A proposed Grand County Ranches and USFS Land Exchange would see 1500 to 2300 acres of private forest land east of Devil’s Thumb Ranch traded for 543 acres of development land, likely to become part of the town of Winter Park.  The forest land to be traded on a fair market basis could become a mix of dispersed recreation facilities and wildlife refuges to help alleviate the impact of the new residents and visitors who will occupy the proposed new development parcel.

In an ideal world for wildlife, the Fraser Valley would have remained unoccupied. It is our community’s responsibility to both preserve what remains of our mountain environment while also providing a high quality of life for both visitors and residents.

It is hard to predict how the present pandemic will change our valley.  We have seen many second home owners become permanent residents as remote working has become the new norm.  Many pundits, myself included, believe this new reality will remain after the virus challenge is finally overcome.  

More permanent residents will lead to a more vibrant community, but will also challenge the capacity of our trail system and recreation infrastructure.  I rode the Idlewild trails late one recent weekday evening, returning home at 9:15 p.m.  .  Current maintenance projects and the fire have closed many Winter Park Trailheads, stressing the popular Idlewild trail network. Even at this late hour, we ran into 12 riders while riding 4 miles of the trails. 

Admittedly current temporary trailhead closures have partially caused this problem, but these closures have given us a good picture of how even more valley residents and visitors will stress our current trail system.

Planners for the land exchange will guarantee in-development public trails on the 500 acres. The parcel is east of (but does not included) the Idlewild campground – between the new Roam development and the Lakota neighborhood. Project proponents, led by Bob Fanch, also are the Roam developers.

Specifics as to the mileage of public trails to be dedicated on both the exchange parcel and in the Roam development should be provided during the planning process to ensure increased population can be adequately served.  Public trails “close in” to residential neighborhoods will also help lessen traffic impacts as residents leave to partake in non-motorized recreation from their doorsteps instead of driving to trailheads. 

Responsible planning for adequate infrastructure to serve the residents of the 500 acres also needs to look to two other recreation areas currently in the control of the proponents of the exchange.

The Devil’s Thumb Resort Trail system constitutes about half of what is the largest Nordic ski complex in North America. Our valley floor is uniquely positioned to host this world-class complex of trails. Our high altitude and the expansive area between peaks gifts us with both advantageous geography and low temperatures ensuring quality cross-country skiing. 

At least one individual was told during the proponents’ pre-application meetings with key valley recreation planners there have been discussions of closing the DTR trail system to the public, reserving it for lodge guests only. I was assured by Fanch and his planner Jeff Vogel during their time with me the complex would remain open to fee-based public use.

Although it may appear to be a reach to require the applicant to restrict planning options on a separate business, we must all recognize the overall impact of the development of 500 acres of land which will become part of the town of Winter Park.  The uniqueness of our valley and our strong economy is based on our diverse recreation base.  DTR is key to this and is key to the quality experience which is provided by having enough trail miles to spread out users.  DTR trails remaining open to affordable fee based public use is key to a healthy local economy and to serve future residents of the new 500 acres of developable property.

The second increasingly impacted recreation front involves the valley’s “backcountry”.  Our community has both been challenged by and gifted with the fact 71% of our county is comprised of tax-exempt public lands.  Public revenue generated by these lands is relatively minimal from PILT (the federal payment in lieu of taxes program). The lion’s share of economic benefit is derived from recreation based on public lands, providing the heart of our tourist-based economy.

A large part of the discussion of this land exchange should include pre-planning for possible enhanced recreation infrastructure on the backcountry parcel to be exchanged. This discussion should, of course, be balanced with preserving portions of the lands for wildlife. 

A large part of the key to preserving lands for wildlife is to “densify” recreation in planned areas.  As noted above, much of this should happen in or adjacent to communities. The Broome Hut has offered a lesson in an effective method of managing heavily impacted backcountry areas.  The public day use room at the Broome last summer often saw over a hundred visitors per day on weekends (it is currently closed due to covid concerns).  We have already added a third composting tank, it appears we may need to add a fourth.  The human waste within these tanks would likely have been “deposited” in the surrounding landscape if GHA had not provided the public toilet. 

Europe provides a vision of our future.  Switzerland hosts more than 800 public huts.  These cabins do what the Broome does, localizing use to help preserve surrounding areas.  The exchange parcel is bounded on the east by the Indian Peaks Wilderness, one of the most heavily used preserves in the US.  On a summer day you may find yourself waiting in line to get to the top of Grand Huts is working to bring more huts to Grand County.  Our reservation management organization, The Tenth Mountain Hut System, built a hut on a parcel to be exchanged. This hut is now on Federal land under a USFS special use permit (similar to the management agreement for the Broome Hut).  The federal process permitting the Broome Hut stretched to 17 years.  Permitting a cabin on private lands prior to an exchange is a way to allow for effective and efficient public review during the exchange process. 

Dispersed trail access should also be considered on the exchange parcel to help meet increased demand caused by population growth. Connectivity should be examined closely to allow for much-needed connections from the urban/valley trail systems to backcountry trails like the High Lonesome and Continental Divide Trails. 

Other appropriate and creative dispersed recreation facilities can be discussed during the public process. One might be a downhill area to be utilized for backcountry non-motorized winter recreation.  “Liftless” backcountry ski areas are being built in the northeast and in Canada, one just opened on private land north of Kremmling.  Forest health (and fire resiliency) can be enhanced by thinning slopes which offer low impact winter recreation.  I skied one area near Smithers, British Columbia in 2019 where I skinned up a complex featuring seven runs dropping 1,500 vertical meters.   

This proposed exchange process will be part of the upcoming planned update to the Sulphur District Forest Master Plan.  It is common for other lands to be considered for exchange during the master planning process. The master planning effort should look for other opportunities to meet the USFS and community goals of improving management of public lands.

Like any good community planning effort, there are many interests to be considered.  I very much appreciate the fact the applicants and the USFS have opened a process which will, I believe, lead to a better community for residents and wildlife alike.