Pitkin County Open Space and Trails has opened a new world for mountain bikers at Sky Mountain Park since 2012, but some are saying it’s destroying a key habitat for area wildlife. Aspen Public Radio’s Elizabeth Stewart-Severy checked out the newest trail in the network to see how the program balances ecological concerns with growing demand for recreation.
It’s early fall, about to rain, and trail builder Andrew Mesesan is a bit behind schedule building the new Seven Star trail. Most of this work is completed with small bulldozers, but hand work is required on steep terrain with thick stands of serviceberries.
“To cut it, you have to crawl all the way to the roots, and so you have to force your way in with a chainsaw,” Mesesan said. “You can tell, on this sidehill, it’s pretty challenging.”
Mesesan watches as one of the dozers moves along the Seven Star Trail.
“As he’s going right now, he’s choosing whether to create a roller or create a drain, and where to circle around some vegetation or not,” he explained.
The route, and the type of equipment used to build the trail, depends on a variety of factors, like slope angle, soil type and the aspect.
“You let the land kind of dictate what the trail’s going to do, ‘cause ultimately we want to build the safest, most sustainable trail that we can produce that doesn’t infringe on wildlife habitat,” said Ted O’Brien, trails manager for the county’s open space program.
Many bikers are pleased with how the Sky Mountain trails have turned out. Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Director Gary Tennenbaum said there was a pent up need for easier, more accessible mountain biking in the Aspen area — and it’s visible on the trails.
“I mean, I’ve gotten hugged on the trail, when they find out that I’m partly responsible for all this, and I’ve been proposed marriage,” Tennenbaum said.
There are about 13 miles of singletrack now open to bikers and hikers in Sky Mountain Park, which sits near Owl Creek between Aspen and Snowmass. The new four-mile Seven Star Trail is in the final stages of construction. On all of these trails, cyclists ride through oak, sagebrush and serviceberry.
“To the untrained eye it looks like shrubland, and it’s not beautiful and verdant like a subalpine forest or an aspen forest,” said local ecologist Tom Cardamone.
Cardamone has been educating Aspenites on the environment for about 40 years through the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and the Snowmass Discovery Center. His eye is trained to spot prime habitat for wildlife.
“That intermediate ground between winter and summer range for elk and deer is so rich in terms of food for all forms of wildlife: songbirds, birds of prey, small mammals, large mammals,” Cardamone said. “And I would say trails in that zone are particularly concerning to me.”
Cardamone also helped to establish the Open Space and Trails program in 1990. He recently provided feedback as the organization wrote its recently adopted biodiversity policy, asking for more monitoring of wildlife and flexibility in seasonal closures. Many of the public comments urged for more thorough consideration of wildlife habitat.
Open space and trails officials say wildlife studies are the first step in planning a potential new trail, like Seven Star. This research, which is done by biologists, identifies potential impacts to wildlife and dictates winter — or sometimes even year-round — closures for protected areas like migration corridors.
Tennenbaum said this analysis is extensive and leads to a successful balance, even in sensitive places like Sky Mountain Park.
“From all our consultants so far, the wildlife that was there before we put the trails in, is still there,” Tennenbaum said.
Seasonal closures can help. Tennenbaum said most people follow these rules. This year, only six people were captured on motion-sensing cameras set up to enforce the winter closure rule.
Tennenbaum attributes most of the success in protecting wildlife to the 75 acres of habitat improvement projects that happen concurrent to trail construction. This includes things like re-seeding, as well as larger projects. On Sky Mountain, crews mechanically removed sections of old oak brush to mimic wildfire and revitalize the habitat.
After five years of development and management, open space and trails will revisit the management plan for this area next year. This will be a chance to review the goals and monitor how well the program has balanced biodiversity and recreation.
In the meantime, the Seven Star trail, which will extend the Rim Trail and connect to the Snowmass Rec Center, is set to open in early October. O’Brien said bikers and runners should be excited.
“Luckily it’s pretty topographically blessed back there,” he said. “So it was easy to create something that’s going to turn out really cool.”