After nearly two more months of public input, the Blaine County commissioners urged the BLM to move forward on planning a trio of alternatives for developing new trails to access its roughly 137,000 acres of regional public land in a meeting with agency representatives Tuesday.
Commissioner Angenie McCleary volunteered to write a letter formalizing the request, but the board’s wish was clear: to move forward on analyzing three smaller-scale substitutes to a stalled comprehensive travel management plan, halted in April by a directive of the Department of the Interior stopping development of all such projects nationwide, except those based on court order.
But neither the commissioners, nor the BLM’s Shoshone Field Office, wanted to see that work collect dust. Tuesday’s meeting moved closer to launching environmental assessments based on the original ideas, which were generated over the course of almost two years of public hearings, and a suite of ecological, economic, historical and cultural considerations stipulated by federal law.
While the suspended travel management plan would have allowed the agency to revamp uses of existing trails as well as build new ones, environmental assessments only consider construction of new trails.
“It’s still a public process,” Shoshone Office Field Manager Codie Martin said. “We’ll take a look at what has been provided to us. We’re still required to analyze a range of alternatives. We’re looking for what you guys are recommending as a county.”
On Tuesday, that meant the middle road of three proposals, allowing a range of possible uses. During a pair of public hearings in June, BLM Outdoor Recreation Planner John Kurtz presented drafts of each plan, which ranged from adding as much as 120 miles of new trails to as few as 15. The board’s preferred option, named Option D, falls in between with 78 miles. Most of the planning focuses on creating new networks in the south valley surrounding high-traffic hubs in Hailey and Bellevue, including Quigley Canyon, Croy Canyon, Colorado Gulch and nearby drainages.
At the time, an “overwhelming” percentage of public comments opposed motorized trails around neighborhoods in Ohio Gulch and Indian Creek, Kurtz said. The commissioners heard them. So, strike that. Most of the other comments had to do with wildlife interaction—something always studied in environmental assessments. The commissioners were particularly concerned about winter habitats, and expressed interest in establishing an agreement with other jurisdictions to ensure winter closures in key areas.
“It’s not as though we’re starting over, and those comments don’t exist,” Kurtz said. “We’ll consider all of it in our process.”
There will be more opportunities for input as the analysis picks back up, according to McCleary. On Tuesday, Hailey Community Development Director Lisa Horowitz and Blaine County Recreation District Executive Director Jim Keating backed plans to develop new trails, particularly in the south county.
So did a number of recreators, including Paddy McIlroy of Backwoods Sports in Ketchum, who pumped the economic value of expanding the network for the tourism sector.
“We’re a hard place to get to,” he said. “And when Moab is building new trail systems, and Crested Butte is making new trail systems, what’s our draw? We have a huge opportunity here.”
The economic impact comes at a high monetary cost, Martin said. While the BLM has some funding of its own, it will look for partners to piece together the money necessary to build whatever plan wins favor. But that, he said, is a topic for a different time.
“The value of analyzing a range of alternatives is that we don’t have to do any one of them,” he said. “It’s not like this is all going to get built the minute we finish, anyway. We’ll be chipping away slowly at parts of this, no matter what the decision may be.”