their allotment from 13 acres to 205 acres. It extends, in roughly rectangular fashion, north and west onto the mesa, Page said, where it clips a section of trail that may have to be moved.

The expanded area is meant to act as a safety buffer for the gun club, which numbers 400 members, up from 300 one year ago, Lawrence said. He added that the extra space will also allow room for more firing ranges and events.

Meanwhile, the remaining 500 or so acres is being sought for lease by the Kokopelli Bike Club, through its non-profit parent, Greater Dolores Action.

Trail-builder and club member Scott Clow touts the 20-mile loop ride as one of the reasons Cortez is becoming known as the “mountain-bike mecca between the meccas” of Durango and Moab, Utah.

“It’s bringing in revenue here and has become a real favorite, especially because of its convenient location. You can ride it during a lunch break or after work and it stays in good shape most of the year because of the arid climate,” he said.

Clow, along with local horseback-riding and four-wheel clubs, had hoped for a shared lease, with different trails specified for a particular use to avoid conflicts and to preserve the coveted single-track conditions ideal for mountain bikes and trail-running.

The Four Corners Canyon Climbers, a strictly four-wheel Jeep club, uses some of the area for “rock-crawling,” a recent craze that involves driving Jeeps up boulder fields with the aid of elaborate suspension kits.

ATV use, which is excluded from the Canyon Climbers club, is also popular among the many two-track roads that occasionally cross, and sometimes parallel, the single track.

To help divide the uses, the state installed a fence line, with slots open at trailheads wide enough for hikers, mountain bikes, or horses, but not ATV’s or vehicles. A network of roads is available for motorized use.

But obtaining insurance for such multiple use has been difficult and prohibitively expensive, Clow said, so a non-motorized lease is being sought for a portion of the land to allow at least some legal public access.

He said the bike club could obtain a $1 million insurance deal from the International Mountain Biking Association for $200 per year. The club hopes to raise $3,000 for a five-year lease, which typically run between $1 and $3 per acre.

Page said the area has been abused and needs management by a responsible group willing to clean up and monitor the area.

For years, it has been used as a dumping ground for old appliances and tires. High-school students routinely hold litter-ridden parties there and covert, illegal tree-cutting for firewood has taken place, along with random road-building.

“It’s a mess, and that is why it has hit the radar screen,” he said.

The state land is bordered on the north by a vast area of BLM land. That area is open to all types of recreation, including ATV and four-wheeling. A road easement passes through the state land accessing those public lands.

Page said that the state will install a fence line on the west side of the road to direct motorized traffic towards the BLM lands. The work is expected to begin this year. Work on a recreation plan by the BLM for that portion is expected in the next couple of years.

State trust lands are earmarked to fund education, and could be sold for that purpose at the end of a lease.

Page manages half a million acres of trust lands within 17 counties. Mixing a gun range with biking trails is not typical with state lands, but in this case it could work, he said. Some spur trails at Phil’s World might have to be moved or eliminated for safety, but it appears through stewardship and management there is enough room for both.

Users might be forewarned, however, to hit the deck if the distinctive echo of gunfire hitting a target is replaced by the high whine of a bullet gone astray.

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From November 2003.