Steamboat Springs, like many of Colorado’s high country resort communities, is grappling with how it wants to grow.
The city itself has more than doubled in population since 1990. Seasonal tourist booms formerly contained to summer and winter have bled over into spring and fall. With its increasingly sought after outdoor amenities, like hot springs, camping, hiking, mountain biking and skiing, the town swells with visitors most weekends out of the year.
Steamboat’s relatively new status as a bustling year-round recreation destination is causing some in the community to call for a pause to the addition of new outdoor attractions to avoid having the mountains around town being loved to death. Meanwhile, others argue there is a way for increasing numbers of tourists and residents to coexist with the environment around them.
A proposal to develop new trails for locals and tourists alike has crystallized those views, and exposed divides among the city’s recreational groups. What started as a rallying cry for more trails has shifted to a heated debate about the city’s future, and forced the community to ask:
Who gets to enjoy the benefits of growth, and who or what should bear the costs?
“Steamboat needs new trails”
On a recent, warm summer afternoon Laraine Martin and Barb Dowski steered their bikes over a boulder on Emerald Mountain — a popular mountain biking spot with views of the ski mountain, and downtown Steamboat Springs.
When the women pulled off the trail for a break, within minutes two other bikers hauled up the hill past them. The parking lot at the base of the hill frequently fills up with after-work riders and tourists.
Martin and Dowski are avid bikers, both in leadership roles at Routt County Riders, a nonprofit that represents mountain bikers in the Steamboat area. Ever since Steamboat voted to use an accommodations tax to fund trail-building projects in 2013, the group has worked with federal land managers, like the U.S. Forest Service, to make conceptual trails a reality.
“When you talk to people around other communities about the situation in Steamboat every community is having a similar situation,” Dowski said.
The situation Dowski is talking about is the current proposal that has stirred up anxiety about growth and rising tourist numbers: the Mad Rabbit trails project.
In its original form, Mad Rabbit proposed using the city’s accommodations tax dollars to build a network of trails in two areas of Routt National Forest: Mad Creek and Rabbits Ears Pass, hence the name. First released to the public in early 2018, the preliminary plan for Mad Rabbit had two proposals for trail-building. The two plans called for 63 or 64 miles of new trails to be constructed.
Routt County Riders gave input on those plans, and supported the idea of new trails on Forest Service land, to alleviate pressure on existing trails that are overflowing with users, Martin said.
“Summer is on the rise,” Martin said. “So we do need somewhere to put all those hikers, bikers, riders, folks who want to use the trail systems.”
When I asked Martin if Steamboat needs new trails, she gave an emphatic “yes,” and then repeated it two more times.
“It’s not just that Steamboat needs new trails,” Martin said. “Steamboat needs a diversity of trails for different levels of rider and user. And it also needs a diversity of trail areas.”
Recreational users like Martin argue they’re being pragmatic about the growing numbers of tourists. Conversations about new tourist amenities in a town like Steamboat often turn into a chicken or the egg thought experiment. If you build new tourist amenities will they draw more people? And if you don’t, will the people come anyway and degrade what already exists?
“They’re coming anyway,” Martin said. Developing trail proposals that keep wildlife in mind, limit impacts to the surrounding environment, and educate users should be a priority, she said.
“That’s the way we need to move forward with population growth, with tourism booms,” Martin said. “We need to work with it rather than against it.”
“Make some sacrifices for the health of the hills”
The Mad Rabbit proposal comes on the heels of another newly built trail system, using the same accommodations tax funds. That one, in the Buffalo Pass area, quickly saw jam-packed parking lots and increased traffic on the dirt road to access them. Some homeowners near the Buffalo Pass trails grew impatient with their new mountain biking neighbors.
“People started noticing that in particular elk weren’t around those trails anymore,” said Larry Desjardin, board president of Keep Routt Wild, a wildlife advocacy group that formed specifically to oppose the Mad Rabbit trails.
“(Buffalo Pass) brought up concerns and because of that, with this (Mad Rabbit) proposal, we started digging deeper and deeper, and wanting to have it either canceled or modified in a wildlife-friendly way,” Desjardin said.
By the fall of 2018, months after the preliminary Mad Rabbit proposal was made public, and years after discussions first started on the details of the project’s trails, Desjardin’s group began raising alarm bells, saying that Mad Rabbit would wreck wildlife habitat, particularly the region’s elk herd.
“They are easily disturbed by recreation,” Desjardin said. “They need to have spots where they have more respite from recreation users so that they can get their fat stores up and survive the harsh winters.”
Citing new research showing how recreation has diminished elk numbers in Colorado’s Vail Valley, Desjardin said Steamboat Springs has the opportunity not to make the same mistakes as other western resort communities, and rein in how visitors interact with the public lands that surround the city.
“Concentrate the trails where there’s already existing disturbance to wildlife,” he said. “Don’t spread it out.”
With Keep Routt Wild’s entry into the debate about Mad Rabbit, emotions began to run high in planning meetings and in online forums. At one point the local paper, the Steamboat Pilot, had a days long backlog of dueling letters to the editor. Each story about the proposal would yield lengthy comment exchanges, frequently featuring members of both Keep Routt Wild and Routt County Riders trading barbs, and questioning the opposing group members’ motivations.
More recently, stickers have popped up on Steamboat’s downtown lightposts poking fun at Desjardin’s group. Instead of the group’s elk logo, the stickers feature the silhouette of a jackalope, and read: “Keep Routt Entitled.”
Keep Routt Wild board member Deb Freeman brought one of the stickers to our meeting at the Steamboat library, which she had peeled off on her way to the interview.
“Part of why the discussion gets spirited is because people are a little bit threatened,” Freeman said. “It’s kind of rocking their boat a little bit about conventional wisdom that we can go up in the hills and that’s the best thing to do. There’s a balance.”
Keep Routt Wild is asking for a more methodical approach to trail expansions, Freeman said, one that fits within a broader, yet to be written, master plan for recreation around Steamboat Springs. And that trail projects should be rolled out in phases, and studied for their impacts as they come online.
A trail runner herself, Freeman said the Mad Rabbit discussion caused her to rethink how much time is appropriate to be spending in nature, in order to give it a rest from the human touch.
“I’m realizing that I may need to make some sacrifices for the health of the hills,” Freeman said. “I likewise expect others in our recreational community to do so as well.”
The addition of new trails hit on a deeper anxiety, Desjardin said, about how Steamboat is changing from a once sleepy ranch hamlet, to a ski town, to now a fast-paced year-round recreation hub.
“These mountain communities are growing,” he said, “and people are concerned that if the growth isn’t managed, they aren’t going to be able to keep the same kind of lifestyle that they’re used to.”
“We have a rush hour in town,” Freeman added. “We used to not have a rush hour in town. We do now. It’s small, but it’s there.”
“It’s all going to change anyway”
Given the heated exchanges among recreational users, the Forest Service in February 2019 announced it was bringing in a third-party mediator to try to find common ground.
Matthew Mulica with the Keystone Policy Center facilitated those discussions, among recreational users, federal land managers and other stakeholders.
“I think the vast majority of people wanted to negotiate and to find a middle ground,” he said. “But there’s always going to be a few that dig in their heels.”
Even with the facilitation and more structured meetings, Mad Rabbit had the ability to bring out vitriolic exchanges among some participants, Mulica said. But over time the discussions grew calmer, and most attendees tried looking for compromise, he said.
“There was that broader conversation about population growth and what it meant for the locals,” Mulica said. “But there’s also this recognition on the other side that the growth and economic development really fueled the prosperity of the region.”
The passionate discussions around Mad Rabbit will likely end up being a net positive for the community, said Winnie DelliQuadri, assistant to the Steamboat city manager. She oversees the funds used to pay for new trail initiatives.
“The population growth in the state has absolutely been acknowledged,” DelliQuadri said. “Because a lot of people come saying, ‘I really like what we have today, and I don’t want us to change anything.’”
But with Colorado projected to add 3 million new residents in the next 31 years, DelliQuadri said communities have to learn to accommodate growth, and manage it.
“Even if you don’t want to change anything, it’s all going to change anyway,” she said.
Because of the trail debate, the community is now taking steps to better plan for growth and how its recreation economy handles hikers, bikers, hunters, skiers and snowmobilers, she said.
After bringing in outside mediation the groups involved in Mad Rabbit came together as an ad hoc group — the Routt Recreation Roundtable — that can look at broader recreation issues as they arise and give input to local land managers.
The Forest Service’s original Mad Rabbit proposal has also been scaled back, to include fewer trails. It also calls for seasonal closures of some trails to balance the needs of wildlife. New trails in the Mad Creek area have been shelved, and user-built illegal trails there would be allowed to return to a more natural state in the latest proposal out July 2019.
The same tensions at play in Mad Rabbit discussions also pop up in conversations about a recent annexation the city pursued, construction of a hotel at the expense of a pine grove forest, and transportation to and from Steamboat’s nearby bedroom communities, DelliQuadri said.
“How do you find … that common ground between recreation and access to the outdoors, and wildlife and preserving wildlife and preserving wilderness,” DelliQuadri said. “Because the mere act of experiencing it impacts it.
“On the flip side, if you don’t have people experiencing the outdoors then they don’t have the value and they don’t want to preserve it.”
Keep Routt Wild’s Larry Desjardin said for the conversation in Steamboat to move past Mad Rabbit to broader recreation issues, he wants an admission from the community’s recreational users. He wants to hear that the decision to bike or hike or hunt or trail run isn’t completely without impact.
“You’re going to be seeing this more and more,” he said. “And the sooner that we can come in and say, ‘yes, there are impacts. And yes, there are ways of minimizing those impacts,’ the sooner we’re going to have a plan for an environment that meets everybody’s needs.”
For Routt County Riders’ Laraine Martin, and the mountain bikers she represents, the conversation around Mad Rabbit, while at times nasty in its rhetoric, was a positive for Steamboat Springs. And while they’ve given up advocating for new trails in some areas, like Mad Creek, her group is already looking to other areas ripe for trail expansion.
“There are more individuals who want to be getting out there on foot, on bikes,” Martin said. “And I maintain that the folks that can get out there and be educated and be advocates for our forested areas, those are the people that we want out there.”
Because it’s a lot harder to care about a place, she said, if you never get to enjoy it.